Here are more clever “TRICKS of the trade” developed and submitted by dedicated firefighters. Hopefully, one of them will help you and your department work better and more safely. None of the techniques described are intended to create an unsafe situation or change the way you operate. If you aren’t perfectly comfortable with a certain technique, don’t use it. Check with an officer if you’re not sure whether it will fit in your organization’s operations. Sincere thanks to all those in the fire service who developed and submitted these techniques-keep them coming!


Although basically a simple device, the hydrant can still cause problems, usually when you need it most. For a stuck or stiff bonnet or cap, a “cheater bar” helps in opening up a reluctant hydrant. It’s a two- or three-foot length of pipe with an inner diameter large enough to allow it to be slipped over the end of the hydrant wrench (photo 1) to provide the necessary added leverage. Never stand on a wrench or cheater bar to attempt to open a stuck cap-you can easily get injured. Remember to exercise care when using this pipe, since the hydrant wrench may not be up to the task and may fail without warning.

Photos by author.

A stuck hydrant cap can also usually be loosened with several taps from a flathead ax or other striking tool. Tap the cap on its end a few times, then strike each side of the stuck cap a few times. This will usually break the cap free. As always, wear personal protective equipment (PPE)-especially eye and hand protection-for this operation.

Have you ever tried to shut down a hydrant only to find out it won’t shut off completely? In a dry-barrel hydrant (standard in cold-weather regions), a small rock or other obstruction may be propelled by the water flow and get lodged in the valve seat at the base of the hydrant. Try reopening the hydrant fully and then closing it. Often, the flowing water will dislodge the obstruction, moving it up and out of the hydrant, or cause it to fall back into the water main. The screen on your intake will prevent it from reaching the pump. Even if water isn’t allowed to flow by a hydrant valve, the opening/closing action often will allow the rock to fall back into the water main.


Every firefighter should be well-versed in the dangers of operating inside with the garage door open. The door may come down without warning, from an electrical short in the opener mechanism or the effects of heat on the door’s springs. Prevent the door from coming down by attaching a pair of locking pliers to the door track just below the bottom edge of the raised door (photo 2). Or, try bending the door track inward just below the bottom of the raised door so the door can’t drop down. Either of these methods might prove to be more foolproof than using a pike pole (which can be easily knocked out) to prop up the door. Also, never overlook the obvious. If you need to gain entry through a closed electric garage door, check the cars in the driveway for a door opener.



Unquestionably, one of the most important items a firefighter can take into a hazardous environment is a hoseline with nozzle. Knowing how to properly use it and where it is at all times is critical to the team’s safety and success. Many nozzles available today are black, which makes locating it difficult if you lose contact with it. To make a nozzle more visible, paint it a bright color or wrap specific parts of it in bright yellow tape. A brightly colored reflective tape may be your best choice (photo 3). Although paint may fade and chip and tape can rip, in either case, repair is easy. Paint or wrap the portions of the nozzle that will increase visibility; make sure the nozzle’s operation in not impeded. Another good option is to mark the nozzle cone on the side that will be facing up when the nozzle is on a straight-stream pattern. This way, you can easily determine the pattern before opening the nozzle. Using reflective tape enhances this process by adding reflectivity to the tape’s visibility.

Reflective tape can also be very useful for making a number of other items more visible, such as hand tools (wrap a strip or two around the handle); the back of handlights; hose couplings; the inside of compartment doors so they are more visible when open; SCBA bottles (wrap tape above the bottle strap); fans; and power tools. Taking this one step further, color-code the tape to indicate which apparatus it came from.


Small electric pumps are in every fire department’s inventory for those basement pump-outs. Often, they are used below grade so that as the hose leaves the pump, it extends straight up from the discharge and may bend or kink when you try to change its direction to a horizontal position so it can go out a window. The Los Angeles (CA) Fire Department has addressed this issue with the use of a 90-degree elbow attached directly to the pump (photo 4).



Today’s fires produce darker and thicker smoke because of synthetic materials that make up today’s fire load. To compound the problem, since many structures built today are airtight, heavy smoke cannot escape on its own. This makes the use of a search rope important. Crews will often use shorter ropes as tag lines to allow part of the team to branch off the main search rope. This can be problematic when they return to the main search line and attempt to recoil the tag line to reuse it to branch off the main search rope to search the next room.

