By Thomas N. Warren
The fire service has evolved in many ways during my 33-year career, and we have taken on many more duties than the fire service performed in years gone by. Yet, despite all these new responsibilities and services the fire service provides, yes, we are better off than it may seem to some.
I started as a young fireman in the late 1970s, which was a very exciting time to start a career in the fire service. I was one of 57 young recruits to start working in a busy metropolitan fire department. I was assigned as the tillerman on a busy ladder truck that responded to fires all over the city because of our central location. We reveled in our work and always looked forward to our next tour of duty.
Our truck was a bit old, but it still performed as it should. It was equipped with a 100-foot aerial, wooden ground ladders of many lengths, axes and plaster poles with wooden handles, a Baker Cellar and Dock pipe, a life net, pails, squeegees, salvage covers, a battering ram, a Detroit door opener, tar paper, a halligan tool, scoop shovels, smoke ejector, wood laths, and a ladder pipe with two 50-foot sections of 2½-hose to feed it. The truck had just been retrofitted to accommodate Scott air packs in each of the jump seats, in the cab for the officer, and in a compartment beneath the tillerman. We were one of the lucky ladder companies because we also had two hand lights, a generator, and one portable radio for the officer. We also had seat belts in every riding position, but we kept them rolled up neatly and stuffed behind the seats. We thought we were a very impressive firefighting unit, and we looked after our truck with meticulous care.
When the bell hit, we donned our newly issued canvas coats, three-quarter rubber boots, aluminum helmets, and rubber gloves and responded with all the excitement of a child on Christmas morning. We were quartered with two engine companies and a chief in the center of the city. Oftentimes, we would respond together to fires in our district and as a “special signal” group to fires outside our district. The two engine trucks were older Mack CF pumpers equipped in the same austere manner as our ladder truck. Sometimes, we would have a crew of three firefighters, and sometimes we would have a crew of four firefighters on each of the trucks. What we may have lacked in new equipment and personnel we more that made up for in our sprit and commitment to our work.
We were not the only fire station that approached our work in this manner. There were several neighboring fire stations that were similarly equipped and enjoyed reputations as hard-charging fire companies. We were all in a sort of silent competition with each other at every fire. Who could get there the quickest, who could “get the roof” the fastest, who would not relent on their push up the stairs, whose truck was the best looking, and so on. These seemingly trivial pursuits were the cornerstones of our self-image, on and off duty. We were proud of our fire companies and of the work we did. We helped people, we put out fires, and we were never hesitant to let everyone know who we were and what we did. We all felt that we were in the best possible profession and we were better off that anyone else we knew.
As I look back on those years, I have no regrets; only joyful memories of the people I worked with and the missions we accomplished. I also feel that, as good as we thought things were for us back then, I also know that things have improved dramatically for firefighters working on today’s fireground.
As I describe our beloved, early career ladder truck, I know that it could never measure up to the needs of today’s fire service. Fire apparatus development has been progressing at an impressive rate. Today’s trucks have roll cages, seat belt restraint systems, air bags, anti-lock brakes, noise attenuating headsets, improved visibility, reflective striping, lighting around the cab, robust stabilizing systems, high-output heat and air-conditioning, and sound proofing.
Fire apparatus manufacturers have paid great attention to ergonomics when designing fire apparatus, reducing the amount of climbing required to retrieve tools; incorporating safer seating; easier access to self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA); and featuring wider door openings, lower hose beds, the removal of sharp edges, and adding padding throughout the interior of the cab. All tools and equipment in the cabs are now secured to avoid making them projectiles during an accident. Advances in technology include improvements such as 800 MHz communication equipment, more powerful clean burning diesel engines, light emitting diode (LED) lighting systems, disc brakes on all wheels, powerful single-stage pumps, sliding equipment trays in compartments, and Wi-Fi computers in the cabs of the trucks. All these improvements were made with the purpose of directly protecting the firefighters riding in these trucks and improved firefighter performance.
Another important development that has occurred in the last several years that directly improves firefighter safety is annual inspections of all fire apparatus. Testing and certifying all fire pumps, hose, and aerial and ground ladders annually ensures that the equipment firefighters rely on is ready for use when it is needed most.
The fire coats, boots, and helmets we once used daily are now only good for display in museums. Innovations in fabrics and thermal protection designs now do more that just keeping firefighters dry, these advances protect firefighters from the harmful effects of thermal stress while improving mobility, breathability, and visibility. The old, long fire coats used in conjunction with ¾ length boots have been replaced with leather boots, short coats with overlaps, and protective pants built with bellows and padding that protect the firefighter while providing freedom of movement. Our fire helmets still retain the traditional look, but they are no longer made of aluminum. Lightweight helmets are made of composite materials do more than funnel water off your head. The suspension system, impact-resistant shell, longer earlaps and light weight combine to create a piece of equipment that is more capable of meeting today’s firefighter’s needs that ever before. Add a fire hood, and today’s firefighters can take on any challenge.
