The Engineer’s Bag of Tricks

BY MARK J. ROSSI

Ask any driver/engineer what’s in his “bag of tricks” (i.e., gear pockets) and you’ll always get a different and interesting answer. Our tools of the trade are the equipment we use not only as engineers but also as firefighters to help us perform our jobs according to the situation. Many of the tools we use come standard on our apparatus, but there are also specialty tools firefighters develop or put together to make our work easier and more efficient.

As engineers, our jobs are multifaceted and vary on every call. We may perform standard functions like stretching lines and pumping at fires, or we may be disconnecting a vehicle battery at a multiple vehicle crash, performing an elevator extrication, or obtaining access to a patient who has fallen in his home and is unable to answer the door. Whatever the scenario may be, we need to have all our tools available on every call. Below I review some tools commonly found in an engineer’s bag; some are tools I carry, some are tools other drivers in my department use, but each serves a purpose and is well suited to it (photo 1).

Safety glasses and an extrication glove
(1) (Top row, left to right): Safety glasses and an extrication glove. (Middle row): An elevator key, a “cherry bomb” door chock, wire cutters, and multiple-purpose pliers with carrying case. (Bottom row): An adjustable wrench, a box cutter/knife, a hex (Allen) wrench set, and slip-joint pliers. (Photos by author.)

Multiple-purpose pliers. If I had to pick one of the tools that I would always want in my gear, this would be right up there with the multiple-purpose tool. I have carried these tools in my gear for almost 10 years. The multiple-purpose pliers are specifically designed for firefighters and combine several lifesaving functions in one tool. At just under 26 ounces, the tool won’t slow you down. Its heavy-duty grips and pliers allow you to remove the toughest screws and bolts, and the black leather pouch makes it easy to carry in a back trouser pocket or a bunker coat. Multiple-purpose pliers can perform several functions, including the following:

  • cutting vehicle battery cables and wiring,
  • cutting soft metals with its cross-hatched teeth,
  • turning off gas valves, and
  • breaking vehicle windows with its built-in center punch.

Multiple-purpose tool. This is a must-have engineer’s tool. Most multiple-purpose tools are built around a pair of pliers, with up to 21 additional tools stored in the handles. Some of these tools include knives (serrated and straight), various screwdrivers, saws, a bottle opener, a can opener, and wire cutters. Most models have a built-in safety mechanism that locks the active tool in the open position when fully unfolded (photo 2).

multiple-purpose tool.
(2) The multiple-purpose tool.

Slip-joint pliers. Slip-joint pliers have a pivot point or a fulcrum that can be moved to increase the gripping capacity of the jaws. Most use a mechanism that allows the pivot point to slide into one of several positions when the pliers are fully opened. This tool can remove a variety of nuts, bolts, and screws, depending on the situation. Although also commonly found in a multiple-purpose tool, it’s always a good idea to have a second pair of pliers.

Hex (Allen) wrench. A hex or Allen wrench has a hexagonal cross-section used to drive bolts and screws that have a hexagonal socket in the head. This tool is very useful on fire alarms when our engine company finds a pull station that needs to be reset. Most pull station boxes in our district have hexagonal cross-section drive bolts.

Wire cutters. Diagonal pliers are useful for cutting copper, brass, iron, aluminum, and steel wire. When responding to vehicle accidents, one of my first responsibilities as an engineer is to secure the battery power to the vehicle. Technology has made our jobs tougher-there are so many vehicle makes and models today that trying to keep up with them all is a challenge in itself. A good set of wire cutters will help you in most of the situations you will face as a firefighter.

Box cutter/knife. You can also carry this small tool in a pocket or attached to a radio strap. I carry a small knife that also has a seat belt cutter at the end. The knife and blade are durable enough to cut through utility rope and will not rust if exposed to the environment. You can usually find this tool in your local hardware store.

Elevator key. Another much-needed tool in the engineer’s tool bag is the elevator key. This is the control panel override key that will enable you to take an elevator car to the desired floor. You can also use it to open elevator shaft protection doors from the outside. Elevator extrications are common calls; we go to these calls daily in my department, especially in the districts with multiple high-rise buildings.

Wood wedge/”cherry bomb” door chocks. When you look at most of the firefighter helmets in my department, you can usually find one or two wood chocks. These are excellent tools used to chock (or hold open) a door and prevent one from closing. Another idea I picked up from a local convention is called a “cherry bomb,” a chock made from a wood dowel and a bent nail. It can be placed over a door hinge to keep the door open, is very inexpensive and effective, and is small enough to carry on your fire helmet (photos 3, 4).

wooden door wedge
(3) A helmet with a wooden door wedge and
cherry bomb chock.
(4) with a “cherry bomb” chock.

Extrication gloves. Every engineer should have a good set of work gloves or extrication gloves. Extrication gloves are strong enough to handle most of the fireground applications not related to fighting fires. These gloves resemble mechanic’s gloves but are usually made from a stronger material, such as Kevlar®, and are designed to protect a firefighter’s hands from cuts or scrapes from glass or metal. I use these gloves on every call unless I am going into a fire or I am needed on a medical call. They are not bulky and are very easy to manuever. I use them when I’m stretching hoselines for my crew on fires and when I’m pumping the truck. Their versatility allows me to perform my job in a most efficient and effective way.

Pocket flashlight. If you look at the typical firefighter bunker coat, you will find some sort of flashlight attached. I include this tool in my inventory, too. I actually have a coat flashlight on my bunker gear and a smaller version of this flashlight attached to my radio strap. The small light I use primarily at night for medical calls; the bigger light I use for the fireground. These flashlights are popular with divers because they are waterproof. Pocket flashlights that are durable, waterproof, and rated for hazardous environments work best in firefighting too.

Safety glasses. The safety glasses issued by my department usually have polycarbonate lenses, which are the lightest and the most shatter resistant. They are the best for impact protection, although the polycarbonate does not offer the best optics. Depending on the area in which an individual works, that person may be required to wear side protectors in addition to safety eyeglasses. Our department issues us safety goggles for our helmets and safety glasses for the medical calls. As an engineer, I wear my safety glasses on every vehicle accident/extrication and on almost every medical call. Eye protection is paramount in our jobs as driver/engineers.

•••

The engineer is one of the most important positions in the fire service, so that individual should be qualified for the job’s duties and responsibilities and, more importantly, also have an extremely keen sense of situational awareness and safety. Engineers are called on to perform a variety of tasks in every kind of emergency imaginable. We are only as good as the tools we carry.

Set up your own “bag of tricks” with some of the tools mentioned above. Take pride in your job! Develop some of your own tools, and share them on firefighter forums. Your life or your crew may depend on them one day!

MARK J. ROSSI is a driver/engineer on Engine 46 in the Fort Lauderdale (FL) Fire Department, where he has served eight of his 12 years in the fire service. He is a fire instructor for Coral Springs Fire Academy and teaches driver and aerial engineer courses, live fire training, and minimum standards. Rossi has a bachelor’s degree in finance and a master’s degree in business from the University of Florida and is pursuing a Ph.D. in emergency management.

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