Fire Chief Tim Butler

Fire Chief Tim Butler
Thanks for checking out my web log! My radio call sign in Saint Paul is "Car 1." Join me as we go "On Scene" to the fire stations, training evolutions, emergency incidents, and community events in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Let's share perspectives on the issues facing our Department, our community, and the American Fire Service!

Saturday, January 30, 2010


Tuesday, January 26, 2010:

Today’s morning classes consisted of a field trip to Sprinkler Fitter Local #417’s Apprentice Training Center in northeast Minneapolis for a lecture and hands-on demonstration of fire sprinkler and alarm systems. The instructor was Mrs. Angie Wiese, Fire Protection Engineer and Public Information Officer for the Saint Paul Department of Safety and Inspection (DSI). She holds a Master’s degree in Public Administration and is a certified Professional Engineer. She’s very talented, and is the daughter of a Saint Paul Fire Captain at Station 5.

Angie made the class cookies and brought in candy for our class, so everyone enjoyed the already good lecture on an important subject for firefighters. We go on MANY “alarm sounding” calls, and have to be familiar with alarm systems, how to reset them, how to investigate the reason they are sounding, and how to operate the various components of a fire sprinkler system in order to control fires and minimize water damage from activated sprinkler systems.

Angie’s lecture was followed by a hands-on demonstration of the various sprinkler system components located in the adjacent “laboratory” used to train and certify Sprinkler Fitters. That portion of the program was presented by Tom Froyum, a Fire Inspector with DSI and a former Sprinkler Fitter.

We returned from the Sprinkler Fitter Apprentice Training Center in time for lunch, and then received a visit from another of the Department’s Deputy Chiefs – this time Chief Dave Galbraith from the “C Shift.” Dave is an old Coast Guardsman like me, and he served on small boats and stations in Maine. He is a gifted leader and a wonderful story teller….I settled in for what I knew would be a good “yarn” as he began his presentation with a quick summary of the Wizard of Oz. He asked the class (with a quick little smile) if we all were familiar with the story of the Wizard of Oz, and after hearing that – of course - we were, he said, “Good! That’ll shave about 2 ½ hours off today’s lecture!”

Chief Galbraith used the story of Oz to reinforce the three virtues he felt were critical to being a good Firefighter: Courage, Heart, and Brains – the three attributes sought by Dorothy and the gang. About “Courage” he had this to say (quoting an unnamed source): “It’s easy to be brave at a safe distance.” He reminded us that courage was not defined as ignoring your fear, but controlling it.

Regarding “Heart,” he talked about the passion of being a public servant….of treating people and especially medical patients with compassion and caring. He even said that HOW you people is more important than the actual treatment you provide. Dave is a long-standing paramedic with our Department and knows about how to “serve with Heart.” He also provided a quote from Albert Schweitzer that was most appropriate for the soon-to-be public servants in the recruit class (staring down the road at a – hopefully - long and successful career): “One thing I know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who will have sought and found how to serve.”

For the “Brains” part of the story, Chief Galbraith spoke about the importance of not just applying “muscle” to solve a problem, but to THINK, PLAN AHEAD, and take care of yourself mentally. He reinforced some of the resources available from the Employee Assistance Program and the Critical Incident Stress Debriefing Team. Then, after a short meeting with the recruit class’s “C-Shifters,” Chief Galbraith returned to the Deputy Chief’s office, and we turned our attention to the remaining activities of the afternoon: EMS Practical “exams” with Chief Keith Morehead, and the first practice session for the Fourth Quarter (and final!) Practical Exam.

The EMS Practical Exam was not a scored test, but a mentoring session provided by one of the great EMS mentors in our Department. Chief Morehead worked on a number of medic rigs during his career and is well respected as a Firefighter, Paramedic, and Chief Officer. His time on Medic / Engine 17 was spent providing devoted service to the north East Side and in mentoring fledgling paramedics on this Department. Keith is a Registered Nurse, and has worked in the hospital environment for years as well. Suffice it to say that he knows how to treat people when they are hurt, scared, sick, and frustrated with the bureaucracy that can be found in the health care industry.

The EMS Practical Exam was set up for Chief Morehead to “mentor” us in a few of the more common and critical aspects of being an EMT / Firefighter on our Department. He constantly stressed compassionate care of the patient and superb customer service. During his 90 minute exam, he ran us through the rigors of collecting vital signs, spiking IV bags, 12-lead EKG placement, use of our hydraulic stretchers, and packaging patients for transport. It was a great mentoring session with a great instructor!

The final “event” of the day was a practice session for the academy’s fourth and final Practical Exam. This exam is another timed evolution that contains a number of fireground functions, critical pass-fail elements, a minimum passing score, and a maximum time allotment. Introduced today, we’ll take the “final” next Tuesday, and already my stomach is churning in anxiety. That has been a typical reaction, by the way, for all of these practical exams….the exams give me and many of my classmates butterflies, churning, anxiety, or….whatever you call it. We all know that failure is NOT an option, and - to various degrees - most of us start worrying about how well we do as soon as we find out we’ll be facing another exam….

The practical tests are tough, and they require strength, muscular stamina, and fine motor skills. The MIXTURE of fine motor skill elements (tying a specific knot for hoisting a tool, plugging in a ventilation fan, or screwing a gated Y valve to a standpipe) thrown in right after a major muscle movement item (running a hose bundle up the stairs, hoisting a hose bundle, back-laying 4” hose to a hydrant, etc) is what KILLS you. You get done with “the big stuff” (major muscle event), and when you’re all shaking and wobbly from exhaustion, they WHAM you with a fine motor skill activity! Tie a clove hitch, safety knot and two half-hitches around a pike pole???!!! I’m sucking air so badly that I can’t event SEE the pike pole!! I exaggerate a little here….but only a little. I can SEE the pike pole, but making my frozen, oxygen-starved, shaky fingers TIE the required knots with icy, stiff firefighter gloves on IS a quite challenge. But hey, it’s not SUPPOSED to be easy….it’s supposed to be firefighting!

Here’s an overview of the Final Practical Exam:

• Back lay 100’ of 4” supply line to a hydrant, make the hydrant connection, and open the hydrant (10 full turns of the hydrant wrench)

• Raise and lower the fly of a 24’ extension ladder, then donn your facepiece and go “on air” (no skin showing, or you FAIL THE EXAM)

• Carry a 70 pound hose bundle to the third floor, connect a gated Y to the standpipe, and turn on the water

• Carry a 50 pound fan from the 3rd floor landing to the fifth floor, plug in the fan and turn it on

• Hoist a 70 pound hose bundle to the 5th floor window and lower it back to the ground

• Run down to the 3rd floor, pick up the hose bundle, and carry it down to the ground floor

• Tie a clove hitch, safety knot, and two half-hitches onto a pike pole for hoisting

• Drive the Keiser sled 5 feet using an 8 pound sledgehammer (30 – 50 WHACKS that drain all energy from your forearms, all blood from your fingers, and all breath from your lungs)

• Do all of this in less than 8 minutes, and without any major mistakes. Quitting or intentionally skipping any station results in an AUTOMATIC FAILURE.

When I finished the practice test today, I couldn’t grip anything with my hands. It was a cold 12 degrees and the Keiser is a BEAST on the forearms. I met the time standard, so I “passed,” but I had forgotten the hose bundle on the 3rd floor landing! I ran right past it and out the front door of the tower. Later, I looked at my heart rate monitor and was shocked to see that my heart rate had spiked to 191 during the test….I thought my max heart rate was 185, and that was as high as it could go. Either I have a “new” max heart rate, or my monitor was acting up, but either way, I KNOW I got a very short but very intense workout during those 7 ½ minutes!

We are nearing the end…..The State Firefighter II exam is scheduled for Thursday, January 28th. The Final EMS Practical was held today…..the final written test and practical exam is a week from today…..then, graduation just a few days later. It has been a distinct pleasure going through this academy! Although I am looking forward to having it be OVER, I will regret going “back to the office” after graduation. My plan is to work a firefighter’s “work segment” once per quarter to continue my education of how our Department and its people operate. Four 24-hour days per quarter after graduation….I cannot wait!



Monday, January 25, 2010:

Today’s lecture started off with a free-wheeling discussion about some of the major considerations for conducting a search inside a large building. Up until now, our search and rescue evolutions had been confined to small buildings – the burn building, the Hennepin Tech trailer, and the Sherburne Avenue four-plex. Sherburne had been complex because of the small rooms, heavy compartmentation, and the thick smoke. Today’s search would be conducted in another donated structure: a 2-story commercial warehouse/office building at the Rock-Tenn corporation in Saint Paul.

Rock-Tenn is a cardboard recycling industrial complex that also produces paper and card stock products. I’ve been inside the production plant at a 2-alarm fire there in early 2008, and was amazed that ANYONE could find their way out of that structure! Catwalks, ladders, machinery, giant rolls of paper, and little offices tucked in little nooks and crannies seemingly wherever there was room between piping, elevators and hoists, forklifts, and boxes of both raw and finished products. It was a nightmare! The building WE were going to use today was far less complex, but still capable of posing some significant search challenges. Hugging the wall and doing a “right-hand” or “left-hand” search in the drill tower or burn building was one thing; sweeping across a large cafeteria or warehouse floor was quite another. How do you conduct a thorough search of a large area while still ensuring you can find your way back outside and all the while maintaining your orientation within the building and in relation to the rest of your crew? Well, that was the focus of today’s training.

The class and the instructors addressed some of the main concerns we had about large area searches, including: air management, radio traffic, maintaining orientation and crew integrity, lack of water supplies/long hose lays to the interior, apparatus staging, safety and accountability for firefighters, command organization, and firefighter judgment. This last item included self-awareness, monitoring your own mental and physical status, and realizing that in a smoke-filled room, you have incredibly limited perspective of what’s going on in the REST of the building. It was a sobering discussion after our experience at the Sherburne Avenue building last week, where an air management incident resulted in a true emergency where someone could have been seriously hurt.

