Firefighters are inherently clever folks, operating under the motto, “There’s always a better way.” Here are some basic “tricks of the trade” that various firefighters have come up with over the years. None of these will create an unsafe situation or change the way you do things; instead, they will hopefully allow you to do things better or easier. Thanks to all the fire departments and firefighters who have developed and submitted these “tricks.” Keep them coming!

1. Photos by author.

Protecting SCBA. The first technique concerns firefighter survival and FAST (firefighter assist and search team) training. SCBA bottles can get pretty banged up during this type of training, which can easily damage a bottle beyond repair, thus making for an expensive training evolution.

To protect your SCBA, take an old scrap of larger-diameter hose (LDH), preferably at least three-inch, but any size will work. Cut a two-foot length and split it up the middle lengthwise. Release the bottle strap on the SCBA and slide the hose length underneath it so that it covers the exposed part of the bottle. Make sure it goes down far enough to protect the bottle’s valve assembly (photo 1). Retighten the strap. You may have to slightly adjust the strap first. The hose will protect the bottle from damage as you practice the lifesaving techniques in this type of training. You can attach clips or straps to the bottom so this protective cover may be pulled down and under the bottle valve to ensure it is always protected. (Thanks to the Fairview Fire District in Poughkeepsie, New York, for this tip.)


Another version of this technique from the Utica (NY) Fire Department uses an old inner tube in place of the hose. Both methods should protect your expensive SCBA bottle during even the most rigorous nonlive-fire training.

Simulating limited/zero visibility. In any type of training, it is important to recreate a situation that firefighters may encounter at an actual incident; limited or zero visibility is certainly part of any SCBA training. How do we simulate this limited or zero visibility? There are a number of basic methods using ordinary, readily available materials.

Wax paper. Using a roughly one-foot-square piece of wax paper, crumple it up a few times so it becomes soft. Now open it back up and stuff it inside an SCBA mask. Make sure to pack it in, away from the firefighter’s face. This creates the illusion of smoke but still allows the firefighters to see silhouettes and use their hand-lights with a limited effect.


Retired SCBA masks. Save old, retired SCBA masks and either scratch up the lenses with a wire brush or paint them with window frosting or paint, depending on how much visibility you want trainees to have.

Tire inner tubes. Trace the outline of your particular SCBA mask on a piece of paper; use it as a pattern to cut out a piece of rubber from an old tire inner tube. Cut out holes as needed for speaker diaphragms and mask webbing attachment points (photo 2). The rubber should stay in place after you slide it over the webbing attachment points and speaker diaphragms.

The advantage of all of these techniques is that they allow the instructor to operate in perfect visibility. If a firefighter has any problems, he can remove his mask and see perfectly. This can be important during trainees’ initial exposure to limited-visibility situations where a “bad” experience can have a lasting effect on them.

Orienting pike poles. When pulling a ceiling in a smoke condition, it is certainly possible for you to lose track of which way the hook is facing. On wooden pike poles, try sanding down the lower part of the pole on the side of the bottom that faces away from you so that that side of the pole is slightly flatter than the normal round pole. Using this technique, you can feel that and determine which way the hook is facing, even in zero visibility.

For fiberglass poles, sanding is not a good option. Instead, place a one- to two-foot strip of reflective tape on that side of the pole between where your hands will hold it so you can easily see it. Or you can paint a stripe on part or all of that side of the pole with brightly colored paint (photo 3).

Easy breakdowns for preconnects. Preconnected hoselines are the workhorse of many fire departments today. They can be quickly pulled and stretched, and the pump operator knows exactly how much hose is being used and what nozzle is on the end. They can then quickly calculate the discharge pressure. When it’s time to break down, drain, and replace the preconnect, however, somebody has to climb up and disconnect the first length of hose-often a knuckle-busting job.


Take an old length of that size hose and have it cut and recoupled into shorter lengths, or order some shorter lengths of new hose. Eight feet seems to work well on most rigs. Attach it to the preconnect discharge, and then attach the rest of the hose to that length (photo 4). Now when you have to break down the hose, you don’t need to disconnect it from the hosebed discharge; just disconnect the coupling where the hose is connected to this shorter hose length. Consider using two-inch hose for this so friction loss is not an issue if your preconnected line is 134 inches.

