Monday, October 18, 2010

Fighting Fires

By Alan Burkhart

Supercompressed_Call911 In modern-day America one of the things most of us take for granted is the ability to punch "9-1-1" on any phone and instantly call for help during an emergency. Be it a burglar, a heart attack or a fire, help can be on the way in short order.

We all know that medical professionals attend school for years to be able to do what they do. We know that law enforcement requires rigorous training to do the often dangerous work of patrolling our streets and helping us stay safe. But have you ever wondered just what a fire fighter endures to become certified? How much work and study must one accomplish before being allowed to run into a burning house to drag your unconscious form to safety?

In Mississippi this starts with 40 hours of classroom training. And assuming you get through that, then the real fun begins when you visit the Fire Academy.


I have a good friend who is a 12-year veteran of "Fire Station Seven" near Magee, MS. He recently shared with me some great photos from a training day at the Mississippi State Fire Academy in Pearl, MS. Many attendees (from Station 7 and other stations) were there for their first certification. Others like my buddy (name withheld for his privacy – just call him “D”) were there for required periodic recertification. Here then, is a sample of what a fire fighter goes through just for the privilege of saving your home, and perhaps your life.

A Day at the Academy…


D getting suited up for the recertification exercises

On average a fire fighter’s gear weighs 60 to 70 pounds. It’s of prime importance for a fire fighter to be able to quickly suit up and to be agile while wearing it. The gear is heavy, bulky and often uncomfortable. Imagine wearing all this stuff in an environment where temperatures can approach 200 degrees Fahrenheit.

The first pictured exercise is called a "platform fire." The area is covered with diesel fuel and set ablaze. The intent here is to simulate fires at oil wells, refineries, etc.






It gets even more interesting when fighting a natural gas fire.


In the above image, you can see a small propane tank in the foreground. Closer to the fire, there’s a small torch propped up on a concrete block. Once the torch is lit, a gas valve beneath the big metal box is opened and the gas is allowed to accumulate. When it finally reaches the torch the gas ignites with explosive force. This is done with the fire fighters nearby so they can see and feel the explosion. The device with the gas valve is barely visible in the flames. The above image was shot at the instant of ignition.

GasFire_02 Look at the heat waves rolling off the box. Got marshmallows?

So… Just how does one put out a natural gas fire in a house when there’s an open valve spewing gas into the air? That’s a little tricky. See, someone has to actually reach out and close the valve. Any volunteers?

To accomplish this small task, fire fighters employ a “fog pattern” with their hoses. They slowly approach the fire two or three abreast and use the wide (but still powerful) fog pattern from multiple hoses to push the fire back from the valve. Once the valve is accessible, some lucky guy gets to crawl beneath the box and close the valve. The crawling around in the training exercise is intended to simulate the act of reaching behind a machine or appliance to reach a valve in a “real” fire (as if this isn’t real enough). Did I mention that the valve can still be hot enough to burn their gloves?




Anyone for a steam bath?

Regarding the fog pattern…

The modern nozzles on fire hoses provide a variety of options for most any situation. The fog pattern as shown above is just one. A “power cone” is another hollow cone of water but narrower and far more powerful. It’s often used inside buildings to sweep objects out of the way to provide access to the fire. It’s also used to sweep leaking fuel and debris from under burning vehicles. The pictured nozzle is a “TurboJet" Model 1763” from Akron Brass. It’s typical of the nozzles used at Station Seven and other fire stations around the country.


The flow from this nozzle can reach 200 gallons per minute. I’m not a fire fighter, but I’m guessing you’d want to use both hands.

One of the perks of being a fire fighter is that you get to jump off buildings. Here’s a series of photos of D and another fire fighter rappelling off a training structure.

Rappel_01 Rappel_02 Rappel_03 Rappel_04

Rappel_08 What? Did you think only men were fire fighters? According to 2007 US Census information there are about 14,000 female firefighters in the USA. Hats off, ladies. You’re braver than I.


Rappel_07 At least during training you get to land on this monster air mattress.

When others run out, they run in…


Think about this for a moment – would you enter a burning building? Really?

Consider what awaits you inside. It’s not an oven. It’s a blast furnace. Without the protective gear you’d be cooked alive in seconds. The air tanks fire fighters wear supply breathable oxygen for about half an hour. During a visit to D’s home some weeks back, he showed me an old visor he doesn’t use anymore. He had to replace it because it had partially melted – while he was wearing it.