We conducted an After Action Review of the Sherburne exercise today as well, and discussed air management; the importance of crew communications and maintaining physical/visual/audio contact with other members of a search team; the need for clear, concise, communications (we suffered from a lot of radio congestion on Friday); and the typical chaos that results on a fireground when 12-16 firefighters and multiple hose lines arrive at the scene of a fire and attempt to get through the front door and to the seat of the fire all at the same time. The resulting mess (technically known as a “cluster”) usually sorts itself out quickly, but not always. So, we critiqued the Sherburne Smokehouse evolutions to review what “went right” and what “we could do better on in the future”…..we’d need to apply some of the lessons learned to today’s larger, far more complex search situations.

We also received a visit by the “B-Shift” Deputy Chief today, Chief Mark Mueller. We operate 3 firefighting shifts here in St. Paul: A, B, and C-Shifts. The Deputy Chief is the senior fire officer on duty for each 24 hour shift. The Assistant Chief, Fire Chief, and division heads are on 40-hour schedules, and on call 24/7 for major incidents – both on and off the fireground.

Chief Mueller talked about the safety enhancements that have been made to the firefighting profession during his 30 year career. He also highlighted the fact that we lose over 100 firefighters a year nationally to fatal accidents and on duty medical emergencies. In spite of the advancements, it’s a dangerous job. The Chief also spoke about the need for specialized and higher education and becoming a student of the position you aspire to hold for promotions. Finally, he talked about the firefighter schedule, and that it is not as healthy or attractive as it would first appear. There is a tremendous amount of stress on the individual and the family because of our long hours and busy workloads. I’m glad he pointed out that the schedule is tough on the spouses and the families, because I know first hand that “families also serve.”

We received a few additional tools today: wooden door wedges, sprinkler wedges, and door straps. The sprinkler wedges are for stopping the water flow from an activated sprinkler head, and the wedges and straps are for keeping a door open during searches. The wedge can be used under the door or on the hinge side to wedge the door open; the strap (a small rectangle of canvas with two elastic “ears” sewed on the side. One ear goes over each doorknob on a door, with the canvas over the door latch. The tension in the elastic ears holds the latch “in” and prevents the door from locking behind you in a search).

And finally, the afternoon session arrived, so we packed up the reserve engines and Police vans and headed to 127 Raymond Avenue to the donated Rock Tenn building. We split into teams and practiced our large area search techniques. In addition to maintaining contact with a wall and sweeping a tool towards the center of the room, we added a hose line and a rope “tag line” to the mix, using the hose and rope to extend our search across large warehouse areas. We managed to find several victims, including Fire Training Officer “Hawk” Hawkins, who was posing as both a victim and an evaluator of our procedures.

I must admit that when they finally told us to pull our masks off (we were searching with blacked out face masks), I was surprised to see how “big” the room was we were searching in. Where I thought we were coming through a wide hallway about 8 feet wide actually turned out to be about a 30’ x 20’ room. I guess that’s the result of my narrow perspective and still “hugging the wall!”

The second search seemed to go much better. Four of us were on a team searching the same 30’ x 20’ room using a hose line. We managed to work together pretty well, and pulled the hose down the right-hand wall to the corner, then ACROSS the room using the entire length of the hose, with our team spread out a few feet apart. We found Hawk, although I think I jabbed him with the pike pole I was using to maintain my contact with the wall.

On the third search, I was with several classmates in the upstairs office area, searching empty offices (no furniture) for “hose dummy victims.” We found one, and the team safely brought the “victim” down the stairs and out the front door.

Key lessons learned (for me) today:

• It’s important to remain calm and relaxed as much as possible in order to conserve breathing air. Checking your remaining air level and communicating your status to the team leader is critical. Ideally, the team enters and leaves together, and if you’re the one sucking down air like it’s an endless supply, your crewmates will have to stop searching and get out of the building with you when your low air alarm sounds. I have really worked at getting into good aerobic shape, so I had no problem with air USAGE…but the constant monitoring was a great exercise of personal awareness.

• Air usage can dramatically JUMP when you locate a victim and are extricating them from the building. Just because they were “hose dummies” today did NOT mean that the adrenaline flow wasn’t going full tilt after finding and rescuing a victim. To us, they were all “real” fire victims, and (of course) they always lived because of our prompt, heroic actions!

• Shouting to teammates in a large room with an air mask on only muffled the voice and prevented accurately hearing what was being said. Using the radio was a far better option, as the audio seemed to come across louder. Our department was blessed to have a radio for every firefighter now, thanks to a Federal Homeland Security Grant.

• Searching with a tool (in my case, a 6 foot pike pole) can dramatically extend your “reach” in a search. It also comes in handy in case you have to get out of the building in an emergency. Firefighters are taught “NEVER to get off the truck without a tool.” An ax, pike pole, or Halligan Bar can make a hole pretty rapidly in many interior walls and doors, or can help vent a window in an emergency. Hand tools: don’t do a search without one! It can be a pain trying to lug all the necessary equipment into a fire (hose line, hand tool, rope bag, etc), but I consider this to be a critical safety factor for any firefighter working inside a structure.

So, our first experience at large area searches went well today, and we were already looking forward to a return trip to Rock-Tenn for some controlled burns and further searches later in the week. I felt really satisfied – I was gaining confidence in my gear, my physical conditioning, and the teamwork of my classmates. We were “shaping up” nicely, I thought, and all eager to start applying our new-found skills and confidence “for real” out in the streets of Saint Paul.


Sunday, January 24, 2010


January 22, 2010:

This morning the class quickly hustled through a 65-question written test covering 5 textbook chapters and 17 Department SOPs. I aced the exam – my first perfect score on a written exam in over a month....

Following the exam, Father Dan Conlin, our Fire Department Chaplain (radio call sign, “Angel One”) presented a short introduction on his background, duties, and the support he provides to firefighters and their families. Father Conlin is a volunteer chaplain for the Department: he is not paid, and he provides chaplaincy services to us when he’s available from his “regular” job as a Catholic priest serving in the Archdiocese office of marriage services. He’s a wonderful humanitarian and a quiet, friendly man. Father Conlin stressed to our class the importance of serving humanity and remembering our own human nature: “We can only do our jobs well if we understand our humanity well.” I was impressed that Father monitors the fire radio system on a very frequent basis, and often joins the fire crews in the stations for a meal and quiet discussions.

After Father Conlin departed, our class changed into our PT gear and loaded up the reserve engines and Police vans with equipment for our practical evolutions: search and rescue practice at a “donated structure” on Sherburne Avenue in Saint Paul. The structure – donated by the HRA – was a two-story, wood frame “four-plex:” 2 apartments on the ground floor with a shared stairway between them leading the 2 more apartments upstairs. The building had a front porch (on Side A – the address side of the house) and a large balcony on the second floor on the back of the house (Side C). Chain link fences ran between the house and the adjacent properties on the side, leaving about 4-5 feet of clearance for laddering the second floor windows on Sides B and D (the “left” and “right” sides of the house, respectively). (Firefighters use this “Side A, B, C, and D designation to standardize geographical orientation of buildings in our mental maps of the property).

The class again divided into teams of 4, and assumed the roles of various fire crews operating on the scene: primary attack, back up attack, ventilation team, search and rescue team, and ignition/safety team. The building was vacant, with some scattered furnishings. The ignition team lit several smoldering fires in barrels inside the building, which produced a thick, brown glut of could not see more than a couple of feet inside the buildings. There were no “fires” to fight today; the primary goal was to practice quickly and efficiently getting off the vehicles, “flaking hose” (pulling it off the trucks and laying it out on the sidewalk and front yard so it doesn’t kink when it is charged with water) to make a quick entry into the house, and use the hose lines to assist in search orientation while inside the house (the hose can lead us back to the front door).

Teams repeatedly conducted searches inside the building, and practiced rescuing “hose dummies” from the building. (Hose dummies are humanoid figures constructed from old fire hose. They are the size and weight of an adult human, are more “lifelike” and flexible than plastic mannequins, and are less expensive than commercially available dummies or mannequins).

We ran four or five evolutions throughout the rest of the morning and afternoon (we had a short brown bag lunch at Station 18). The evolutions allowed us to gain additional experience and confidence, and gave us an opportunity to really practice “air management” – carefully monitoring our rate of breathing and the remaining air level in our tank. It is critical to begin exiting the building while you still have plenty of air in your tank – far too many firefighters have died or become injured because they waited too long before starting to exit, then got disoriented on the way out of the structure, and run out of air.

After the last evolution, Captain Deno brought all of us into the smoky structure and had us sit down in one of the large rooms. We couldn’t see beyond 4 feet or so due to the thick smoke. Then, Captain Deno opened a back door or window on the house, while Mr. Vrona started a gas-powered fan on the front porch. The fan created “positive pressure ventilation” – pushing air into the house, creating an over-pressurized situation. The smoke and fumes inside the building quickly found the exit opening on the back side of the house, and in just a minute or two the visibility inside the house improved dramatically. It was a graphic demonstration of the benefits of positive pressure ventilation!

The day was warm – about 34 degrees - and the melting snow and slush made footing treacherous around the vehicles. Wet gloves were a constant factor. Although each evolution was fairly short in duration, we reset the gear and “loaded hose” on the engines between each evolution, so it was a long day of training. After nearly 5 hours in our air packs, by lower back was aching, and I was ready for a warm shower and a short, 2-day weekend.

At the end of the day, we loaded up our gear and wearily climbed into the rigs for the short run back to the Training Center. We unloaded the gear and brought it inside so it wouldn’t freeze over the weekend. My classmates invited me to stop for some refreshments on the way home, but I wanted to give them their space and a chance to decompress without me. I opted for the solitude of the car and the short trip home to see “The Commissioner” and the rest of my family. Week 11 was over, and I was bushed.....Tomorrow (Saturday) I would join several members of the Department’s “Climb for a Cure” team, and climb 50 stories of stairs in the IDS tower in Minneapolis in preparation for a fundraiser for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. Tomorrow was just a practice climb or two; the actual “Climb” is scheduled for February 6th – the day after our academy class graduation.

