Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Some ramblings on firefighting….

Since some of you have let me know you enjoy the memories I’ve related about firefighting, I thought today I’d ramble on a bit about the ‘process’, the stuff that goes on behind the scenes that folks rarely see,

The first thing you need to know about firefighting is that it’s hot work. That may seem like I’m stating the obvious, but, think about it, other than in the dead of summer (like now) how often do you think about it being hot work?

That’s one of the things I remember most, the heat, and then the sound. I don’t really know how to explain the sounds that a working structure fire creates. There’s the sounds of the fire of course, a sort of growling, roaring sound that’s louder with the intensity of the fire. Then there’s the shouting, one crew to another, the team members letting each other know what they intend to do next, and the instructions on the radios… it all combines to make for a fairly ‘manic minute’.

Oh, and while I’m thinking of it, that’s what we always called it “work”… as in “You know you had ‘work’ when… Greek opened the restaurant for us after the call”. In fact there was a list of 10 or more of those that used to hang in Cleveland’s Station House (or Fire Barn as it was also called).

As we were all volunteers, we were a fairly eclectic group. There were farmers, store owners, electricians, carpenters, plumbers, computer folks, medical professionals, State, county and village DOT folks… essentially just about any walk of life you can imagine.

Being so diverse, we often had differing views on how things ‘should be done’, which most often would conflict with what ‘was being done’. It didn’t matter what your particular take was on any aspect of the ‘job’, someone was bound to be disagreeing with you on some level.

In addition, as these were small towns (North Bay had a permanent population of about 700 people at the time) there were two primary social interaction possibilities besides the one local ‘watering hole’, church, and the fire department. The FD had more social ‘things’ than the local churches did. There was the ‘Fish Fry” on Friday evenings, Bingo mid week, fund raisers both, in addition there were several Chicken BBQ’s and other ‘weekend’ fund raisers throughout the year.

So the primary social outlet, for many of the members was the FD itself. The meetings, events and the calls were all opportunities to interact socially. In a rural community this can be important as the houses are often far apart and you can go weeks, months even, without seeing your neighbors.

Unfortunately, you can’t effectively run a fire department like a social club, the stakes are just too high. There was an almost constant internal power struggle between those of us who wanted new, progressive tactics, better equipment, a ‘fire focused mentality’ and those who thought things were just fine “the way they are”.

Guys like Larry Flint, Abe Cable, Jack Cottet, Greg Campell, Gary Skinner and myself were always ‘stirring the pot’ of change, and as such were often ‘suspect’ in the eyes of many of the older members.

Hopefully you’re beginning to see the landscape of all of this. You’ve got a few, ‘die hard’ folks with little except firefighting on their minds, and then rest of the membership, who, for the most part, saw the ‘firefighting’ aspect as something they endured as a necessary ‘evil’ of belonging to the FD.

Sometimes, you just had to flat out prove you were right as no amount of discussion would ever convince the skeptics you could possibly be right.

Rural water supply was one of those issues.

For those of you living on ‘City Water’, this has probably never been a real issue for you, or your local FD. For smaller rural departments however, getting and maintaining a sufficient supply of water for firefighting is a constant struggle. Without ‘City Water’ there are no fire hydrants, so, all the water has to be brought to the scene.

Speaking of hydrants, I suspect most of you also think all fire hydrants are ‘red’. They’re not, in fact, the color is a ‘key’ to the amount of water flow (as in gallons/minute) the hydrant is capable of producing (also known as ‘available flow’).

The NFPA indicates the following color and flow rates:
  • Blue - 1500GPM or more - Very Good Flows
  • Green - 1000-1499GPM - Good For Residential Areas
  • Orange - 500-999GPM - Marginally adequate
  • Red - Below 500GPM - Inadequate

How many colors other than red do you remember seeing?

With most new fire truck pumpers capable of producing somewhere between 1000 and 1,500 GPM flow rates, it’s important to have that volume of water available as well! In the seminar I worked on with Jack, we years ago documented not only that we could effectively flow, in excess of 1,000 GPM, for over an hour. But manage that rate with every drop of that water being trucked in by tanker, at approximately a 1,000 gallons or less per load. Pretty cool stuff back then!

We documented both ends of the trip, loading, and dumping, proving our assertions that a ‘square’ 12” dump valve was faster than a 12” round one, that a vent for the tank needed to be at least as large as the dump valve, and internal flow chambers inside the tanks also contributed to (or hindered if they were too small) improved dump times. You see, you can’t do much about the time it takes to get the truck from the water source to the fire and back. What you can directly effect however, is how long the truck sits getting filled, and then dumping, the faster you get water in, and out of the tanks, the faster they’re in motion again!!

For a guy like me, who loves the ‘process’ of improving the process… this kind of stuff was heaven!

If you think about the two blue diamonds above, as the portable water tanks (portable ponds), you can see that simply arranging them like this, instead of with two sides aligned, provides additional dump spots, six total, instead of four. Also, we built a pressure siphon to move water from one tank to the other to take away the need to dump primarily in one tank or the other, again minimizing the amount of time a driver had to wait before dumping that load of water!!

For larger fires more ponds could be deployed, more siphon devices and the flows improved.

I do miss all of this stuff, life seemed simpler then, I was teaching then as a primary living and had a good measure of free time. I found myself immersed in this process for nearly 14 years in total. I wouldn’t trade a second of it for anything.

Are you still enjoying this? There's more if you're interested!


Beth said...

In the tiny in western NY I lived in ... our fire department was volunteer. We didn't even have hydrants! lol

Bill said...

There were no 'live' hydrants in North Bay either, all of our water was obtained by 'drafting' it from the lake, ponds and creeks... That was prety easy in the summer, winter however was an entirely different story!

Firehawk said...


Very good information. I didn't know that the color of the hydrant had anything to do with the flow. I just thought it was a taste issue for the community. I've seen quite a lot of yellow ones recently, but I don't think I've ever seen a blue one.

The "pond" thing sort of threw me. Is that just a jargon term for the water tanks in the trucks?

Anyway, keep it going. Teach us to build up code next. Pretty soon, you'll be doing three how-to TV shows!

Sleeping Mommy said...

Real interesting.

I totally know what you mean about the politics of the situation. I'm sure its the same as anywhere that volunteers are the dominate force.

Bill said...

Thanks Firehawk, I know I didn't know anything about the colors myself until someone explained them!

'Ponds' are essentially just portable water tanks, steel frame, plastic and canvas liner. The truck dump water into these, the pumpers draft water from them.

Sleeping Mommy - Thanks, the politics were a pain at times, however, in retrospect they also taught me how to better deal with folks who might not agree with me. :)

Anonymous said...

whats up bill.my questin is on pagers do you believe it better to have prealerts rather then just getting dispached right away.basterd371@yahoo.com

Bill said...


If by 'prealerts' you mean pre-defined standing orders, I'm in favor of them.

We had that sort of thing set up with our neighboring departments for certain types of calls.

For example if Cleveland rolled out to a reported working structure fire, we'd roll a frontline pumper to their barn, and McConnelsville would get a team on the floor in their barn.

That got us rolling towards Cleveland in case they needed help, and if they didn't we could cover their floor.

The McVille team was ready if anything broke in our district, or theirs.

With VFD's, in my opinion, it's always best for the neighbors to work together, in ways that make sense.

Thanks for stopping by.