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!

Monday, February 15, 2010


In the summer of 2008, the Saint Paul Fire Department celebrated the Centennial birthday of Fire Station 18 on University Avenue at St. Albans Street. The station had been in continuous service for 100 years, and we felt it was a fitting time to celebrate this venerable station and the crews that had served the “Frogtown” neighborhood for so many years.

The day and the celebration were “picture perfect.” Warm sunshine and smiles prevailed over a crowd that topped 500 people. Antique fire apparatus, live fire demonstrations, historic equipment displays, and lots and lots of veteran firefighters and their families made for a very special event. Stories from the “old timers” and the neighbors who had lived near the station for decades helped “fill the gaps” in our corporate memory of station life and department history. For many members of our department, the celebration was like opening a treasure chest of our past and finding precious memories inside.

This weekend marked another occasion to “open the treasure chest” and marvel at some of the really intestesting and historic roots of our department. The occasion: the delivery of “Engine 29” to our newest fire station (Station 1 - still under construction at Randolph Avenue and West Seventh Street). Engine 29 is a 1924 Ahrens-Fox NS2 pumper that originally was delivered to the Department in 1925 after a railroad journey from the Ahrens-Fox factory in Cincinnati, Ohio.

The new fire engine originally served as Engine 11, but was subsequently moved around and renumbered as the needs of the citizens dictated changes in our apparatus fleet. Engine 11 remained in service from 1925 to 1930. It was then renumbered to Engine 8 and served until 1939. It served as Engine 4 and again as Engine 11 until 1951, when it was finally moved into a reserve status and served until 1969, ultimately retiring as Engine 29 – the designation it carries to this day.

The rig has been stored in a warehouse in Hastings, MN for the last decade or more, and was recently rennovated to be a static display in our new fire station. Originally thought to be a 1925 model, we discovered during the restoration process that it was, in fact, a 1924 model. The reason for the confusion? It was delivered to the City in 1925, and was shipped with another Ahrens-Fox rig – this one a 1925 model. The 1925 rig ended up going to Red Wing, MN.

The Ahrens-Fox brand of fire engine was manufactured from 1852 until 1977. The brand was so popular and performed so well that they were known as the “Cadillac of Fire Engines.” Their performance was legendary: they held world records for the greatest flow in gallons per minute, highest pump pressures, furthest and highest fire streams, and the longest time running without a mechanical failure. The Ahrens-Fox had a distinctive appearance, highlighted by the large chrome spherical air chamber located on the front-mounted water pump.

On Saturday morning, Engine 29 arrived via flatbed truck, and was gently lowered down a set of steel ramps through a large window opening in the side of Fire Station One. Crews then pushed the rig into its final display position.

On- and off-duty Firefighters came to participate in the event. Crews from Engine 8, Ladder 8, Ladder 10, Engine/Medic 10, Engine/Medic 9, and headquarters staff watched as the rig slowly made its way into the building and into place. The fire crews took plenty of pictures and posed near the rig and in the driver’s seat of Engine 29. I think we all felt a visceral connection to our past and to the men who used these machines so bravely for decades and decades in our City.

There has been talk - for awhile now – of forming an Antique Apparatus Group in Saint Paul Fire….I think it’s high time we did. There are precious memories still laying in wait in that warehouse in Hastings, including:

• A 1918 Seagrave water tower
• A 1931 American LaFrance open cab pumper
• A 1935 Peter Pirsch tractor-drawn aerial tower (85 feet ladder)
• A 1938 Ford pumper
• A 1951 Mack open cab pumper
• A 1962 Mack Canopy cab pumper
• A 1963 General Safety engine

And of course, we have our antique steamer and our 1916 Seagrave Ladder Truck (Ladder 2) that was featured at the Centennial Birthday celebration of Station 18.

These antique rigs are precious memories of bygone days perhaps, but they also serve as vivid reminders of the rigors of our work and the ingenuity and creativity needed to combat the hazards faced by firefighters. Looking at Engine 29’s open cab, and its running boards and tailboard where the “old time” crews faced wind, driving rain, and freezing snow, I marveled at the “toughness” needed by firefighters from the 1920s and 1930s. Then I looked up and beyond the antique rig to the stair way above the display area. There, in rough assembly, were the crews from Ladders 8 and 10 and Engines 8 and 10. I saw in their faces the same toughness and dedication – the same pride and tradition.

I thought how perfect this was: the enduring toughness of the antique, renowned for its legendary performance, backed by the men and women who are still delivering legendary service through their own toughness and dedication! I was immensely proud of the firefighters gathered around Engine 29 on Saturday! They came with a sense of curiosity and interest, and found some of the very best of traits of the Fire Service reflected in the chrome. They, like me, marveled at the enduring strength and beauty of a venerable rig, yet found within themselves those same qualities – the qualities that will long be reflected and remembered - their dedication and service to this City and its citizens.

Station One will be completed within the next couple of weeks. Once we formally pass all final inspections on the new station and the attached Fire Headquarters building, the crews from Station 1 and Station 10 will take up residency in the new Station. Later in the summer, we’ll have a big open house for the Station and the Headquarters building. Until then, please feel free to drive by and take a look at the new building. And be sure to peek through the windows on the very corner of Seventh and Randolph to see Engine 29: proud, strong, beautiful, peaceful…..

I hope all Firefighters can ultimately retire in a similar fashion: in health and peace and harboring fond memories of legendary services rendered.

Thanks for joining me “On Scene” for the arrival of Engine 29!