That wraps up Week 11 of the Saint Paul Fire Academy! Just 9 training days left until graduation. In that short time we’ll have more live fire training, a final written test, the Fourth Quarter Practical Exam, and the Minnesota State Firefighter II written and practical tests. So, it’ll be an action-packed time over the next two weeks – much of it “on the farm” instead of in “Pair-ee,” but the end is in sight!

Thanks for joining me “on scene” at the Sherburne Avenue Smokehouse Evolutions!



January 21, 2010:

Today was an absolute BLAST! We enjoyed a field trip to the Dakota County Technical College campus in Rosemount, Minnesota to attend an Emergency Vehicle Operators Course. We arrived at Saint Paul Fire Training Center early, and fired up a few of the reserve fire engines from the fleet (after shoveling snow and ice from the rigs – we REALLY have to get a heated storage garage for this equipment. These reserve rigs sit outside in all seasons, yet we rely on them to replace our front line equipment when they have to go in to the shop for maintenance or repairs). The Fire Academy recruits and instructors drove quite a caravan for the trip to Rosemount: 3 old engines, a reserve ambulance, and two passenger vans we borrowed from our partners, the Saint Paul Police Department.

We bumped and rattled and shimmied our way to the college campus. Then we sat in a classroom for presentations about defensive driving techniques, handling characteristics of large vehicles, legal implications of using sirens and emergency lights, and the challenges of driving on ice and snow. The lead instructor was Harvey Biron, a former West Saint Paul Police Officer and supervisor, and the former Police Chief and EMS Director for Cannon Falls, MN. I had not met Harvey before, but we had mutual friends in public safety. Harvey is also well known by my sister’s family, who are all members of the Cannon Falls Rescue Service (EMS).

Following a short lunch (we took our old fire engine in to Rosemount for a Subway sandwich), we returned for the FUN part of the day: a series of emergency driving courses set up on the college grounds. Throughout the afternoon, my classmates and I took turns driving fire engines and ambulances through 4 different emergency driving scenarios (we did not use the Police van, out of respect for our brothers and sisters in blue!). The 4 scenarios were:

• The Serpentine Course: you drive the engine or ambulance down a straight road, weaving in between orange traffic cones. Object: don’t knock over the cones as you weave between them! It sounds easy, and it long as you’re going slowly enough. Each student had the opportunity to go through the course a half dozen times or so, gradually increasing the speed of the vehicle. The distance between the cones remained constant.

• The “Skid Pad” was a straight course followed by a quick dog-leg turn at the end. The surface of the pad was pure ice! A student would drive down the straight course and “hit the brakes” just before the dog-leg course. Students rotated between vehicles equipped with Antilock Braking Systems (ABS) and those without. The object was to experience the difference between the two braking systems. For those vehicles without ABS, students had the opportunity to practice “threshold braking” techniques: braking “hard” until just before the wheels locked up into a skid, then easing off the brakes momentarily to make the dogleg turn, then squeezing down on the brakes again until just before the wheels started to skid again.

• The Backing Course allowed students to practice backing rigs through a serpentine course and around a circular course. The object was to learn how to use the mirrors effectively and to judge the pivot point of the vehicle (the rear wheels! When the rear wheels reached the object you wanted to steer around, you turned the steering wheel to begin your turn).

• Finally, the Decision Course. Students approached a traffic light that indicated whether you needed to steer sharply to the left or right in order to avoid a simulated road obstacle. Again, students went through the course a number of times, increasing speed from about 20 mph to 35 mph. Decision making and reaction time were critical factors in avoiding the “obstacle.”

I was in a 1980’s fire engine formerly owned by the Inver Grove Heights Fire Department. I rode with Training Officer Clarence Hawkins. When I saw “Hawk” sitting in the rig ready to go, I thought to myself, “Well, if anyone would know how to make that rig fly, it would be Hawk.” He is the Department’s resident collector of fire department memorabilia, fire stream appliances, fire trucks, and other old antiques and collectibles. I could not pass up the chance to learn some tricks of the trade from him.

As I was driving around with Hawk, I reflected on how long it had been since I last drove a fire truck.....20 years ago in the Grand Lake Township VFD. It was fun to back in the driver’s seat, sitting up high, and cranking that big wheel around the sharp corners of the course! I think I only knocked over one cone all afternoon – on the glare ice of the dog-leg turn on the skid ABS on that old rig, and when the brakes lock up on the ice, the rig goes in a straight line!

Some of the key lessons learned during the afternoon:

• When avoiding an obstacle on the road (the cones, for instance), don’t look AT the cone, look BEYOND the cones to find the path that takes you AROUND the obstacle. Drivers tend to focus on a road obstacle. People to steer TOWARDS what they’re looking at, so they tend to hit what they focus on!

• Sometimes, “hitting the brakes” is NOT the best way to avoid an obstacle. STEERING is the key avoidance action, so take your foot off the gas, and STEER around the obstacle.....keep your foot off the brake.

• It is possible to slide sideways in a 1980 Ford E-One fire engine without tipping it over!

• A quarter turn of the steering wheel is all you need to avoid an obstacle in the road at 20-35 mph. Too many drivers “overcorrect,” by turning the wheel too violently, and end up getting into an accident anyway.

• When backing and turning, start turning the wheel when your back wheels reach the object you’re turning around (the back wheels are the pivot point of the turn).

At the end of the day we turned our rickety, rattling caravan north to head back to the Saint Paul Fire Training Center. Cold drizzle and sleet were raining down on us as we maneuvered through traffic on Highway 52, but the conversations recapped the “field trip” atmosphere that prevailed during this enjoyable, educational training day. Our conversations reflected our buoyant spirits in spite of the gloomy weather.

Week 11 was nearly over, and the week had included live fire training, ice water rescue, and “hot dogging” around in fire rigs and ambulances. Tomorrow promised additional “hands-on” evolutions in a donated building on Sherburne Avenue.......yep, this was definitely “Pair-ree,” and none of us would ever be content to be “back on the farm” now!!



January 20, 2010:

Today’s class started off with a “post incident review” of the live burn evolutions held yesterday. These reviews are standard practice for fire departments, and are used following actual incidents or training evolutions. The reviews allow participants to review their actions, reinforce positive actions and ideas, and provide a non-punitive forum for discussing areas for improvement. The reviews offer a great opportunity to capture “lessons learned.” Our review of the fire training from yesterday highlighted safety practices on the fireground and ways we could improve our communication of dangerous conditions. We also were reminded by Chief Morehead of how “far” we’ve come in our training, and how well we have bonded into a tight-knit team. He concluded: “You’re a family!”

Following the post incident review, we discussed a number of Department SOPs – this week’s written exam will test our knowledge of over a dozen of them. These quick SOP lessons cover about 15-30 minutes several times a week, and by the end of the academy we’ve covered the most important SOPs regarding fireground operations, equipment testing and maintenance, personal administration, uniforms and grooming, and a host of other areas that must be understood before we “hit the streets.”

Firefighter Ken Gilliam returned today to present the centerpiece of today’s training (for both the morning classroom and the afternoon practical session): Ice Water Rescue. The initial half of the lecture covered the dangers of ice water rescue situations, hypothermia, and cold-water drowning. Ken had some excellent videos made by a Canadian researcher who voluntarily jumps into ice water for research purposes and to identify the best ways to rescue oneself or someone else from ice water. The second part of the lecture covered rescue equipment and techniques. Unfortunately, I had to miss the second part of the lecture AND the afternoon practical sessions because of some important meetings at the State Capitol regarding regional training facilities, emergency operations centers, and grant funding for the Department’s Special Operations teams.

The afternoon practical session consisted of donning “Mustang” ice water rescue suits and entering the partially-frozen Mississippi River in downtown Saint Paul! From the stories my classmates told me the following day, the class was very educational and extremely “fun” (unless you got the inevitable water in the face – the only part of the body not covered by the suit)! One of the recruits told me it was the most fun he’s had in a long, long time. Imagine 20 young men cavorting around on ice flows, hopping from frozen island to frozen island, and showing off their best “cannonball” jumps into the icy water – and getting paid to do it! I sure hated to miss that training session!! :(

Ken assured me I’d get a chance to practice in the suits in icy water, but I’m quite sure he cannot promise a session packed with the energy and enthusiasm that my classmates apparently showed on the river today!

To get an idea of what the training was like, check out a media report done by the Saint Paul Pioneer Press about the ice water rescue training conducted with front line firefighters last week in Saint Paul: Link to Story

Thanks for joining me on the journey towards graduation, and for your ongoing interest in the Saint Paul Fire Department!


Saturday, January 23, 2010


Tuesday, January 19, 2010

We are into Week 11 now – just 13 training days away from graduation!

We continue to adhere to a fairly consistent schedule of morning lectures followed by a brief lunch for recruits and then afternoon practical sessions. By the way, I have no idea when – or if – the instructors eat. These guys have been truly self-sacrificing in order to ensure the training is delivered for us. They use every available minute of their extended work day to arrange “the next evolution” for us and to take care of the monumental list of logistical details that go into making the classroom and practical exercises safe, educational, and realistic.

This morning I presented a lesson on the Department’s Strategic Plan and my personal insights on “where we’ve been” as a department, “where we’re going,” and the transformation of our operations and services that will lead us to that future. It was a long session (sorry fella’s!), but I wanted my classmates to have some important information that the rest of the department had received during the last couple of years.

Mr. Vrona also covered several chapters from the textbook on Pre-fire Planning and Report Writing. Pre-Fire Planning involves looking at a property before an emergency occurs there so we have a “game plan” already in mind when we’re responding to that property. The plan is developed after a visit to the property for a detailed tour and inspection of the buildings, access roads, and surrounding topography. During the inspection, we identify specific hazards of the building or contained in the building (such as stored hazardous materials or void spaces where a fire could be concealed and grow undetected), access issues, and fire detection and suppression systems. We wrapped up our Pre-Fire Planning lesson by conducting an actual inspection of the building our training classroom is located in and assembling a diagram of the building, its special features, and the surrounding areas.

