Changes in the Fire Service

By Danny Sheridan

Photos by author except where noted

Change in the fire service is subtle; it happens slowly, over time. There have been many, but these are some of the more significant changes I can think of:

  • Radios for each firefighter
  • Bunker gear
  • Rabbit tool
  • Thermal imaging camera

When I graduated the fire academy, I was assigned to a ladder company. The firefighters on the “inside team” (forcible entry and extinguisher) did not carry a portable radio. It usually wasn’t a problem for me since I was normally assigned the extinguisher for my first few years in the company. It was only a problem when the team needed to split up inside the fire apartment during a search. I recall two such times.

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Radio Messaging Under Warlike Conditions

Radios

At one fire there was a Mayday given by a firefighter who fell off the roof. We were assigned to search the floor above. The apartment was a railroad flat, which means that the rooms are all laid out in succession, like a train. Railroad apartments have entrances at the front of the apartment and the rear. The main entrance is the rear, which leads into the living room and kitchen area. The officer and the extinguisher firefighter were near the rear door waiting for the engine to knock down the fire to get to the front bedrooms. I made my way to the rear of the apartment. When the Mayday was transmitted, I never heard it. Firefighters were scrambling to deal with the down firefighter and I was in the rear of the apartment, oblivious to what was happening.

At another fire, I got separated from the officer and the extinguisher firefighter. They went to another part of the apartment. I was in the front bedroom all by myself and had an urgent situation with a young patient. I had no one to contact so I just wrapped the baby in my coat and headed down to the street. Today, every firefighter has a radio. There is a firefighter tracking system called Emergency Firefighter Accountability System (EFAS) which is tied in to the radio. When a firefighter transmits a message, his or her radio shows up on a board at the command post.

Bunker Gear

Bunker gear didn’t exist when I got on the department. You were issued a ¾-length coat and rubber hip boots. There were no hoods with your personal protective equipment; when it got too hot, your ears would burn. This is when you knew it was time to get out of an area if there wasn’t a hoseline nearby. There may have been a few times when not having bunker gear may have actually saved us. At one particular fire in a two-story private dwelling, we went above the fire. As soon as we got into the front bedroom off the portable ladder, we were driven to the floor. The area was so hot that you couldn’t stand up. We immediately bailed out the front window as the flames were over our head.

The department was concerned about the amount of burn injuries that were happening with the engine firefighters. The number of scalding burns on firefighters’ knees was unacceptable. This was as a result of hot water getting in between the bottom of the coat and the top of the boot, provided you remembered to pull them up.

Firefighters in old gear

(1) Firefighters wearing old gear. Photo courtesy of Huron (OH) Fire Division.

I had been assigned to a ladder company prior to working in the squad so I didn’t really have much engine experience to speak of. When I transferred to the squad, usually the chief would have us work as a search team or operate on the roof to provide ventilation. We did on occasion operate a hoseline. At one fire, were we operating as an engine. The fire building was a typical five-story tenement building with fire on at least three different floors. My best friend was a former engine firefighter and had loads of experience. We started moving in on the fire and my knees started to burn, the embers were falling into the space between the top of the boot and the bottom of my coat. I started to get very uncomfortable. I may have said something along the lines of “Hey, I’m burning up.” He grabbed the nozzle out of my hands and jammed it down my boot and instantly cooled off my legs. I still have the scars to this day.

The first tour I worked with the new bunker gear was an experience that I’ll never forget. My very first time wearing it was a huge learning experience. It was a hot summer Sunday afternoon. The temperature must have been in the high 90’s. I sat in the kitchen drinking coffee like I always did, thinking nothing of it. The first fire of the day came in around noon, a top-floor fire in a six-story H-Type building. I was assigned the roof position. We got on the apparatus and headed towards the box. Our old Mack CF apparatus had a metal cover on the inside over the motor. It would get red hot after a long drive. I put on my new gear and when we got to the location I jumped off the rig and got my saw and tools. I climbed the aerial and went to work on venting the roof. After the fire was knocked down, we finished opening up the roof boards and pushing down the ceilings. Then we were assigned to another working fire.

Firefighter wearing bunker gear

(2) Firefighter wearing bunker gear. Urban Firefighter photo.

I got back on the rig with my bunker gear still on, the rig was running the whole time so it was boiling inside the cab. We took off for the other fire. I got off the rig and since it was not top-floor we went to the floor above via the fire escape. I climbed to the fourth floor and that’s the last thing I remember. I passed out on the fire escape. I couldn’t move my body, I had overheated. I was very embarrassed. I look back at it now and realize that I had not drank any water and was in my bunker gear for more than an hour.