Another advancement in firefighter safety related to coats and pants are the extractors used to keep this equipment clean. Exposing oneself to the residue of previous fires has been proven to re-expose firefighters to a wide range of toxic contaminants that can result in serious forms of illness. Regularly washing personal protective eqiuipment (PPE) according to the National Fire Protection Association 1815, Standard on Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting, 2014 edition standard will keep firefighters healthy.
Also, the development of tools has exploded in recent years. We certainly have come a long way in a very short time. Cutting a hole in a roof with an ax took a great amount of energy and a long time to complete. Today, a few quick cuts with a chain saw will complete the job, allowing the firefighter can get off a dangerous roof more quickly. Pneumatic, hydraulic, and gasoline powered hand tools of every description can make quick work of any situation requiring brute force. The exhausting work of using battering rams, sledge hammers, and prying tools has disappeared, giving way to tools that allow you to keep some of your energy once the job is complete.
Thermal imaging cameras are another tool that allow firefighters to locate hidden fires without feeling the wall with the back of your hand or locate fire victims without extended search operations. While you are conducting that search, don’t forget the SCBA that keeps you moving and the personal alert safety system device that sounds when you stop moving. Remember my well-equipped ladder truck with two hand lights and one portable radio? Now, we wouldn’t think of operating at a fire without every firefighter being equipped with their personal hand light and portable radio. Fire hose is no longer made with brass couplings and heavy canvas materials that weigh you down as you advance in a building. The use of sexless couplings, light weight metals, rubber, and synthetic materials make deploying fire hose much easier and allows for a longer life. Large diameter hose (LDH) supply lines reduce the water flow nightmares of combination supply lines. The more powerful diesel engines driving the larger pumps now used in fire apparatus along with the LDH hose virtually eliminates complicated hydraulic calculations for pump operators.
Fireground communications and situational awareness have greatly improved in recent years. We are no longer yelling at one another and hanging out a window to communicate with the chief. We are no longer guessing what is going on around us as we operate in burning structures. We now approach our work with organized incident action plans (IAPs) based on the standardized operating procedures. Through these IAPs, the adoption of the National Incident Management System, and incorporating standard operating procedures, we now know our responsibilities on the fireground and, just as important, we know the responsibilities of other fire companies operating with us.
Our communications have improved through the adoption of the 800-MHz radio system. This communications network allows for clearer and static free communications as well as the ability to communicate with other jurisdictions and agencies. Every firefighter is now equipped with their personal portable radio, enhancing the situational awareness of everyone operating on the fireground. Improving our ability to communicate and knowing what is going on around us keeps us safer and more efficient at our work.
I once asked one of the senior firefighters in my company how he would know how I was doing when I was cutting a hole in the roof with my trusty ax. He laughingly replied, “If you’re having some trouble up there, we’ll find you when we pull the ceilings on the top floor.” Not very comforting.
When I stated that some of the fire stations were so old, they had more facilities for horses than they did for female firefighters. Huge brass bells (polished to a mirror-like gleam four times a week) served as alerting systems. These bells could stop your heart if it sounded when you were standing next to it, and a loud speaker system that was just that: LOUD. Technology has brought us a series of alerting tones as well as a speaker system that can be heard throughout the fire station; no longer is there one loud speaker in the building, screaming for the whole neighborhood to hear.
We also learned that the diesel exhaust that our fire trucks were emitting was dangerous. The black exhaust residue was more that an inconvenience that had to be cleaned off the TV screens in the station; it is a real danger to our health. With the development and installation of exhaust removal systems, our fire stations are much healthier places to live and work. The difference in the quality of the air in the fire stations is striking since these exhaust removal systems were installed. Now, you can’t go by a fire station without seeing those trunks hanging next to the fire apparatus. Most firefighters take hygiene much more seriously than in the past. On the whole, the fire stations are kept cleaner, with attention paid to germs and viruses brought into the fire station after a run. Anti-bacterial soaps and hand sanitizer stations are plentiful in most fire stations. We certainly do not want to take something home to our families after our shift is over.
Time does not stand still, and as time has passed in my career, I have witness many improvements in equipment, apparatus, and policy that have enriched firefighter’s lives. There are many other improvements that have contributed to the wellbeing of today’s firefighters such as NFPA standards, labor laws, training facilities, firefighter professional development programs, OSHA standards, accreditation, and many other programs that often go unnoticed. When looking at how a firefighter’s daily life has been positively impacted by the improvements during the last 30 years, all I can say is that it has been dramatic, despite our expanded roles in our communities.
Yes, we are better off!
Thomas N. Warren has more than 40 years of experience in the fire service in both career and volunteer departments. He retired as assistant chief of department of the Providence (RI) Fire Department after 33 years of service. Presently he is a faculty member at Bristol Community College in the Fire Science Technology Program teaching a variety of subjects in the fire science discipline. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in fire science from Providence College, an Associate’s Degree in business administration from the Community College of Rhode Island and a Certificate in Occupational Safety and Health from Roger Williams University.
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