The afternoon session today consisted of live fire training in the Class-A burn building at the Training Facility. This building is very unique and valuable for firefighter training. Most modern burn buildings use natural gas or propane as fuel for training fires. Those gas-fired buildings are very safe (you can instantly shut off the gas and extinguish the fire), and they burn with very little smoke. It’s a very safe and “clean” way to teach fire attack tactics. The older style “Class A” building we have at Saint Paul Fire uses ordinary combustible materials to fuel our training fires: wood, cardboard, cloth, straw, and other natural fuels. The fires created with these fuels produce much more smoke, cannot be put out with a push of the button, and require “overhaul” (breaking up the ashes and debris to ensure the fire is completely extinguished). The result is a more realistic fire situation – one that could typically be found in the structure fires we fight. The fires in the Class A burn building are also messier to clean up and less safe than in gas-fired simulators.

Our class was broken into 5 groups of 4 recruits each (one group of five – there are 21 of us in the academy). Each group was to operate as a “fire company” – a four-person firefighting team. Each group was assigned one of the fireground functions typically conducted on the scene of a structure fire:

• Attack Team: they arrive on scene, connect a water supply from a hydrant to the fire engine, “stretch” attack lines (hoses) into the building, find the fire, and put it out. They also search for fire victims (occupants who may still be inside the burning building) and help ventilate (clear the smoke from the building) when the fire is out.

• The Back-up Team is a redundant Attack Team. They follow the Attack Team and take over fire extinguishment in the event that: an injury, equipment malfunction or water supply problem occurs to the Attack Team; the Attack Team finds a fire victim and stops the fire attack to bring the victim outside; or the Attack Team needs help bringing a large fire under control. The Back-up Team also searches while they advance towards the fire. The Back-up Team typically uses a separate water supply and pulls hose from a different fire engine than the Attack Team to ensure that a water supply or mechanical problem affecting one team does not affect both teams.

• Ventilation Team: This group provides forcible entry assistance to the Attack Team; places ladders to the roof for ventilation and to upstairs windows to provide egress routes to crews working inside the building; ventilates the roof or windows by making ventilation openings and placing large vans that move air into or out of the building; shuts down gas and electric utilities to the structure; and searches for victims. While searching inside the building, this team does not typically operate with a fire hose, so they are working without the safety of a water supply, and without the orientation that a hose line provides. i.e., they cannot follow the hose line out if they get disoriented while searching.

• Search and Rescue Team: This group advances into the building to search for occupants. This team also works without a hose line for protection or orientation.

• The Safety/Light-off Team: This team assists the instructor in lighting the training fires and cleaning up afterwards. They operate with a charged hose line and provide an extra measure of safety in case the Attack Team or Back-up Team runs into trouble. They also get to sit inside the building and watch the fire grow, so they get a REALLY good chance to see fire behavior, air circulation around a fire, and smoke layering. This team is the only group that would NOT be on the scene of a real fire, of course.

We ran through 4 scenarios during the afternoon session today. Our 4-man teams rotated through the various functions, and the group I was with served as the Back-up Team, Search and Rescue, Ventilation, and Safety/Light-Off.

The scenarios were mentally and physically challenging, and I was worn out by the end of the day. Not sore, really, just completely drained. Wearing 50 pounds of extra clothing and gear around all afternoon, being out in the cold air, and pulling hose up, down, and all around (we reload the hose onto the trucks between every evolution) must have been what did it, because I “crashed” on the couch when I got home and woke up in time to go to bed during the 10:00 news!

We suffered our first major injuries today during the evolution. Two of my classmates were hurt in separate evolutions – one with a knee injury, and one with an arm injury. One ended up in the hospital for evaluation. I stopped by the hospital on the way home after class, and found half the recruit class there already, plus most of my command staff as well! All were concerned for my injured classmate, Brian, and all were trying to cheer him up and encourage him. Brian was understandably bummed out from being hurt at this late stage of the game, and concerned about missing training and fearful of not being able to “hit the streets” on time after graduation! There are no words that adequately console someone so disappointed and worried. We did our best, however, through jokes, stories, and a shot or two of morphine.

At one point during the hospital visit I looked around at the faces of the men gathered there around Brian. Young, tough, soot-stained faces….men of ability and potential…. Inexperienced perhaps, but young and eager and willing for perfection…..already showing a hint of the mettle it takes to be a veteran….committed to each other and a profession of service….part of something bigger than themselves. It was a special moment for me – a glimpse into our department’s past, present, and future....and the future looked bright, in spite of the somber occasion for the gathering.

It was touching to see some of the biggest, strongest guys in my class standing around holding flowers, teddy bears, and boxes of candy – all brought for Brian to cheer him up and to let him know he wasn’t “alone.” The group was self-conscious and uncertain of exactly WHAT to say or how to say it – but knowing that just being there for a brother and a friend was important to him….and to us. I love the Fire Department because of that close knit camaraderie - pulling together to help each other out during the rough times.

After ensuring that Brian was in good hands, I went home and crashed hard on the couch.


Monday, January 18, 2010


There are no classes today in honor of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. I appreciate the extra day off from class, but the class preparation, studying, and physical training continued unabated over the weekend.

Throughout this academy I have adopted the mentality that I needed to “keep up with the 20 and 30 year olds” in the class. I knew they’d be fast, strong, and tough – competitive and with a will to succeed. They are all of that and more! Each of my classmates has excelled in both classroom activities and practical skills, and each of them brings a unique skill and experience set to share with the rest of the class. We have bonded extremely well as a class, and we encourage and challenge each other to succeed. Nobody here wants to be “good enough” – we know we have to truly excel during training in order to keep pace with the veteran Saint Paul Firefighters “out on the streets.” It has been a great experience going through training with this group of exceptional men!

For me, as the “old timer” of the group, it has taken a lot of work to “keep up” with those big (young) dogs. I have built my own practice props in the backyard (including ceiling pull station, flat chop prop, homemade Keiser sled, and dummy drag sled). I’ve brought home my air pack and turn out gear for weekend workout sessions in full PPE and “on air.” I have maintained a workout regime to supplement the “PT Hour” of the academy, and I’ve modified my treadmill workouts with weight machine stations to bump my heart rate to higher levels and to build additional upper body strength. I know I am much stronger and have much more endurance than I’ve had in the last 25 years, and I know now what it takes to keep firefighters in good physical condition.

Yesterday I ran a half-marathon as I watched the Minnesota Vikings beat Dallas. I’ve never run that far before (my previous long-distance run was 8 miles in November), but my weekend goal had been to run the half marathon, and I had mentioned that to a couple of my classmates on Friday afternoon. Well, mission accomplished: I completed all 13.1 miles in just over 2 hours!

I have no idea what a “good time” is for such a distance, and I realize that the run was made in “idea conditions” (flat, dry, windless conditions on a treadmill), but for my first effort I was quite happy with the results. I wanted to use the long run as a way of measuring my cardiac health and large muscle endurance. Here’s what I discovered:

• I was able to maintain a 6+ miles per hour pace throughout the run. I ran 12.5 miles at 6.5 mph (a 9-minute-13-second-per-mile pace) until my left knee tightened up sharply at 12.5 miles. I slowed to a 6 mph pace and finished in 2 hours, 1 minute, 13 seconds.

• My heart rate stayed within a range of 75-85% of my maximum heart rate, telling me that – from a cardiac stand point - I still had some gas left in the tank. My average heart rate was 78% of my max heart rate, and I peaked out at 85%, so I never actually entered Zone 5 (a maximum effort for the heart at 90-100% of maximum heart rate).

• After 2 hours of work, my heart recovered to a normal rate in less than 5 minutes.

• My legs felt fine until mile 11, when they began to feel “heavy.” I ran on without reducing my pace until my left knee problem flared up at 12.5 miles.

• I never hit “the wall,” so with some additional training, I think I could run even further and faster.

• Other than some lingering pain in my left knee this morning, I feel fine.

Well, that’s the behind the scenes view of what it’s taken me to keep up with the big dogs in my class. I cannot wait for the final three weeks of the academy to be over so we can all “hit the streets” as Saint Paul Firefighters!


Sunday, January 17, 2010


Of all the accomplishments of the Saint Paul Fire Department in 2009, one that I am most proud of is that the City of Saint Paul suffered NO civilian fire fatalities! Since the department began keeping records of fire fatalities 63 years ago, we have never had a “zero year.” This is an amazing statistic for an urban area of our size. By contrast, the City has had about 3 fire deaths per year in the last decade, and a record high of 28 such deaths in 1973. Nationwide, the fire fatality rate is about 1 victim for every 100,000 residents.

There is no doubt that most fire fatalities occur in residential structures. About 75% of all fire injuries and deaths occur in the home – where people should feel the safest. In Saint Paul – and in the rest of Minnesota – most FIRES are the result of unsafe cooking practices (usually people being inattentive and walking away from the kitchen when food is cooking on the stovetop). Most fire FATALITIES, however, are caused by improperly discarded smoking materials or smoking in bed. The last fire fatality to occur in Saint Paul was in the summer of 2008, and was the result of a smoking-in-bed situation.

I wanted to share with readers of this blog an email I sent “to the troops” last week recognizing this historic accomplishment. Certainly it was a “team effort” by a number of City departments and individuals, but I wanted to highlight some of the contributions made by the Fire Department that significantly impacted the record low fatality rate. So, here’s the email so you can read about those reasons as well.

On this beautiful cool morning in Minnesota, I hope you are enjoying a safe and comfortable weekend. Watch that stove, and please check your smoke detectors if you haven’t done that yet this year. Stay safe, and thank you for “riding along” with me as we go “on scene” with Saint Paul Fire crews in our pursuit of making Saint Paul “The Most Livable City in America!”


== January 7 Email To All Saint Paul Fire Department Members ==

Good Morning, Everyone!