Sunday, February 7, 2010


February 7, 2010:

I’ve washed all my work out clothes….cleaned out my car….stored all my classroom notes and textbooks on the shelf….read the newspaper reports of the graduation and the now fulfilled dreams of my classmates….and slept a full 8 hours last night for the first time in months.

At long last, I can look back at my academy experience and conduct a “Post Incident Review” – an After Action Report of lessons learned, of things that “went right,” and areas where I still need to do some improvement. Here are some of the significant results of my final personal “mental size up” on my academy experience:

o The academy broadened my perspective of what we (I) ask Firefighters to do everyday. From the tools I provide them with, to the rigs they drive, to the buildings they are expected to search, vent, rescue from, and extinguish fires in, to the procedures and training I provide them with, I have been exposed first hand to many of the challenges and obstacles they face everyday. I know that exposure and this academy has broadened perspective immensely. My academy experience will make me a better fire chief and help me make better decisions. Those decisions will be more “firefighter-based” in the future, and there will be an increased effort to improve the resources for, and the safety of, our firefighters.

o My appreciation for firefighters and the work they do was already at a high level before entering the academy. That appreciation is markedly deeper today. Until you’ve humped the hoses, crawled down the hallways, climbed on the ladders, and experienced the frozen fingers, pain in the knees, sucked the air, donned the gear, carried the load, and faced the challenges of running out of air inside a building or jumping out the window onto a ladders slide to the ground, you cannot fully appreciate the strength of body, focus of the mind, and drive of the heart needed to do this job well. I will be looking at the men and women around me now with a deeper understanding and respect thanks to having walked in their boots for a mile or two.

o Anyone who is preparing for the academy would be well-advised to be in great shape before they arrive on day one! Cardio-vascular endurance and muscle endurance is critical...muscle mass is less so. Do a variety of exercises, as firefighting puts your body into a variety of situations and movements not found on the typical weight machine or universal gym.

o Give the academy a full time commitment. Ensure you have 1-2 hours extra in the evening to study and practice the practical physical exams. Some of my classmates worked out 2 and 3 times a day, and many of us crashed in exhaustion early in the evenings. Time is precious, and none can be wasted while in the academy. Your family should expect that you’ll be largely unavailable for them for the 13 weeks, and you must prepare them to handle the household without you for much of that time.

o Prepare for the practical exams by getting the mechanics of the movements down and practicing for speed and proficiency. Donning your PPE and air packs correctly and FAST is vital, as is chopping with the axe, tying knots for hoisting, and pulling hose/dummies/weights with your arms. Practice some skills that require fine motor skill when you’re shaking with exhaustion until the movements become automatic. Create your own “back yard” props if you have to. I created one for the flat chop, hose back lay, dummy drag, and Keiser. If I can do it, YOU can do it!

o Your heart has to be in this. It’s too hard to complete a 13 week academy if you’re not REALLY into it. Jump in with both feet and a “burning” desire to attain that Firefighter’s badge!

My own academy experience is done, but I too know that it’s only the first step of a long journey. I intend to keep growing my skills and keeping in shape. I have enrolled in the 36-month apprenticeship training program and intend to complete that journey with my classmates. That program includes both college-level classes and practical tests (like our quarterly practical exams), so I’ll have to stay in top shape for the next several years.

I also intend to work alongside a fire crew – as one of the crew – at least a full 4-day work segment every 3 months in order to maintain my skills and keep in touch with the daily routine of the firehouse and the daily challenges of field operations.

I also have built quite a “work list” as I’ve gone through the academy – work list items I discovered while in the academy, and that I intend to address as I resume my full-time Fire Chief duties: fighting for the resources to improve the physical condition of our Training Facilities and training equipment; implementing new ideas for the Recruit Academy, company training, and the Apprenticeship program; modernizing our reserve apparatus fleet; refining, clarifying and consolidating many of our department policies; focusing on ways to improve firefighter safety; building on the strong partnerships we’ve formed with the colleges and businesses who have supported this academy and our department; and increasing communications with the firefighters in our department on health and well-being, safety, and lessons learned from various field operations around the country.

Tomorrow I return to the Fire Chief’s office. I’m returning a stronger, younger, smarter man. I’m returning with a larger, deeper “Firefighter’s” perspective and a Firefighter’s heart and passion for the job and the services we provide. I will be looking at our department’s services through the eyes of both “Firefighter” and “Citizen,” and I will always remember the “name on the back of my jacket!”

I cannot wait to get to work tomorrow!!!

Thank you for joining me on this journey through the Saint Paul Fire Academy. I will continue The ON SCENE WITH CAR ONE blog in the future, documenting various fires, emergency scenes, and events in and around the Saint Paul Fire Department and – undoubtedly – some updates and exploits “from the field” on the Class of 2010. Please feel free to join me here online as I go to the fire stations, training evolutions, emergency incidents, and community events in Saint Paul, Minnesota. I’d like to continue to share with you my perspectives on the issues facing our Department, our community, and the American Fire Service! Please feel free to comment as well, and I look forward to going “On Scene” together.

God Bless and Take Care.


February 5, 2010:

The day had arrived! Family and friends had gathered to see “their Recruit” take the oath and pin on the Badge of “FIREFIGHTER!” My classmates looked so young and crisp in the their bright white shirts, sporting – for the first time – the American Flag on the right shoulder, and the bold red and white “Maltese Cross” patch of the “Saint Paul Fire Department” on the left shoulder.