“Wet water” for deep-seated fires. Deep-seated fires are a real challenge to extinguish. The surface tension of water prevents it from getting down to the bottom to extinguish the deep-seated fire.


To reduce the surface tension of water, create a “wet-water” solution by adding a small amount of dish detergent to your water. In one method, just add six ounces of dish detergent to a 500-gallon booster tank. Circulate your water for a moment, and pump and discharge as usual. Consider making it a standard option during any initial attack in which you use tank water first. This “wet-water” solution allows your initial attack water to better reach the seat of the fire. Make sure you flush your pump and tank after using the wet-water solution; its effect can be counterproductive with Class B foam.

Another technique for making a wet-water solution is to fill a five-gallon bucket with water, add six ounces of dish detergent, and stir it a little to mix it up. Then, set up a foam eductor at one percent and pump away. The result is that you have to flush out only the eductor and hose, not the pump and tank.

This method also allows you to use a positive water source and pump other hoselines without using this solution. Keep a container of dish detergent in your pump operator’s compartment. Mark it in increments of six ounces. If your pump compartment is fairly “busy,” wrap the detergent bottle in duct tape to protect it.

To demonstrate to firefighters how wet water works, take a piece of cardboard, a small cup of water, and some dish detergent. Pour a little of the water onto the cardboard; the water will maintain its shape as a bead of water. Now add a drop or two of dish detergent to the remaining water in the cup, stir it, and then pour a little on another part of the cardboard. It will instantly sink in, evidenced by the cardboard’s turning dark brown. The detergent has reduced the surface tension of the water. At a fire, this principle allows your water to sink in and reach the seat of the fire more quickly.

Sealing leaking fuel tanks. Leaking fuel tanks can be a challenge for even the best department. Rusty and oily surfaces make it hard for anything to effectively seal the leak. However, plumber’s epoxy (available at your local hardware or home improvement store) works well. Usually, it comes in a long tube and contains two different substances-one rolled inside the other.

To use, just rip off a chunk and knead the two parts together. Once they are mixed together thoroughly, apply the epoxy to the leak. Make sure to push the epoxy up a little inside the leak to act as a flange to hold it in place. Have an appropriate extinguishing agent ready just in case. If there’s any single issue with this type of leak control, it is that it is too good; it will often outlast the tank itself! However, if the leak is the result of the tank’s age, be very careful when applying this patch. Make sure you don’t push in pieces of the weakened tank, thus creating a bigger leak.

Absorbent dispenser. To make a convenient dispenser for your absorbent, take the top of a five-gallon bucket and drill lots of holes in the top, large enough for the absorbent to easily fit through. Fill the bucket with absorbent and put the top back on. In essence, you now have a salt shaker-style absorbent dispenser. [Thanks to Deputy Chief Doug Kelly of the New Rochelle (NY) Fire Department for this tip.]

A variation uses old foam containers. Wash them out thoroughly, let them dry, and fill them with absorbent. They make durable stackable containers. Using a traffic cone as a funnel facilitates the filling process. [Thanks to Lieutenant Mark Griffin of the White Plains (NY) Fire Department.]

Firefighter survival skill. You’re lost and confused and trying to get out of a bad situation. Reading hose couplings is a basic skill regularly taught and practiced: Once you identify the male coupling, you follow the hoseline in that direction. That is the way out and back to the fire apparatus.

But any way you can enhance the learning of even a basic skill is good. Try painting your hose couplings two different bright colors-yellow for female and green for male (photo 5). Now you can visually determine which way is out-green is go; yellow is caution. Even in limited visibility, you should be able to see the couplings with your handlight. It may mean putting your mask down on the couplings, but then you can be absolutely positive which way leads out of the structure. Use the brightest paint you can find, and repaint it as often as needed. Although spray paint is easy to use, brush-on paint will last the longest. An alternative is to wrap the couplings with the proper color reflective tape. When you next spec out new hose for purchase, specify that the hose couplings be painted as described above.

These are just some of the many clever tricks of the trade today’s firefighters have developed. Hopefully, one of them will help you and your department work better and more safely. Send in your trick so that everybody can benefit from your “better way.” Send them to DKWALSH@OPTONLINE.NET.

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.

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