In 2009, Saint Paul suffered no civilian fire fatalities. Records of such fatalities stretch back to 1946….63 years of records. In that time there has NEVER been a calendar year with zero civilian fire fatalities. This is a historic accomplishment for our department and our City, and is an extremely rare achievement for an urban city in America!

Many entities and individuals are responsible for this success, including: firefighters; fire and code inspectors; policy makers, Council, and City Attorney experts who helped pass fire safety ordinances; and business managers and home owners who have installed suppression systems and smoke detectors.

Within the Fire Department, every division and employee played a role in preventing fire fatalities in 2009. From Firefighters, to the Training Division, to Equipment Services, to the Clerical and Support Staff, all played a role! I think it’s appropriate, however, to highlight some of the people who made significant contributions to this historic accomplishment.

Fire Marshal Steve Zaccard and his staff deserve a lion’s share of the credit for the incredible work they’ve done over the past 25 years to build public awareness of fire safety and to teach risk reduction strategies like escape drills, smoke detector installation, and to enact fire and life safety codes. Often unnoticed and unsung, the Fire Investigators, Fire Inspectors, and Public Educators have worked daily to educate, enforce, enact, and foster fire safety in our City. Although Fire Inspections is now under the daily direction of DSI, it was Steve Zaccard and his assistants who built and nurtured a program of proactive and aggressive compliance inspections. Their enduring work over the last 25 years has been a key to our success in 2009.

Our firefighters are unquestionably top notch! I am learning first hand how tough and aggressive your are – how you’re willing to push yourself to the very limits of physical endurance to search for, find, and rescue victims of fire and make fast attacks and quick knockdowns on fires to prevent injuries, property damage and deaths. Our tactics are decidedly different than other departments our size – and the results speak to the wisdom and value of those significant differences! There are few individuals on earth that would willingly do what you do – far fewer who can actually do it so superbly!

One critical success factor for our department is that we have certified paramedic firefighters on the scene of every fire scene. Having top notch paramedic crews and advanced cardiac and airway management equipment on scene to immediately render aid to injured civilians has undoubtedly meant recovery for some who would otherwise because a fatality statistic. Delivering definitive emergency medical care in the arduous conditions found on most fire scenes is certainly not the textbook situation – but you have rewritten that book several times over with your devoted work. I have personally witnessed fire fatalities prevented because of your immediate on scene work and quick transport to Regions. I cannot imagine a quality hospital system without Saint Paul EMTs and Paramedics as the first link in that system!

Finally, I want to recognize our field commanders – the Captains and District Chiefs who command these fire scenes. They have repeatedly focused on the “life safety” priority, and kept both citizens and crews from peril through their decisive commands and directions. From the most grizzled veteran to the newest District Chief, our command staff and Safety Officers are top notch, and they deserve a lot of the credit for the low fatality rate we have achieved – in both civilian and firefighter lives!

Zero fire fatalities! Some will call it “luck” – a fluke of circumstances. There’s some truth in that – we all know that that statistic can change dramatically with a single fire. However, “Luck” is a lot what you make it, too, and I know this historic achievement would not have been possible without some incredible work on the part of our Fire Department professionals. Many of the fires we’ve had in 2008 (also a historic low for civilian fire fatalities) and this year would have resulted in fatalities without your rapid intervention and dedicated work!

As we move into the new year, please continue to keep the focus on safety and making “life” the top priority. Keep up the great work on scene and in the fire stations, before and after the call. Let’s continue to focus on education, enforcement, and response as the triple crown of preventing fire fatalities!

Stay safe and keep up the incredible work!



Three towering aerial ladders surrounded the building like the cranes of a giant erector set. Smoke and flame gushed out from the where the roof of the building used to be – before it had collapsed into the second floor apartments. A laser-like jet of water from Ladder 8’s master stream lanced into the roof area and through the second story window onto the sidewalk below, fanning a stream of roof gravel, charcoaled remains, and oily gray water across the boulevard to the icy gutters of the street. That image – Ladder 8’s straight stream lancing through the window – gave me the distinct impression of a giant needle pinning some smoldering insect down onto a cork board…..

It is 4:00 in the morning, and Saint Paul Fire crews were working on the scene of a 2 alarm fire this morning at 185 Como Avenue. The fire was called in about 3:15, and quickly spread from a vacant first floor apartment to the ceiling and roof area above the second floor. 2 apartments were unoccupied, and the other 2 apartments provided home for a dozen or so residents. All escaped safely, although at least one pet was confirmed dead. There were no civilian injuries, but one firefighter sustained a knee injury on the scene. The cause and origin of the fire is still under investigation.

Steam and smoke gave the area a hazy appearance, and the towering aerial ladder trucks chased orange fireballs around inside the upper floors of the 2-story, 4-unit apartment building. Straight streams from the elevated nozzles of Ladder 8, Ladder 22, and Ladder 18 looked like laser beams sifting through the rubble of the collapsed roof. The whole scene looked like the scene of some alien insurrection. In fact, in a millisecond my mind flashed back to a childhood memory of my dad and me sitting on the couch together watching War of the Worlds. Yep, the ladder streams looked just like the alien laser beams combing through the debris of a peaceful world turned to chaos…..

First arriving companies found flames coming out of one of the first floor apartments. They attacked the fire, assisted residents in evacuating, and began a search for anyone in the building. After quickly knocking the fire down, they conducted searches for additional occupants and confirmed that everyone had been safely evacuated. However, the smoke issuing from the top of the building and the flames seen spouting from the edges of the flat roof told the unseen story: fire had penetrated to the interior roof area and was burning hotly above the second floor ceiling. Before crews could fully access the hidden fire, the roof partially collapsed and fire broke through the roof. Crews were pulled out of the building for their own safety, and we began a “defensive” operation.

At some point it seemed to me that the apartment building ceased being a “building,” and became simply four vertical piles of bricks standing together – it was like the spirit of the building had suddenly departed and drifted away downwind on the smoke…..The building will likely be a total loss. The roof was gone, the windows were gone, and the outside brick walls were crumbling in several areas. I could not see inside, but the floors and interior walls must have been largely consumed by fire or collapsed under the weight of the roof….What had been home to a dozen people was now merely an empty, burned out shell of bricks....

We don’t have a fire end like this very often in Saint Paul. Typically we stop fires long before they take hold of the heart of a building. In fact, we extinguish about 75% of all structure fires in the “room of origin” – before the flames can even spread beyond the room where the fire started. But in some buildings the fire extends through void spaces and walls undetected until it is burning the structural members of the building. Then, more extensive damage results, of course. In some cases, that structural damage results in roof, wall, and floor collapses, and there’s no way to keep crews inside the building any longer. Our crews this morning did a great job of stopping the fire long enough to ensure everyone was safety evacuated before the building started to crumble around them.

Crews are still picking up as I write this update, and several units will likely be on scene most of the day to ensure that no fire rekindles in the building. Our thoughts and sympathy goes out to the families who lived in the building, and the property owners and their loss.

My gratitude goes out to the members of the Water, Public Works, and Police Departments, who responded and assisted at the scene. Also to Betty, the wonderful manager of the Holiday gas station next door who provided a warm building, restroom facilities, and refreshments to our fire crews. Betty literally gave the shoes off her feet to a bare-footed fire victim! The Salvation Army cantina also arrived to provide food and beverages to firefighters and responders – they have ALWAYS been a most cherished partner in these disasters! Finally my compliments to the command staff and fire crews on scene this morning – you do INCREDIBLE work to save lives in Saint Paul, and this morning was another great example! THANK YOU!


Monday, January 11, 2010


Monday, January 11, 2010:

“Hit!......Hit!......Hit!......Hit!” With every staccato shout, my classmate, Brian, would swing an 8 pound flat head axe and sharply WHACK the Halligan bar I was wedging between the door jamb and the steel door. The door was all that was separating me from the entrance to the 6 story drill tower. “Hit!....Hit....Hit!” With the Halligan bar (a 3 foot long firefigher’s crowbar with a two-tine “fork” on one end and a large steel spike and an adze blade on the other end) firmly wedged into the door crack, I gave a final SHOVE, and the door popped open. I quickly stepped through the door, removed my helmet, pulled back my Nomex hood, donned my air mask, opened the valve on my air tank, connected my air line to the mask, then pulled my hood back up, and donned my helmet and gloves again so I could enter the simulated hazardous environment of the drill tower.......

Today we practiced these steps as the initial actions in this week’s challenging practical exam: the Third Quarter Practical Exam. Fifteen possible critical (i.e. pass or fail) criteria, and a maximum time allotment of 8 minutes. My stomach was churning with anticipation as I waited my turn at the locked door until it was my time to complete the test. The hefty 15 pound weight of the Halligan bar calmed me down.....I knew it was “action time” – no more time to think about the test – just time to think about completing each activity smoothly and quickly before moving on to the next action.

A short aside here from the test......I have a fondness for the Halligan bar. The first pet that Sue and I owned as a newly married couple was a Dalmatian dog we named Halligan.....Halligan Lucifer Cardhill: named after my favorite firefighting tool, and a devil of a dog for sure. Spots everywhere (even on the roof of his mouth!). Our second dog, Spanner, was also named after a firefighter’s tool. He came along 2 years later, and he and Halligan made quite a pair! I always think of old Hal and Spanner when I pick up a Halligan bar – Hal, Spanner, and my friends at the Forest Bend Fire Department down in Webster, Texas......

Yes, the Halligan bar was a good way to start off this practical exam....!

After “going on air” and getting my helmet and gloves back on, I picked up the 50 pound ventilation fan and began running up the stairs of the drill tower. The Florescent Orange Mr. Smiley Face painted on the wall at the top of the fifth floor stairs was my goal, and my legs felt heavy and slow as I rounded the fourth floor landing and headed up the final set of stairs to the fifth floor. I set the fan on a pedestal near the window, connected the power cord, and turned the fan ON. I quickly moved to a 175 pound mannequin crumpled up in one corner of the room, squatted down behind it, and hoisted it under the arms into a rescue drag position. I dragged the “dummy” across the room to a safe haven location on the fifth floor, then pushed my helmet back into a “cowboy” position as I quickly made for the doorway and ran down the stairs.