Chief Morehead was the Master of Ceremonies at the graduation ceremony. Mayor Coleman presided and handed each man the coveted badge of FIREFIGHTER. One of my classmates, Andy Bieze – our class spokesman - spoke eloquently about dreams fulfilled, going through the academy, and what it means to be a Saint Paul Firefighter. Mr. Vrona, the Mayor, Dr. Kory Kaye, Chief Morehead, and I also made remarks to the class and the audience. I was in the official capacity of Fire Chief, feeling part of the class….yet not one of them for today. It was their day – a day of unbridled success and triumph, relief, and of dreams come true! I was humbled and deeply honored to be awarded the silver and red badge of FIREFIGHTER by Mayor Coleman. It was a most fitting testament to the last 13 weeks of training!

My immediate and extended families attended the ceremony. Many of the younger ones took the day off from school to be there. An old Coast Guard buddy of mine came in from Milwaukee to see the show. He caught me totally by surprise by coming all that way to see me and celebrate this day with me. Kendel: you are a TRUE Shipmate and Friend! My nephew Vincent was there, along with a friend of his, Michael – both members of the Emergency Medical Rescue Service in Cannon Falls.

Words cannot express my joy at having completed the academy, but I did have “a few” words to say to the audience and my classmates about the Class of 2010. Here are the remarks I made to them during my graduation address:

Good afternoon, Ladies and Gentlemen! Thank you for being here today!

The Saint Paul Fire Department was formed in November of 1855. The department started with just three pieces of equipment: a fire engine, a ladder truck, and a hose cart – all drawn by hand.....the hands of a small band of young, strong, spirited men selected from the community they served. It was back before the era of horses and steam-powered firefighting pumps...and long before motorized vehicles......The department’s responses back then were known as “fire runs” – because the firefighters literally responded by running down the street pulling their hand drawn rigs and equipment to the scene.

The firefighters were special men....selected for their physical strength, their mental toughness, and their willingness to serve others. Over the ensuing decades of service, these men became renowned for their extreme bravery, their compassion for others, and their devoted service to the citizens of Saint Paul. Today we’re here to welcome and congratulate the next generation of Saint Paul Firefighters, and to celebrate their transformation from “Civilian” to “Public Servant”...their promotion from “Recruit” to “Firefighter.”

I said that Firefighters are special....and the Class of 2010 is truly a unique group of special people! Five years ago, over 2,000 men and women took the arduous Firefighter entrance exam. 2,000 people vying for a handful of jobs.....And then....there were no jobs available! In the worst economic crisis in since the 1930’s, the Department was faced with 28 firefighter layoffs for 2010, and no hope of hiring anymore from our 2005 test. Over 700 men and women would “die on the list” as the department continued to shrink. But thanks to the leadership of Mayor Coleman, Council President Lantry, and the firefighter and chief officer unions, the City made a bold decision – the right decision for our citizens and our Department – and chose not to lay off firefighters. We fought for and secured a federal SAFER grant that permitted us to hire the Class you see before you today.

2010: the class that almost wasn’t a class at all! 20 out of 2,000 were selected for their physical strength, their mental toughness, and their willingness to serve others. The members of this class waited five years - some waited even longer - to be called up and offered the chance of a lifetime. One has waited since he was a kid, really – a young Saint Paul Fire Explorer eager to one day pin on the badge of a Saint Paul Firefighter. One recruit is the grandson of veteran Firefighter “Red Haslach.” Red served over 38 years with the department and is now 102 years old – he’s with us today to watch his grandson graduate! Welcome, Red!

Like the phoenix – that mythical bird that rises from the ashes of destruction – we brought forth a new spirit of hope from a dying hiring list, and we’re incredibly blessed as a department and as a City that these recruits answered that telephone call with an emphatic YES! We had to reach two of them as they served military tours in Iraq. One was called while on his honeymoon in Hawaii. One was called on the same day that he received an offer to join the Dallas, Texas Fire Department. Yes, we are incredibly lucky to have them here, and blessed that they have answered the call to serve. And so they came to us....from Saint Paul...from Minneapolis....from Saint Cloud and Duluth, and Dallas, and Hawaii, and from the sandy hot hills of Iraq.....

I joined them on their 13-week journey through the Fire Academy, and shared their transformation from “Civilian” to “Firefighter.” I saw first hand how incredibly talented and spirited they quickly they bonded into a team. For the first few days of class they were quiet and reserved, excited.....eager....yet restrained. I think it was on about the third day - when someone loudly passed gas - that the ice was finally broken! From then on, you could not restrain their passion for the job or the success of their classmates. They quickly bonded to help each other succeed, and everyone freely shared their experiences and strengths with the group. They were strong and bold, and the spirit of youth was upon them. I could not be more proud of them.....and I was honored to be counted as one of them.

We learned the trade....we learned some tricks of the trade. We strengthened our bodies and ran endless flights of stairs. We endured the rigors of survival skill training and controlled burns....and the equally demanding task of studying all 37 chapters in the course textbook and a 3” think binder of department policies and procedures. The physical and mental demands were enormous....and these men not only succeeded, but EXCELLED!

Life in the academy was a full-time job and required a full-time commitment. I personally want to thank Assistant Fire Chief Jim Smith, Executive Services Director, John Swanson, and the members of my senior staff: they took over most of the work of “Fire Chief,” and allowed me to attend this academy. I cannot thank them enough for giving me the precious gift of “opportunity!”