Rabbit Tool

We had a load of housing projects in our first due response district. The doors in these 20-story fireproof multiple dwellings were formidable. I always felt a lot of apprehension when I knew that I would have to force one of these doors. It wasn’t unusual to find up to three locks on a door. It was a lot of work and it took some time to force. Sometimes the engine company would be waiting by the door with a charged hoseline. When the rabbit tool was introduced, it meant that ladder companies were now going to be able to force a door with just a few pumps on the tool. They were getting into these apartments in no time. The stronger the door, the better the tool worked.

With the bunker gear encapsulating firefighters, they were not feeling the heat as they did prior to having the gear and this enabled them to go deeper into the apartment without the protection of the hoseline. The ladder companies were getting in quickly and the hoseline was delayed. At the same time there was a reduction in staffing on the engine companies. If you boil it down, you had ladder companies and engine companies out of sync. It was going to take some getting used to, with firefighters in the ladder company recognizing their limitations without the protection of the hoseline.

Mike Ciampo with rabbit tool

(3) Lt. Mike Ciampo using rabbit tool. Still from Training Minutes video.

Thermal Imaging Camera (TIC)

The TIC was revolutionary. I did not see the first TIC until I had about 12 years in the department. Eventually every ladder company got one. I very rarely worked in the ladder company, as I was assigned to engines in both my officer ranks. It’s unfortunate but I never truly got the hang of the tool. It’s phenomenal, but it has its limitations. We are all being trained on this new TIC. The department is in the process of outfitting every engine, ladder, and battalion vehicle with a brand-new TIC that conforms to National Fire Protection Association 1801, Standard on Thermal Imagers for the Fire Service, 2018 Edition. The image on the new TIC is so clear that it is like HDTV.

The early TIC was big and cumbersome, but it was amazing. You could see through smoke. For my first 12 years on the department I relied on my senses, feeling for the heat and listen for the sounds of the crackling. You needed to focus and pay strict attention to your surroundings. One trick I would use sometimes was to take an ungloved hand and feel for the heat. It was tough for me to get used to the TIC in the early stages. I found the few times I used it that I would get too caught up in looking through the lens and would not pay attention to my other senses. I remember at one fire we had in a church, I had the TIC and started my search. I was scanning the room and couldn’t get my head around what was happening. I wasn’t paying attention to the heat or listening. I was just mesmerized by the screen. I saw an outline of a white image to my left, but couldn’t make heads or tails of what I was looking at. It turned out that the fire was right behind the door.

Another fire that I used the TIC at was a huge success, I was assigned to an engine company, so I didn’t have my own camera. We had a fire in a one story commercial auto body shop. Fire was everywhere. It was blowing out into the street from the front door. Next to the front door were two large garage roll-down gates. The ladder companies forced open the roll-down gates. Once the gates were opened, I grabbed a firefighter that had a TIC and ordered him to stay with me. I conferred with the other engine company and we devised a plan were we would stretch two 2 ½-inch hoselines and move in together.

Firefighter using a TIC

(4) Firefighter using a TIC. Photo courtesy Tom Kiurski.

There were cars burning inside and some of them were up on the lifts. It was beautiful, I saw where all the fires were and was able to direct the nozzle firefighter very easily. The other engine was having the same success. We were able to knock down all the fire in a short amount of time while at the same time avoiding all the dangers.

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What I have experienced with these changes and all the others is that they are always for the better. Some chiefs, officers, and firefighters resist change, but my guess it is more out of fear than anything else. I am positive that when the fire service wanted to do away with the horses there were a few that were not happy. These changes are always well-thought-out and researched. Some are a result of firefighter fatalities. I imagine in the years to come we will see more changes and the fire service should embrace them.

Window blanket

Floor below nozzle

High-rise nozzle

(5-7) Window blanket and high-rise nozzle.

Cockloft nozzle

(8) Cockloft nozzle.

A few recent changes that have been instituted in the past few years to combat fires in high-rise fireproof buildings are the window blankets and high-rise nozzles.  I can’t image now fighting a wind-driven fire without them. The cockloft nozzle is the latest development for fighting top-floor fires in large nonfireproof buildings, and has now become the new norm. At first there was a little reluctance to use it but now it is slowly gaining acceptance and becoming part of the incident commander’s strategy. Keep an open mind, embrace the change—a lot of research has gone in behind it and is for the better.

Daniel P. Sheridan is a 33-year veteran of and a battalion chief with the Fire Department of New York assigned to Battalion 3. He is a national instructor II and a member of the FDNY IMT. Sheridan is also a lead instructor with Mutual Aid Training Group.

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