As I ran down to the ground floor, I removed my gloves, pulled my hood back, and removed my air mask. The mask snapped into a special retainer on my air pack straps, and I pulled my helmet back on as I continued down the stairs. I dropped a glove, had to backtrack 4 stairs to retrieve it, and got both gloves back on just as I exited the front door of the tower.

Exiting the front door of the drill tower, I quickly hurried (no running on the “fireground,” but “walking with a purpose” is highly encouraged!) to a 24 foot extension ladder lying on the ground. I raised the ladder to the wall of the tower, extended it up to the second floor, ensured it was at the correct climbing angle, and secured the halyard so the extended portion of the ladder (the “fly”) would not collapse back down when I climbed. I picked up a chainsaw, climbed up 18 feet to the window, and placed the chainsaw inside the window. Then, I proceeded back down the ladder, moving quickly but carefully on the slippery ladder rungs.

Regaining the ground, I grabbed 2 spare air cylinders and ran back up to the fifth floor of the tower (legs were feeling even heavier than before!). I set the cylinders down, stepped over to the ventilation fan, shut if off, unplugged it, picked it up, and ran down the stairs. It was awkward running down the stairs with 50 pounds banging away at my leg! I was carrying the fan in my right hand – a bad choice! Next time, I’ll carry it in my left hand, and use my right on the stair railing for some support and balance. I managed to bang my way out the front door and set the fan down to stop the clock.......6 minutes, 28 seconds!! Well below the 8 minute limit! Breathing hard in the cold (20 degree) air, but very happy with my time and happy that it was OVER!

So went the first practice session for Friday’s Third Quarter Practical Exam! The practice took place in the afternoon. I missed a portion of the morning’s classes to attend a meeting (a meeting to obtain permission for our academy class to conduct live fire and search and rescue training in a “donated” house on Sherburne Avenue. Mission accomplished – we have permission to use the house for some hands on training before graduation!). While Chief Morehead and I wrangled with the attorneys, the rest of the class received a lecture on responding to electrical emergencies.

The rest of the day was spent practicing EMS procedures: spiking an IV bag, handling respiratory emergencies, and setting up and using our 12 lead EKG machines. The “medical side” of our operations is complex, and the myriad of equipment is – at first – bewildering. I feel clumsy and self-conscious touching my classmates and palpating intercostal spaces in order to correctly position the EKG leads. I am getting more familiar with the equipment, and I am glad we have a few more weeks to get comfortable and proficient with all the gear!

We are into Week 10, and the end is nearly in sight. Chief Morehead warned us today, however, not to get too comfortable. He reminded us of the written test and the extensive list of department procedures we’ll be tested on next week, as well as the upcoming Firefighter II certification test at the end of this month.....and of course, the Third Quarter Practical Exam this Friday. The Chief said it would be hard to keep us “down on the farm” (i.e. in the classroom) after we had seen Paris” (i.e. live fire burns). His gentle admonition was a reminder to not get our heads too far in the clouds – there was a lot of work to do before we could call ourselves “firefighters!” My classmates and I are eager to be “out on the streets!” We may not be in Paris yet....but we can see it from here!

So, until we actually get to Paris (which Chief Morehead pronounces “Pair Eee”), I will be working hard to successfully pass Friday’s exam and catching up on my reading assignments and studying SOPs over the long weekend we have coming up.

I have to attend a variety of Fire Chief meetings that will take me away from the classroom for a good portion of this week’s training. I hope they don’t have too much fun without me....!

Stay safe and enjoy the warmer weather this week (30’s for Wednesday!)



Friday, January 8, 2010 (DAY 40):

I’m crawling down a narrow tunnel – 3 feet wide and 3 feet tall – searching for a way out….out to sunshine….out to air! I was wearing full turn out gear and SCBA, and “on air,” and was carrying an axe and a radio. It was dark and an loud audible alarm was shrilly reminding me that I was in an alien place – a place humans should not be going….I had already crawled through a 6 foot long, 18 inch diameter tunnel, dropped through a oval shaped scuttle in the floor that I never believed I could actually fit through, and somehow had managed to contort myself up through another scuttle that was partially blocked with debris. At one point I had removed my air tank and helmet, and slithered under a steel gate that left me only 12 inches of space underneath to crawl through, but I got through only to find that tunnel blocked as well. So, shimmying back through that 12 inch tall tunnel restriction, I pushed my air pack, helmet, radio, and axe and continued to look for a way to escape….I was out of options…..out of time….out of air! My low air alarm bell had been ringing for a couple of minutes now, and was slowing its cadence…slower…..slower….clicking now – not enough air to make it ring….just clicking…..clicking…..STOP!

I was experiencing the inside of the Hennepin Technical College SCBA Maze Trailer. Our class had been in this trailer before in an orientation session for our air packs. This time, the interior layout had been altered and the object was to find your way to the outside. It was a simulation for a situation where we might become separated from our fire crew and did not have the benefit of being able to follow a hose line out to safety. We had to find our way out before we ran out of air. I didn’t make it because of a deadly assumption…..

There! I found the door leading out to the icy air outside! I pulled on the handle….it wouldn’t open! I pushed on the door….it still wouldn’t open! I KNEW it was the way out, but the door must be locked! There must be ANOTHER way out! Back into the maze to search for an alternate exit…..!

That was 8 minutes into the exercise – when I still had plenty of air. The door had not been locked. The door had a long, vertical handle, and I had assumed in the dark tunnel – surrounded by the piecing alarm – and hot and tired, that the door was locked. It never occurred to me that a vertical door handle would TURN to unlatch the door. Silly of me….and deadly! I had pushed on the door and pulled on the door, but I didn’t realize that the vertical handled on the door TWISTED – and would have let me out! I “died” in the SCBA maze because I didn’t THINK! Instead of finding my way out in 8 minutes, I crawled around inside the 40 foot by 8 foot maze (three levels of tunnels) for another 24 minutes before being “rescued” by the instructor, who called me back to the locked door and showed me the way to the outside world. I had run out of air at 27 minutes, was disappointed, and very hot inside my turnouts. But, I will never make THAT mistake again! The fireman’s admonition “Try before you pry” was good advice - in my case, “Try before you die!”

The SCBA maze exercise was a great learning experience, and I was actually pretty satisfied with how things went…..I had maintained pretty good air management throughout the search, was orientated throughout the exercise, and never panicked. I kept track of all my equipment and crawled through some spaces that the instructor told me later were not supposed to be POSSIBLE to crawl through. So, it was a successful training evolution in many ways. I’m glad I learned some great lessons today in the controlled environment of a static prop, and not out of the fire ground somewhere!

It was Day 40 of the academy, and I was picking up several extremely practical lessons today, including (I think) solving the frozen feet problem! Using some advice I read about in a camping magazine, today I dressed in light wool socks, then put a plastic bag on my feet, and donned a thicker pair of socks over the plastic bags before donning my fire boots. My feet were TOASTY warm!! The plastic acts as a vapor barrier, keeping foot moisture from soaking into the insulation of the boots or the thick socks. Once the socks become wet (without the plastic), they lose their insulating qualities. The plastic keeps the moisture inside, so the thin socks get damp, but the outside socks stay dry and provide maximum insulation. It worked today - I’ll keep trying it to ensure the idea really works in a variety of conditions. Today was sunny and felt warm to me….I was very surprised to see that the temperature was, in fact, only 4 degrees outside at the end of the day!

Today consisted entirely of three practical stations and one short classroom session. The classroom session was a lecture on the Police Arson Unit, and presented by Sergeant Mike Wortman of the Saint Paul Police Department. It was short and to the point.

The final test for the Roof Chop was today also. I felt much more comfortable on the roof today. I forgot about falling, and didn’t have to worry about frozen feet (thanks to the bags on my feet), so I focused on CHOPPING. No problem passing the 4 minute time standard – I completed the chop in 2 ½ minutes. One young buck in our class did it in 59 seconds – on his first try ever at the chop! Nice work, SL!!

The final practical station today was fighting an actual car fire. Our 4-man crew did a good job, and we learned something about wind conditions, upwind approaches, and the hazards of fighting fires in 4 degree temperatures!

The sun was shining all afternoon, and it felt warmer than it was - maybe because the learning experiences were getting more practical and more “real.” I certainly felt we were making great progress towards our ultimate goal of graduating and becoming skilled firefighters. Week Nine – frozen, icy Week Nine – ended with warm toes, a good feeling of accomplishment, and some extremely valuable lessons learned….what more could a recruit want….except a weekend to recover, right???

Later in the evening, my wife and I went to the new Fire headquarters building and used the work out equipment there. I ran for 4 miles before finally saying “ENOUGH,” and walking off the remainder of our hour long workout. My total caloric output for the day was over 3,000 calories: 750 for the mask maze and AM work; 1,425 for the afternoon sessions for the car fire and Roof Chop, and over 1,000 for the evening workout. I went to sleep exhausted and happy…..


Sunday, January 10, 2010

DAY 39

January 7, 2010 (DAY 39):

Today’s AM classes covered the department’s emergency medical system patient record system. Firefighter/Paramedic Rob Prechtel presented the lecture, and covered both the manual “paper” forms and the electronic “pen-based” computer systems used to document an EMS incident and record patient information. Rob is a very talented medical expert, and was the former EMS Supervisor at neighboring Maplewood Fire Department. He also worked as a paramedic at the Hennepin County Medical Center. He is the department’s peerless expert on the pen-based computer system!

Following Rob’s lecture, Mr. David Hodgson, from the Regions EMS Department, presented a lecture on the medical protocols used by our EMS division. David is another very talented medical expert, and he as been the Training Coordinator between Regions Hospital and Saint Paul Fire for many years. All Saint Paul Fire EMTs and Paramedics work under the professional license of our medical director, Dr. R.J, Frascone, from Regions Hospital. As a part of this strong medical oversight, our crews receive a significant amount of annual ongoing medical training from the Regions EMS Department, and much of that training is delivered by David Hodgson.