I also want to profoundly thank Chief Keith Morehead, Captain Jerry Deno, Training Officer Clarence “Hawk” Hawkins, and Lead Instructor Bernie Vrona. These 4 men were our instructors at the academy, and their experience, judgment, attitude, and sacrifice are truly outstanding. I don’t know when they found time to eat, sleep, prepare all the logistical details, or find the time to relax with their families. They pushed us hard....but they pushed themselves even harder. True leaders to a man, they ran, crawled, sucked air, and got dirty, wet, and frozen right alongside all of us. I admire their dedication and passion for teaching us the skills to save lives and keep ourselves safe.

I know members of this class who worked out 3 times a day on top of studying and raising families. I felt really sorry for my classmates and my instructors who had families – some have infants and toddlers at home, and I know the wives picked up much of the workload while Dad was studying....or working out....or crashing from exhaustion onto the couch at night. The last 13 weeks have been tough on recruits, instructors, and families.

My son Jack provided a vivid reminder of the sacrifices made by families of firefighters just last week. Jack’s 12th birthday is today. Happy Birthday, Jack! Jack said to me last Sunday, “Only 5 more days!” Thinking he was excited about his upcoming birthday, I said, “Yeah, only 5 more days until your birthday, huh?” And then he WHAMMED me – as only a loved one can WHAM you right in the heart.....”No, only 5 days until I get my Dad back again.” OUCH....a vivid reminder that Families Also Serve.

In a few minutes we’ll take an oath of office – the Firefighter’s Oath” – to sacrifice....We take that oath knowing that we are also committing our families to the long hours, the illnesses we’ll bring home, and the uncertainly of what the pager and the radio might bring us.

Yes, I will always remember the spouses, the mothers and fathers and children. who are taking the oath with us today. I will always remember that Families Also Serve. I want to specifically thank the families of the Class of 2010 and all of the Saint Paul Firefighters and Police Officers for their enduring service to the department and the citizens of Saint Paul. Thank you, family members! (Lead the applause).

Finally to the class of 2010:

THANK YOU most profoundly for making me a part of your special class. You made me feel young and strong and part of something incredibly special. I am so very proud of you!

At the Saint Paul Fire Academy, you survived tough, demanding physical training; you overcame academic challenges; you grew stronger hearts and a bold spirit, and now you are at the end of those 13 weeks of training....yet at the beginning of your real learning experience “out in the field.”

Like the men of 1855 – those first firemen in Saint Paul – you were chosen for your physical strength, your mental toughness, and your willingness to serve others. And I know that over next several decades of your service, you too will become renowned for your extreme bravery, your compassion for others, and your devotion to the citizens of Saint Paul and to our Fire Department Family.

Our family: Sometimes we’re set in our ways......often opinionated..... We’re tough and aggressive because we have to be; and we’re compassionate and gentle cause we need to be. Welcome to our strong, proud, family!

Welcome also to the noble profession of being a public service. Please don’t ever forget that you are public servants first – foremost – always!

The words “public” and “service” come from the Latin words for “people” and “slave” – remember you are literally “slaves to the people” and you don’t work for yourself, but for others. Look first to satisfy the needs of the citizens in all situations and at all times. You will know the sacred trust that people put in you as you enter their homes, treat their loved ones, save their treasured possessions, restore their sense of dignity and security, and safeguard the mementos and memories of their life. Never forget the trust that people will place in you......and never betray it. As Chief Appleton so aptly put it: “There’s a name on the back of your jackets. That name MEANS something. Don’t ever do anything to discredit that name!”

Now that’s a tall, tall order, and I know we didn’t cover all of that over the last 13 weeks. So remember my 6 Standing Orders to you: the 6 rules to be followed at all times and in all situations. They are your Golden Trump card – to be played anytime you are in doubt. Know too, that I invest you with full authority to carry out each of these duties:

Always – always – look at yourselves and evaluate your actions and those of the firefighters around you through the eyes of the citizens. They are the final arbitrators about whether or not our actions are appropriate and the quality of our services.

Be problem solvers in the community. You are the pointed end of the spear, you’re where the rubber meets the road. Take your skills, your training, and your truck full of equipment and bring value to the citizen everyday, not just they day they have a fire or a medical emergency.

Make your station a safe haven in the neighborhood. Our stations have been an established part of city streets and neighborhoods for decades and decades. Be open to your “neighbors” – welcome them into the public areas of the stations and help them with whatever question or problem they are wrestling with today. Let them see your station as the neighborhood clearinghouse for help, advice, and safe company.

Be courageous – physically and morally. You’re not afraid to charge in and attack a fire. Use the same courage and bold action to step in to dispel a rumor, resolve differences, correct a wrong, and bring peace and justice in your work areas, your stations, and your neighborhoods. Challenge convention – and push to implement the lessons learned from other departments in the American Fire Service.

Don’t just deliver a service, build a relationship. The relationships you’ll create are what make us “the good guys.” Remember that name on the back of your jackets!

Take ground and lead the transformation. Use the resources and training you’ve been given, your unique perspectives, and your initiative and creativity to solve problems and change the way we deliver our services.

Today you bless this department with your unique talents and skills. Your strength on the streets will help us make strategic operational changes that our department has looked forward to for the last 20 years for. You bring a fresh perspective and a fresh attitude – don’t lose those precious commodities! It took a long time to get you here.....but I am so incredibly happy that you are! Congratulations, class of 2010! Welcome to the Department and to the rank of Firefighter!

After the ceremony I had a chance to visit with my family, and the families of my classmates. I was so happy for the families who had ALSO waited years to have their son or brother or husband “called up” to serve as a Saint Paul firefighter. Well, their long wait was over, and now their sacrifice would begin in earnest. They were happy and proud, and I hope they will always remain that way!