A retractable dog leash can often make this process a little easier. Before you move away from the main search line, attach the dog leash to the main line. As you crawl away, it will play out easily. When returning to the main search rope, the device will automatically rewind the leash. Additionally, a locking mechanism enables you to keep the leash from rewinding when you stop (photos 5, 6, 7). Of course, this will work only when you return to the main rope using the same path you took as you moved away from the main search rope (as with any rope).





Liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) is a very common fuel with a multitude of uses. Every firefighter must be well-versed in its properties and how to address the wide assortment of situations you might encountered at an LPG incident. Any time a fire is impinging on an LPG tank, the tank must be kept cool to prevent rupture.

Knowing the liquid level in the tank is essential; the liquid propane can absorb a lot of heat from a fire, but the metal above the liquid line will fail quickly if fire impinges on it. It’s often more of an issue of how you do it rather than how much water you use.

The following is a good demonstration for showing firefighters how effective water is at keeping an LPG tank cool. The items needed are a four-foot length of string, a small flare or torch, and a water spray bottle.

Have two people hold either end of a four-foot length of string. Fill an empty soda can halfway with water. Hang the can from the middle of the length of string so it hangs freely.

Using a torch or a flare, apply the flame to the lower half of the can. The water will absorb the heat so the can doesn’t fail; it won’t even discolor. Move the flame up above the water line. The metal will quickly fail.

Set up the above experiment with a new can, except leave it empty. Suspend it from the string again. Have a participant use a water spray bottle to spray the side of the empty can. Now place the flame against the can. This will quickly show that it doesn’t take much water to protect the can from the flame. Now stop spraying water on the can, and apply the flame-it will quickly eat through the can (photo 8).

In dealing with LPG tank fires, understanding flammable limits is also important. Here’s another helpful demonstration. Assemble a ball of string; some large, clear plastic garbage bags (other colors will work but will not provide as visible a demonstration); a flare; and an LPG source such as a 20-pound propane tank with a means to discharge the gas. Now, in full PPE, including SCBA, set the burning flare at least 30 feet away from you, preferably in an uphill/upwind position. Now fill a garbage bag up most of the way with air (you can use an SCBA cylinder or just flap the bag up in the air to fill it with air). Inflate it the rest of the way with LPG. Securely tie it closed with the end of the string. Place it on the ground, and pull it over to the burning flare.

If you have created a mixture within the flammable range of propane, it will ignite almost explosively. Now repeat the demonstration as above, except fill up the bag only with propane; pull it over to the burning flare. Likely, everybody will expect it to “explode” again, but since it’s all propane and no oxygen, it will burn very lazily because of a lack of oxygen (photo 9).



Although vinyl salvage covers have replaced the older, heavier canvas ones, they are still expensive and can be heavy. Vinyl covers should be picked up, washed, and dried after every use. However, some departments have switched to the relatively inexpensive blue plastic tarps that are readily available at the local discount tool liquidator outlet or hardware store. These tarps can be used and left in place; there is no need to go back a few days later and pick them up; drag them back to the station; and repair, wash, dry, and refold them.

Another advantage of these inexpensive tarps is that you can keep a supply of them at the station. When you use some at an incident, you can easily replace them on returning to the station without having to run for a few days without any tarps on your rig.

Another variation of this concept is even less expensive. Buy a roll of plastic sheeting, and cut it into appropriate tarp sizes. Fold them, tape the folded ends together, and label them with their sizes.

Such tarp substitutes are lighter and more waterproof than the vinyl tarps, use much less storage space, and are less expensive. Like the plastic tarps, they can be used and left at the scene. After you use them, return to the station, grab some more from storage, and your rig inventory is back up to where it should be. Another advantage of both of these tarp substitutes is that their light weight allows them to be placed over anything without damaging whatever they are supposed to be protecting. And, if they should get damaged by a burning ember or sharp edge, there’s no harm done.

• • •

Help us make everybody operate better and more safely. Got a trick you want to share? Take a look around your fire department; you are guaranteed to find some homegrown tricks. They must be safe; make a task better, safer, or easier; not void any warranty; and not have been published in a book. E-mail them to dkwalsh@optonline.net. Published items will include credit.

DAVE WALSH is a 34-year veteran of the fire service and the program chairperson for the fire science program at Dutchess Community College in Poughkeepsie, New York. He served 27 years as a career firefighter with the Arlington Fire District in Poughkeepsie, where he was the municipal training officer for 19 years. He is a nationally certified fire instructor II, a New York State fire instructor, and an adjunct instructor for the New York State Emergency Management Office. Walsh has a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Marist College and a bachelor’s degree in fire science from Empire State College.

No posts to display