In the afternoon, my classmates used another of the excellent training trailers from Hennepin Technical College. The Urban Search and Recue Trailer had never before been used by a Saint Paul Fire Academy class, and it offered a number of challenging search and rescue scenarios for our class. Unfortunately, I had to miss the practical session in the afternoon to attend a meeting regarding our Apprenticeship Program. The Apprenticeship Program is a three year program that starts when firefighters graduate from the academy, and consists of formal classroom courses and written practical and written tests designed to improve firefighter skills and proficiency. Successful completion of the program means graduating to “Journeymen Firefighters.”

Academy recruits also practiced EMS scenarios during the afternoon. 4 of us worked as an EMS crew to respond to, treat, and transport a fellow student posing as a sick or injured “patient.” It was excellent practice, but I think we need quite a bit more before graduation! EMS work is a significant responsibility for Saint Paul Firefighters. We respond to about 40,000 emergency incidents per year – 80% of which are medical emergencies.

PT was again cancelled due to extended afternoon training sessions.

We are nearing the end of Week Nine, and all of us are looking forward to graduation! The class has been planning a graduation party, designing class T-shirts, and bidding for their preferred shifts – “A,” “B,” or “C.” Unfortunately, I have to remain on the 40-hour “D” shift after graduation – it’ll be back to the Chief’s office for me! But my intention is to work as a firefighter for a full 4-day work segment at least once per quarter after graduation – part of an ongoing education I feel is vital to doing my job as Fire Chief more proficiently. I look forward to the future “field work” already!

Until next time, stay safe and warm, and thanks for joining me “On Scene” at the Fire Academy.



Wednesday, January 6 (Day 38):

Today’s morning lectures including sessions on department administrative computer systems, on line vacation bidding, and preventing back injuries. I had to miss much of the morning due to a Fire Chief meeting downtown, but rejoined the class just before lunch, and caught the tail end of “Back Injury Prevention.”

Following a quick lunch, we broke into 5 groups for the much-anticipated afternoon sessions: live fire training in the burn building. Fighting actual fires was definitely something we’ve looked forward to. Moving into the burn building for actual firefighting helped mark our continued progression from “classroom” to “field”.....from “civilian” to “firefighter!” Even the icy weather could not dampen our eagerness to get some “nozzle time” on a real fire.

The class split into 5 groups of 4 men each: (one of our members was sent home to recover from a severe illness):

• The “Attack Team” would pull a pre-connected hose line off the truck, advance into the building, and find and extinguish the fire.

• The “Back Up Team” would also pull 200 feet of pre-connected hose off the fire engine, advance into the building, follow the Attack Team to the seat of the fire, and help extinguish the fire in case the primary team lost water pressure or got diverted into rescuing victims (victims were simulated in today’s exercises by mannequins placed in several locations inside the building).

• The “Search Team” would go into the building to search for the fire victim mannequins and open windows for ventilation.

• The “Ventilation Team” would place ladders to the second floor of the building (providing emergency egress routes for fire crews working inside the building). This team also would place a ladder to the roof, place a roof ladder to the building’s peak, and open up scuttles on the roof to provide vertical ventilation of hot gases and smoke from inside the building.

• “The Safety Team” would assist the instructor in starting the fire inside the building, then stand by with a charged fire hose (in the room adjacent to the fire) to extinguish the fire if an emergency developed during the exercise. This crew got a front row seat in watching the Attack Team fight the fire, and they were positioned in close proximity to the fire and got an excellent demonstration of fire behavior, the growth and spread of the fire, smoke layering, and flame rollover (flames at the ceiling burning across the ceiling and spreading into other rooms of the building). It was like the Fire Behavior Simulator Prop on steroids!

We conducted three full evolutions before we ran out of time. I was on the Search Team, then the Back Up Team, and finally, the Safety Team. It was 3 hours of uninterrupted, challenging FUN!

Our four-man search team broke into 2 teams to search the ground floor and basement on the first fire. Larry and I went to the left inside the front door to search interior quadrants 1 and 2, and Tony and Justin took the right side of the first floor (interior quadrants 4 and 3). Larry and I found a smoldering fire and opened several windows while conducting the search, and watched as the Attack Team brought out one of the fire victims. The smoke was moderately thick – I could see Larry’s flashlight from about 5 feet away, but I could not see his actual body – it was like crawling around in a very dense fog. Listening and feeling became the primary senses of choice, but I did use my vision to keep track of Larry’s position (his flashlight beam), and could see the reflective patches on his turnout gear and helmet.

On the second fire, our four-man team (Larry, Tony, Justin and me) served as the Back Up Team. We made our way into the building following the Attack Team towards the back of the ground floor to the stairwell leading to the basement. We were crawling along the left hand wall and discovered a fire smoldering behind some straw and cardboard stacked up in the room (the training fires use straw, pallets, and cardboard for fuel). The fire was unplanned – it had been started accidently by flames coming up a pipe chase from the basement, and we did a good job of finding and extinguishing that fire. We proceeded to the basement and went down the stairs, turning left at the bottom. It was pitch black, and all operations were conducted by feel and hearing only. I was on the bottom step of the stairs and Tony was half-way down the stairs, and I couldn’t even see a hint of him just 5 feet away. I don’t recall even seeing his flashlight beam. Almost immediately when I reached the bottom step, Larry, our nozzleman, found a fire victim about 6 feet ahead of me on the hose line. Tony and I carried the “victim” up the stairs and out the back door of the building.

Tony and I were sent back into the building by Chief Morehead (the Incident Commander for our practice burns today). Our mission was to search the second floor. We searched and opened windows for ventilation as we went, but we didn’t find any other victims before running low of air and having to exit the building. We had searched half the upstairs.

It was an extremely rewarding evolution, and our instructors had high praise for the coordination and teamwork we showed in finding the unplanned fire and rescuing a victim from the basement! We were pumped! I felt very comfortable during the searches – relaxed and confident, and able to maintain my orientation in the smoke and control my breathing so as to conserve air.

Our crew was the Safety Team for fire 3, and Captain Deno did an awesome job of explaining fire behavior and growth as the fire built in intensity. We were able to experiment a bit more than we could in the confined spaces of the Fire Behavior Simulator Prop earlier in the academy: we took off a glove and felt the heat gradient from the floor (cool), up towards the ceiling (it got “hot” about 3 feet off the floor and really hot about 5 feet off the floor). We watched the smoke “mushroom” off the ceiling and come down the side walls of the room, stratifying in progressively thinner layers until it was just over our heads and very hot. Then we watched (fascinated) as the flames flowed across the ceiling of the burn room and “under” the top of the doorway into the room where we were waiting. That river of flowing flames is captivating to watch, but DEADLY HOT. The smoke at the ceiling is essentially poisonous, unburned fuel, and the flames licked across the ceiling consuming the fuel and seeking more oxygen and fuel in the room where we waited with the safety line. Temperature at the ceiling was about 800-900 degrees! Our turnout gear will protect us to about 300 degrees, so it’s critically important to STAY LOW! Most “interior work” is done be crawling, or at best “duck walking” or crouching. The closer your get to the fire, the closer you have to get to the floor. It’s no wonder that firefighters have bad knees after years on the job!

We watched the Attack Team come down the basement stairs and attack the fire, then stood by as they used hydraulic ventilation to clear the room of smoke and heat. Hydraulic ventilation is performed by shooting water out of a window using a cone-shaped “fog” pattern (we adjust the hose nozzle to get this pattern). The cone of water flowing out the window “sucks” the smoke and heat along with it. The technique is a fast and efficient way to get the smoke out of a room, and Saint Paul fire crews often perform this maneuver as soon as the fire in a room is knocked down.

We finished off the day stowing equipment and draining out frozen hoses. My group assisted Training Officer Hawkins in loading up about 30 section of fire hose (50 feet each) and transporting them to a nearby Saint Paul Fire Station (Station 23 on Como Avenue, across from the State Fairgrounds), where we hoisted the hose up into the hose tower, where it would thaw, drain, and dry. We would go back in the morning to retrieve this hose for further training evolutions later in the week.

Day 38 was over, and I was tired but elated. It was a challenging day, and I learned some key lessons about team communications, maintaining orientation inside a smoky building, and getting more comfortable and relaxed inside a burning building. My awareness of heat conditions (sensing it through my turnout gear and gloves), watching how smoke behaved in various ventilation conditions, and using my sense of hearing to maintain team orientation were key lessons learned.

We didn’t do any organized PT at the end of the day. The fire evolutions ran long, and it was already beyond class hours when we finished cleaning up from the afternoon’s practical training. I think most of us felt that we had already “done” our workout today. I had burned up 1500 calories during the 4 hours I worked in full turnouts. Personally, I was OK with missing PT!



January 4 and 5, 2010 (Day 36 and 37):

We returned from a 3 day Holiday weekend, and stepped into the frozen, icy world of Week Nine. Daytime high temperatures were predicted in the single digits, and we had live fire training scheduled for the week (actually fighting some fires!). What the syllabus did not show, however, were the essential winter skills we would learn during the week – lessons critical for firefighting in Minnesota in the winter. This week would teach us those winter firefighting skills: the challenge of maintaining our footing on a steeply pitched frozen roof (with frozen toes!); trying to chop with an axe when there is an icy rind on your gloves; trying to keep pumps and hoses from freezing up when flowing water – and how to thaw them out when the inevitable freeze up occurs (we fought this battle all week long); and the never ending efforts to keep fingers and toes warm. I was “fun” in a sense – if you love the classic “man versus nature” conflict and enjoy overcoming adversity to attain a worthwhile goal. From the results this week, I can tell you that my classmates and I certainly seemed to enjoy the challenge, the rewards, and the fun!