I left the party at the very end, and my family went out to celebrate Jack’s birthday. Later, Sue and my oldest daughter, Emily, and I slipped out of the house and attended the graduation party at O’Gara’s in Saint Paul. My classmates and instructors all were there, along with many adult family members. It was good to see them all together one last time before we “split up” to the various shifts and assignments at stations around the City. It was good to feel the camaraderie, youth, and strength one more time….those are three of the things I will always feel when I think of this class – three things I will always hold precious when I see them as FIREFIGHTERS on the streets of Saint Paul!

To Andy, Marcus, Larry, Matt B., Matt H., Colin, Kyle, Tyler, Frank, Bernie, Tony, Stefan, Brian L., Brian M., Chuck, Mike, Dane, Joe, Justin, and Adam: your academy experience has ended, but your real journey is just beginning…..I cannot wait to see how far you will go in the upcoming years!!! Thank you for making me part of something special, for being such superb classmates, and for making me feel young and strong again! I wish you the very best of luck in your careers and your future endeavors!



February 2, 2010:

Today was – for me – the final day of the academy. Today’s final written exam would be the final hurdle. I would skip the tour of the dispatch center this afternoon, having directed a similar center in Saint Paul for 14 years. I still visit the Emergency Communications Center (ECC) and know many of the employees there. I elected instead, to skip the tour of the ECC and go back to the office this afternoon and catch up on things there.

The Final Written Test consisted of 130 questions: 80 Firefighter II level questions from the textbook and 50 questions about the Department’s SOPs. All 21 members of the class passed, so ALL of us will graduate on Friday!! YES!! We did it together and without losing anyone along the way!!!

In the early afternoon we traveled to Fire Station 23 to clean and hang the fire hoses we had used during training, and to conduct practical training on shutting down a fire sprinkler by driving a wooden wedge into the sprinkler head while water poured out of the sprinkler system. It was a wild, wet afternoon, as all of us climbed the step ladder, stood under the gushing water, and reached up to feel for the sprinkler head, orient the wooden wedge into the sprinkler housing, and push and hammer the wedge in place to slow…and then stop….the water flow!

Soaking wet, we peeled off our turnout gear, separated outer shells from liners, and hauled ourgear back to the Training Center, where the gear would be washed and dried over the next couple of days.

My classmates climbed into the vans for the trip to the ECC, and I headed to the office. We’d be reunited on Friday at graduation.



February 1, 2010:

They turned the schedule around on us again today….the Fourth Quarter Practical – originally scheduled for tomorrow – is being held later TODAY! My stomach started churning in anticipation of that “last biggest” hurdle as Mr. Vrona began the morning lecture……

Mr. Vrona had attended a presentation by Mr. David Dodson this weekend on the art of “Reading Smoke.” Reading smoke is about predicting where the fire will be burning NEXT based on the smoke’s color, volume, turbulence, and other characteristics. Mr. Dodson is a 25 year fire service veteran and nationally-recognized expert on the fire service, structural firefighting, and building size up.

Mr. Vrona recapped some of the surprising new information coming from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) regarding the chemical composition of the smoke generated by burning building materials and contents. The smoke that firefighters are exposed to is DEADLY and FUEL LADEN! NIST analyzed the chemical composition of the smoke produced in typical “room and contents” fires – fires burning in the wood frame construction found in the typical home, and the materials used to furnish and decorate most households. The number one chemical found IN THE SMOKE was #2 Fuel Oil! Smoke really is fuel! The Dodson lecture tied the NIST results with flashover and fire growth statistics, surmising that the fuel oil content in smoke may account for the reason that there’s been a 38% increase in firefighters being caught in flashover conditions, and the reasons that fires are now doubling in size every few seconds instead of every few minutes.

Paychecks, city maps, and Chief Morehead’s “Firehouse Recipe Book” were also passed out this morning – the last two items were in preparation for our first couple of days on the job “out in the field.”

I had to leave training this morning to attend a meeting downtown, and upon my return I found that I was the last one who needed to take the Fourth Quarter Practical Exam, and the second-to-the-last guy was taking it when I arrived back at training! A surge of adrenaline pumped through me as I quickly donned my turnouts and air pack and hustled out to the base of the drill tower. Standing at the rear bumper of the engine – the “starting line” for the Practical – I was literally shaking with nervous energy. THIS is the test I had been dreading! In my mind, THIS was the “final exam”….the final hurdle to be overcome…..the remaining big obstacle between me and graduation! By comparison (in my mind), the final written exam would be a breeze….

I had completed one practice run through of this exam last Tuesday in 7 minute, 38 seconds. Maximum allowable time was 8 minutes….not a lot of time to mess around with a bungled knot, redo cross threaded couplings, or fumble with donning the mask….The words that I dreaded seemed to come in slow motion from Captain Deno’s mouth as he poised next to me with the stopwatch….”Anytime you’re ready; your time starts when your hand touches the hose…..”

My hand touched the hose! I sped towards the hydrant with the four inch hose and hydrant wrench….made the connection smoothly….turned on the hydrant 10 full turns….turned on the main valve of my air tank as I quickly walked to the ladder….raised and lowered the ladder….donned my face piece and went on air….carried the hose bundle to the third floor of the tower….connected the gated “Y” and high rise bundle to the standpipe….picked up the box fan and fast-walked to the fifth floor…..plugged in and turned on the fan….hauled the icy bundle of hose up the side of the building with the rope – from the ground to the fifth floor window and back down to the ground again…ran down the stairs to the third floor….picked up the hose bundle and ran down to the ground level….dropped the bundle and scooted over to the pike pole and rope….the rope was like an ice-coated eel in my gloved hands, but I managed to quickly tie a clove hitch, safety knot, and two half hitches around the pike and ready it for lifting….and then I stepped over to the Keiser Sled, picked up the sledgehammer, and sucked in a big breath of air before starting the final station of the exam: driving that heavy steel sled for five lung-busting, forearm-killing, hand-numbing, heart-breaking feet to finish line!!!!!!!!

I drove the Keiser sled the five feet and was sucking hard on the air tank when Captain Deno shouted “STOP!!!!” I let go of the hammer, and both the hammer and I stood swaying in mid-air as I straddled the Keiser machine and waited for the verdict....I had done well....let’s see what the official results indicated...... The air was silent as Captain Deno approached me with the stopwatch held to my eye level so I could see my results….6 minutes, 33 seconds!!!!!!! YES!!

I never would have thought it was possible for me to shave off a minute from my previous time! I had passed, and with a very respectable time! Later, while taking off my turnout gear I heard that ALL of us had passed the Final Practical! All 21 of us….poised for the final hurdle tomorrow….the final written exam…..but it could not be as challenging to me as today’s test! I went home happy and relieved!

That happiness and relief lasted about 2 hours….

I was called to a two-alarm fire on Sloan Avenue in the early evening. The fire in a two-story, 8-unit apartment building claimed the life of a 49 year old man. Saint Paul Firefighters did a tremendous job of stopping the fire in the apartment of origin, safely evacuating all remaining residents, and saving the other seven units in the building. But seeing the grieving family members gathered in the parking garage stole any sense of satisfaction at doing a good job “on the fire.” My sincere condolences go out to Mr. Yang’s family and friends, and to all who have suffered the tragedy of losing a loved one as a result of fire.

I arrived home from Sloan Avenue in time for the 10:00 PM news, but I chose not to watch it. Why watch the TV reports when you’ve see the tragedy and sadness first hand? My triumph from this afternoon’s test had vanished…my focus on the academy paling against the reality of life in the real world of blacken apartment rooms and sobbing families….

I skipped studying tonight, trading test preparation time for sleep, and climbed into bed tired, cold, and sad.


Wednesday, February 3, 2010


January 29, 2010

I am crawling fast – SCOOTING, actually – doing a narrow hallway. Opening off to my left and right were vacant offices with carpeted floors and a single window in each room. My classmate, Bernie, was searching the rooms to the right; I took the rooms to the left. Our Search Team Leader and classmate, Andy, was moving quickly down the hall with us, trailing a rope tether behind us as we went. The rope was tied off to the railing at the top of stairway of the second floor - the floor we were searching…..looking for reported victims.

Below us, our attack crews were fighting a fire in the warehouse area of the 2 story commercial structure that we were searching. The building was abandoned, but formerly contained the warehouse on the ground floor, and the office spaces above. Light smoke filled the hallways and rooms of our second floor search area. Visibility was good….8-10 feet or so, and we were moving fast down the hallway. My helmet-mounted flashlight lanced through the smoke, diffusing from a narrow spotlight beam into a scattered flood of light that seemed to be pushed back – and pushed apart – by the smoke….. exactly like a car’s headlight vainly attempting to pierce a fogbank. At each doorway, I’d stick my upper body into the door, shine the flashlight beam around the room, and call to Andy: “CLEAR!”….no one inside that room. I scooted down the hallway, pushing my Halligan Bar ahead of me in my right hand, as I reached out to the next doorway on the left. The only rooms I really needed to fully enter were the bathrooms at the far end of the hall….I wanted to ensure no one was in any of the stalls….

Andy, Bernie, and I are part of a larger exercise – again at a vacant structure at the Rock-Tenn Corporation in Saint Paul. This large industrial complex recycles cardboard and manufactures card stock and paper products. The building they have loaned us for our training exercises is a perfect structure for our use: a mix of offices, warehouse spaces, kitchen and meeting rooms, and utility rooms and loading docks. We conducted a total of 5 evolutions at this facility this week, conducting live burns, search and rescue evolutions, and simulating rooftop ventilation using an aerial ladder truck. The training was realistic, yet controlled; safe, yet challenging. For me, it was highly enjoyable as well….I had a BLAST!

Today was the last day of Week 12. We have only one week to go….”4 days and a wake up,” as we used to say in the service. 4 more days of training, and we wake up on Day 5 for graduation and a joyful release from the classroom and the academy! All of us are anxious to finish and “hit the streets,” and the Training Division staff recognizes perhaps the most dangerous part of our training: the time where we’re anticipating completion and focused on “being done,” yet there are important lessons for us yet to learn. We’re confident and cocky….yet we are not experienced enough to avoid a deadly mistake. Chief Morehead used a barnyard analogy to describe our eagerness to be done: “The horses are out of the stable”….or “the pigs are out of the barn,” or something like that….in other words, it’s almost impossible to get our attention and keep us all herded together in the final weeks of the academy. But the Training Staff manages somehow – just barely at times – to keep control over us, and we know we still have two huge hurdles to clear in Week 13: the final, all-inclusive written exam, and the Fourth Quarter Practical!