Monday was almost entirely an indoor “classroom” day. Firefighter Derek Peterson returned to present both lecture and hands-on demonstrations of technical rope rescue. We also covered a number of department procedures and Chapter 26 from the textbook (Support of Technical Rescue Operations). PT hour was conducted indoors at the Coliseum. I had to miss a bit of class today due to a meeting downtown, and I missed PT to attend Mayor Christopher Coleman’s inauguration ceremony as he was sworn into his second term in office in the late afternoon.

Tuesday was frosty: minus 9 degree temperatures, with the wind chill more than 20 degrees below zero. After a brief session in the classroom to cover department internet policies, we broke into 3 groups to conduct some morning practical sessions outside:

• Laying a line in a stairway (connecting to a standpipe water supply and advancing the hose up a stairway, thus simulating fighting a fire in an apartment or office building);

• Deck gun/monitor operations (a “deck gun” is a large diameter water nozzle that is mounted on a fire engine and shoots out a large stream of water from the top of the fire engine. A “monitor” is that same large diameter nozzle removed from the truck and mounted on the ground, where it is “fed” by one or more supply lines); and

• The first practice session for this week’s practical, timed test: the Roof Chop. The roof chop takes place on a 45-degree roof, 20 feet in the air. The recruit climbs a ladder while in full turn out gear and SCBA, “on air,” and carrying a 9 pound pick head axe. Reaching the roof, the recruit steps off the extension ladder and on to a roof ladder, then proceeds to mark and chop a 4 foot by 4 foot hole in the roof with the axe, then returns to the ground. All steps must be completed in less than 4 minutes (recovering in the hospital after falling off the roof could take a bit longer!) :)

The group I was in got the first two stations completed before lunch – the Roof Chop would have to wait until the end of the day. After lunch, we practiced responding to a “fire” in the burn building, pulling pre-connected hose lines off the truck, and advancing the lines into the burn building to attack the “fire.” The “fire” in this case was imaginary only – we shot the water out the windows of the building once we were inside. The objective was to practice the process of pulling 200 feet of hose off the truck, getting into the building without getting knots and kinks in the hose, and advancing the “charged lines” (i.e. full of water) up and down stairways, around corners, and around obstacles and furnishings in the building. Once again we learned how physically demanding it can be to maneuver hoses and equipment at the scene of a fire.

The cold weather really hit us today, as hoses and couplings iced up on each of the “attacks” on the burn building. We managed to go through the evolution 3 times before the equipment was so frozen solid that we could no longer continue the exercise. It was cold, but extremely valuable training, and it prepared us well for the actual live burn scenarios scheduled for Wednesday.

I finished the Roof Chop as the last station of the day. My air mask had frozen up during the afternoon’s live hose training, and I could not exhale through the mask (frozen exhalation valve); I was instructed to make the practice run without my air mask on. My gloves were frozen and it was hard to grip the axe. My feet felt like blocks of wood as I climbed the ladder to the roof and moved out onto the roof ladder. The roof ladder lays flat on the roof, and has 2 hooks on the end that hook over the peak of the roof. The rungs of the ladder provide a vertical foothold about 1 ½ inches high. On our roof prop, there are several 2 x 4 inch boards that also provide slight footholds about 1 ½ inches high. That’s all there is to brace my feet against, and I can tell you that it was really scary to let go of the ladder with my hands, brace myself against the roof with just toes and one knee, and swing the axe for the chopping actions – I felt unbalanced and uncomfortable – I was distinctly aware of the 20 feet separating me from the frozen concrete of the drill tower pad! Although I have been on roofs many times and have no fear of heights, I had never chopped a hole in a roof with an axe during the middle of an ice age! :) Reaching out to the far corners of the area I was chopping was the worst – I was painfully aware of how easy it would be to tumble off the roof! I finished chopping the 4 foot by 4 foot hole in 2 ½ minutes – easily meeting the 4 minute maximum time limit. I was all too glad to get back on terra firma and head inside at the end of the day!

I have been asking visiting fire crews and instructors about their suggestions for keeping feet warm on the winter firegrounds. I have been at a number of winter fires, and never can keep my feet warm. The most frequently repeated suggestion from other firefighters I’ve spoken to is, “Just keep moving.” Easily said, but there is a lot of standing around and waiting on the training ground. I’ll keep looking for the elusive answer. Wiggling toes and wearing several pairs of socks seem to provide some relief, but it’s still miserable standing outside for several hours with wooden feet! I remember being on scene at a 2 alarm fire last winter with one of our talented District Fire Chiefs, “Spat” Ryan. It was 12 degrees below zero, he was wearing only black oxford shoes on his feet, and he was outside for several hours. Suffering with frozen feet, I asked him how he could stand it.....He said he was used to it after years of playing hockey! YIKES!

A warm up is coming next week, but we have a couple of cold days left to go before things warm up during the promised “January thaw.”

‘Til then, STAY WARM, and thanks for joining me “On Scene” at the Fire Academy’s icy Week Nine!


Saturday, January 2, 2010


December 31, 2009:

Today’s the day I’ve been looking forward to for two weeks! Not only will the Second Quarter Practical Exam be over, but a very long and strenuous week will be over as well. I am looking forward to the weekend and “sleeping in” (my kids laugh at this – sleeping in for me means getting up at 0600 instead of 0300 or 0400!). But, not to get ahead of myself, the day would be challenging, and there would be time planning out the weekend AFTER the exam was over!

The morning was devoted to practical skills, and we broke into three groups of seven recruits each. One group worked practiced placing 12-lead EKG leads on a patient (a common skill in Saint Paul’s system, where firefighter/EMTs go on all medical emergency calls). A second group practiced with the hydraulic stretchers and the chair stretchers used on our medic rigs. The third group ran the Second Quarter Practical Exam for final grading. Radio communication between the groups and the instructors kept us rotating on time to a new skill station every hour or so.

The 12-lead EKG and the stretcher stations went off without too much difficulty. Each of the groups was led by one of our classes paramedics (our recruit class has three certified paramedics). The leader of my group was Brian M________, the tall, lanky axe man of Flat Chop notoriety. He’s a good medic teacher as well! He easily led us through the stretchers and the subtle nuances of dealing compassionately with both medical patients and their family members.

An then, all too soon, it was time for the Second Quarter Practical Exam. I wasn’t really too worried about the exam, but I mentally reviewed each step of the process as I waited to begin, because missing any of the critical criteria meant an automatic failure. Then – just as I was “next up” for the exam, we had to break for lunch! So, for the second day in a row, I’d hurriedly down a hasty lunch and run the exam on a full stomach. I ate lightly....

Following lunch, I took up a position in front of the drill tower door, anxious to finish the exam – anxious to BE DONE. I mentally reviewed the steps of each station again in my mind. One of the best pieces of advice we’d been given for these exams was to focus on doing one step at a time – do it, do it quickly and proficiently, and move quickly to the next station. Don’t get flustered, and don’t get ahead of yourself by worrying about 2 to 3 steps in advance – focus on the task at hand and do it quickly and well....

I started the rotary ran smoothly and without hesitation in the frosty air (about 10 degrees outside!). The saw bit briskly into the rebar rod that was securing the drill tower door. The stopwatch started timing the second the sparks started to fly from the rebar......Seven minutes and counting!!

The rebar was quickly cut.....I shut off the saw and walked briskly to the engine to pull the fan and electrical cord towards the drill tower on and positioned – now, move to the hoseline and ready it for hoisting!! I quickly tie the clove hitch and safety knot around the hose, and loop the rope through the nozzle’s bail, holding up the finished product for Mr. Deno to approve with a tacit, “GO!” I drop the hose and rope, remove my helmet and gloves, and don my face piece, pull up my Nomex hood, and replace both helmet and gloves. I go on air, and step to the door of the drill tower. I am doing well, and feeling good, so as I hoist the hose bundle to my right shoulder (so I have my left hand free to hold onto the stair railing), I shout out a cocky challenge: “Try to keep up with me, Mr. Deno!!” Of course, he keeps up all too easily!

I run through the doorway and run up the stairs to the 3rd floor (in turnout gear and SCBA, I imagine it appears to be more of a lumbering trot), but I am making good time. I reach the third floor without slowing down, drop the bundle, and throw the gated Y valve and hose over my left shoulder, remove the cover from the standpipe connection, and make the connection to the standpipe. I open the valve and move quickly to the next station: the timed hoseline. I pull the sixty pound hose across the floor (wrestle it, more like!), and get into a crouch to hold the hose line for the required 60 seconds.....I slow my breathing and catch my breath.....holding.....holding......holding.....finally, Mr. Deno counts down, “Five, four, three, two, one, GO!” I drop the nozzle and run to the fifth floor. One challenge left: hoist that big bundle of frozen hose up the side of the building and through the window.....

I reach the fifth floor and am feeling good....I brace my left foot against the window sill, and take the slack out of the rope....then I pull, pull, PULL. It comes up like a brick through wet sand, but it comes up. It gets easier towards the top (still don’t understand that, except for the weight of the rope), then finally, it is at the top!! I lower the bundle back down to the ground “hand over hand” (allowing the rope to slip through your hands is an automatic failure!). Finally, the bundle strikes the ground, and I race out the door and fly down the stairs to the ground level!!

The descent of the stairs can only be described as a controlled fall. The right hand acts as a pivot on the rail just before I reach each landing, while the left acts as a brake on the opposite rail just before each landing to keep me from crashing into the wall as I make the U-turn to descend the next set of stairs. The right hand then pulls me forward so that I essentially launch myself down the next set of stairs......Repeat 8 times and I’m off the stairs and pass through the entrance door!! The stopwatch marks the time: 5 minutes, 21 seconds! DONE! Four tests down, and all were successfully passed! The week from hell is over!

The last session of the day involved a lecture on hybrid and alternative fuel cars by Mr. Vrona. Included was a tour of his car, a hybrid. It was an informative and relaxing way to end the day and the week. I was looking forward to taking a night off from studying, and I felt happy and relaxed on the drive home. 2009 had finished on a high note!

I wish you all a very happy and safe New Year’s weekend, and a most prosperous and healthy 2010!