There were four of us working on the search team, working the second floor hallways and offices. As I low-crawled down the carpeted hallway – flashlight beam lancing out to the rear end of my partner as he crawled down the hallway just in front of me – I thought it looked just like a hotel: rooms opening off both sides of a carpeted hallway, except these rooms were empty offices measuring about 10 feet by 10 feet. “Command” (the Incident Commander, who was managing this incident) had assigned our 4-man team to search for victims on the second floor office area.

We broke into two teams of two to quickly cover the hallway and office area, thinking we’d move onto the cafeteria and meeting room areas when we were done with the offices. My partner and I took the left side of the hallway, and the other two member of our search team took the right side rooms. We opened the door to each room, I went to the right in a right-handed search, and my partner went to the left in a left-handed search. He had an axe, and I used a six-foot pike pole to extend our reach into the smoky darkness. Stretched out, we could cover the room with a single “sweep,” and we quickly made our way through the three offices on the left. Just as we dove into the smoke for the last office, our teammates in the right hand rooms yelled out, “We got a victim!” We finished off our room search, met our brothers in the hallway, and the four of us worked to maneuver the victim down the hallway and the stairway using brute strength, our “Morehead Straps,” and some finesse to work through the doorway at the top of the stairs. We carried the victim out the front door, then were reassigned to search an area on the first floor…..we adjusted our gear, checked our air supply (over 2/3 full – GOOD!), and went back into the structure…..

The smoke was lighter down here, we could duck walk through the larger rooms…..THERE – in the corner of the kitchen area!! Two victims! We quickly grabbed them under the arms and moved back towards the front door. They slid easily on the linoleum floor! We quickly had them outside into the snow and slush of the cold winter day. It was a most satisfying afternoon!

This weekend I would relax and spend some time with my son, Jack. He’ll turn 12 on February 5 – Graduation Day for us, but a big day for him as well. I’ll likely have to cut short the graduation party in the evening to spend Jack’s birthday with him in a special way. Last night he had told me, “Just one more week!” I thought he was referring to his birthday, and said, “Yeah, one more week until your birthday!” He said, “No, one more week until I get my Dad back!” OUCH! This academy has been quite a time commitment for all of us – recruits, instructors, and families - and I’ve heard many of my classmates talk about the time they’ve devoted to studying, working out, or crashing on the couch after a hard day in the brisk winter air. All of us realize that a critical factor to success at the academy is this: You have to make it a full-time commitment!

I’ve been able to manage by having a great staff back “in the office” that has taken much of the Chief’s workload for me, and a great “Commissioner” (i.e., wife) at home, who understood and supported the commitment right from the start. But the academy has been a drain on all of us recruits and our families (and the instructors and their families), and we’re all looking forward to graduation day! Four more days, two final exams, and it’ll be all over, Jack, and then you can get your Dad back again!

I’d like to thank all the families who have instructors or recruits involved in our academy! You all – like the families of our front line brothers and sisters in the firefighting service – also sacrifice and serve alongside us. You make our commitment possible, and you bear much of the burden of managing a home and raising children “solo” because of our firefighting jobs. God Bless you all for your support to us and your enduring service to our community as well! I will never forget that FAMILIES ALSO SERVE!!



January 28, 2010:

About half the class took the Minnesota State Firefighter II certification test today. This test is one of the final remaining tests for our recruit academy, yet another reminder that “we’re not done yet.” Failure could still result in dismissal from the academy. Man, that would stink to flunk out now!” But, we’ve heard stories of guys that “washed out” on the final day of class, or the next to the last day in the past…..NONE of us want to be “that guy!”

The Firefighter II test combined a 100 point written test and a 4-part practical exam. The practical test consisted of power tool use and maintenance, auto extrication, conducting a pre-fire survey of a building, and writing a report of a simulated structure fire in a vacant building. The practical portion was relatively “easy,” and all of us passed. We are still awaiting the results of the written portion, which was challenging and covered nearly the entire 37 chapter textbook.

The test took the entire morning. After lunch, we retuned to the donated structure at Rock-Tenn and conducted search and rescue exercises and live fire training. We walked through the building before the sessions began as part of an orientation for safety purposes. Man, was that building a maze of rooms! Meeting rooms, cafeterias, crawlspaces, warehouse floors, paint booths, office cubicles, and hallways. Quite frankly, I was “all turned around” before they even put the smoke into the building! Once again (for the hundredth time at least) I marveled at the incredible work that we expect our firefighters to do while conducting searches in these complex buildings. I have been in other buildings on the Rock-Tenn campus – far more complex and confusing than this one – and there is seemingly NO WAY that you could find someone in amongst all the twists, turns, nooks, and crannies…..yet, our brothers and sisters enter those buildings, conduct those searches, find the victims, and – most of the time – find their way back outside safely. Today’s practice would help us build skills to do these searches quickly, effectively, and safely. The donated Rock-Tenn building was a complex building, and would require both large-scale search techniques and small room/hallway techniques. I was really looking forward to searching in this realistic setting!

The class split into two groups, and the group I was in had the opportunity to be the back up attack line and the “safety line crew / light off team.” The first evolution – where we were assigned the back up attack line – also turned into a search and rescue operation for three of us (we had 5 in my group), because while the nozzle man and back up stayed with the hose line, 3 of us broke off to help search large areas of the first floor. Smoke was light in the areas we searched, and we were able to duck-walk or move in a stooped posture to quickly cover the area. We searched fast and covered the rooms visually for the most part, our flashlight beams easily penetrating the dark interior of the building and the light smoke haze. We found and rescued a “hose dummy victim” from underneath a countertop/sink in a corner of a first floor room.

For the second evolution, my classmates Andy and Bernie, myself, and Captain Deno entered the structure to build a fire for the attack teams, and then we crouched nearby to watch the fire build, the smoke “layer,” and the attack teams come in for extinguishment. I love these opportunities to watch fire behavior “up close!” They really are a great opportunity to see how the smoke moves towards the fire as it’s building, and away from the fire once ventilation is started. Experiencing the sights and sounds of a fire burning close by, feeling the heat build up on your shoulders, legs, neck (through our hoods, of course), and through our gloved hands really gives us a great sense of how fire behaves, how interior conditions change, and how protective our personal protective equipment really is. Captain Deno kept up a nearly uninterrupted monologue, pointing out various observations of the fire, smoke, and heat, and drawing our attention to various hazards – like the light fixtures that came crashing down around the attack team as they brought the fire under control – and the point at which the plastic light switch covers melted in the extreme heat.

It was a rewarding and enjoyable day, and the hands-on training was a great adjunct to our classroom learning. I left the training center tired, happy, and ready for the week to be over….Week 12….one more day and Week 12 will be history!



January 27, 2010:

In much of our training, we’ve discussed the importance of “situational awareness:" knowing what’s going on around you, monitoring the changing conditions of a burning building, “reading the smoke” to determine what is happening and what will likely happen next, knowing where your teammates are, anticipating the needs of an incident, and formulating action plans for a variety of emergency situations. Today, however, we focused on individual firefighter “needs” and maintaining an awareness of what’s going on inside our heads and our bodies, and how to seek help for situations that impact our health, emotions, and wellbeing. I've called it "a mental size up" in other correspondence: mentally assessing yourself and asking, "how am I really doing?"

Class lectures and guest speakers today helped us make those "mental size ups," and provided us some great resources for making a personal action plan to address the mental, emotional, and physical challenges we'll face as Firefighters. We received information on the Employee Assistance Program, the Critical Incident Stress Debriefing process, Nutrition, and MAYDAY procedures.

The sessions about Employee Assistance Program (EAP) were very helpful. I did not know that our HealthPartners EAP provided financial and legal assistance to firefighters as well as the more traditional help with emotional/social/communications issues. I also never realized that EAP provides assistance to spouses and family members as well. The EAP counselors who came to talk to our class were very informative and helpful.

There is no doubt that Firefighters are exposed to some very graphic and tragic incidents, and they are called to help people who are suffering the most devastating traumas of life: death of a loving spouse, suicide, rape, child abuse, violent crime, tragic accidents, and other events that occur on a frequent basis. Individual incidents can have a haunting and lasting impact on a Firefighter’s physical and emotional wellbeing. Even less graphic incidents can “build up” emotional stress for emergency responders – stress is often both cumulative and chronic in nature. Several guest speakers gave our class some personal insights into critical incidents and the resulting emotional stress those incidents continue to have on their lives. We discussed the defusing and peer counseling services available from the Metro Critical Incident Stress Debriefing Team.

We also discussed the importance of exercise and healthy nutrition. Throughout this academy we’ve been shown the importance of physical training, but up until now we haven’t discussed the nutrition side too much. Today a Dietician from HealthPartners, Julie, came in and discussed the new federal nutritional guidelines. Check them out at

Julie’s presentation was very informative and interesting, and matched many of the discoveries I had made “on my own” during my recent experience with dieting and “calorie counting.” I did not find it surprising, for example, to learn that it takes about 30 minutes of moderate exercise daily to help prevent chronic disease, 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise to maintain a healthy body weight, and 60-90 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise per day to lose weight. Julie discussed ways to quickly assess 100 calorie portions, how to chose healthier foods, and dietary approaches to stop hypertension.

Captain Deno presented a lecture of “MAYDAY” procedures: emergency radio messages we send if we’re lost, disoriented, low on air, trapped, can’t find our way out of a building, and other life-threatening emergencies. We discussed both the situations that should prompt us to call a MAYDAY, and the radio format for making such a call. One format follows the acronym U-CAN! First, identify YOU – who you are and what fire company you’re assigned to. C – CONDITION – what is prompting the MAYDAY situation? (I’m on the third floor in the hallway and have been trapped by a falling ceiling; my legs are pinned and I can’t get free). A – ACTION – what am I doing to alleviate the situation myself? (I’m turning on my PASS device, shining my flashlight on the ceiling, and thumping on the floor with my axe). (These, by the way, are all actions taken so that the Rapid Intervention Team can more quickly find the trapped firefighter). Finally, N- NEEDS - what do you need from the other firefighters so they can help you?

After a quick lunch, we were visited by the A-Shift Deputy Chief, Dennis Appleton. Chief Appleton spoke about teamwork, the importance of making a good first impression “on the streets,” LISTENING to experienced veterans, and remembering “what you learned from the book.” He told us to be humble, and to remember that citizens and other firefighters will be judging us – and our department – by our actions. He put it quite eloquently: “You have a name on the back of your jacket. That name MEANS something – don’t do anything to discredit that name!”

The rest of the day was spent on preparing for and reviewing material in preparation for tomorrow’s State Firefighter II certification test. About half the class has taken it already; about half the class will take it tomorrow. The state test includes both a practical portion and a written exam; they make up two of our academy’s four remaining examinations. I’m really not “sweating” the State certification test too much. I’ve studied every chapter in the book at least twice, and the practical portions have been thoroughly reviewed and tested in our academy training already. I’ll go for a good night’s and a final “brush up” of the textbook in the morning....