And in many cases you’re blind. The thick smoke and distorted air make seeing anything nearly impossible. And yet when people are trapped inside they have to find them and get them to safety.  D tells me that in many cases, by the time you can see the glow of the fire through the smoke, it’s close enough to burn your shoes. This is another situation where the fog pattern is vital. It’s how they force the fire back until they can see it well enough to deal with it.

In many of the training exercises, fire fighters are made to crawl through a simulation (I’m told it’s not actually on fire) complete with overturned furniture, wires hanging from the ceiling to the floor, sudden drop-offs and various other hazards. And to better simulate the visual aspect of a real fire, often the fire fighters have their visors taped over. They’re totally blind. And you have three minutes to find a “victim” (usually a life-size dummy) and get out. Yeah. Go try that and let me know how it goes.

At the end of the day…

JustAnotherDay_2 JustAnotherDay

Just another day at the office, right?

Keep in mind that the vast majority of fire departments and fire fighters are volunteer. Small towns cannot afford paid fire departments. Volunteer fire departments have three main sources of financial support: Unsolicited donations, fund raising efforts and modest government grants. Volunteer fire fighters don’t get a dime for what they do. This is by no means a knock on paid fire fighters, but consider the commitment necessary to walk into a burning home when you could just as easily ignore the radio on any given day.

Volunteer fire fighters are the people you see on the street every day. Plumbers, truck drivers, factory workers, etc. Ordinary people performing an extraordinary service for their communities. Thank one when you have the opportunity.

Photo Credits:


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Friday, October 01, 2010

Tires and Train Wheels

By Alan Burkhart

Since getting laid off in July, I’ve been taking pretty much whatever work I can scrounge up from one week to the next. It hasn’t been all bad. While full-time positions are scarce, there’s always someone who just “needs something done.” I’m not especially proud, so I can keep the bills paid and the lights on.

I’ve done a bit of work for a guy who buys and sells all manner of used equipment (cars, trucks, construction machinery, etc). Since I’m a “professional” driver, I pick up various vehicles at auctions around the Southeast and bring’em back to his business in Mississippi. The pay is pretty good, and usually whatever I’m driving is a decent ride. Usually.


The other day I rode with another driver to Charlotte, NC to pick up a “crane truck.” It’s an old railroad construction vehicle with a small crane and a “man bucket” like those used by utility companies to lift a line technician up to a power line. The truck also has small railroad wheels underneath. These are lowered hydraulically to allow the truck to travel on the railroads just like a train.

So there I was, tooling along I-20 through Tuscaloosa, AL. The MS state line was only 71 miles away. It was early afternoon and I was already thinking about what I was going to fix myself for dinner when I got home. Then all hell broke loose.

TrainWheels_01 The tires had good tread, but the truck had been sitting a long time so dry rot was a factor. All involved felt the old girl would make it home and I wasn’t terribly worried about the tires. The right steering tire blew. It’s always an adventure when this happens with a truck, but in this case it was even more interesting. When the right side lost height due to the blowout, the railroad wheels on that side bit solidly into the asphalt, making the truck almost impossible to steer.

Tire_01 The truck was doing its damndest to rumble off into the steep, 75-foot ditch along this section of I-20 (just west of exit #71, if you’re familiar with Tuscaloosa). I had to turn the wheel a full turn to the left just to keep it straight. I-20 is a fast and busy highway through Tuscaloosa. The speed limit is 70 mph and most folks roll along about 75 or 80.

Funny thing… when I finally got stopped in the breakdown lane, NO ONE was going by me. The whole westbound side just stopped, evidently for fear that the truck was going to spin around to the left due to how I had twisted the steering wheel to hold it straight. Once I was stationary, people started easing on by and in short order all was back to a normal level of mayhem.

Anyway, I got the old bitch girl off the road and into the breakdown lane. The equipment dealer I was working for is a helpful and concerned sort of guy, but in spite of his best efforts it still took 2 hours until a service truck arrived with another tire. Then three and half more hours until I arrived at the equipment dealer’s sale lot. Then a 40 minute drive home. And here I sit, with a cold glass of my own iced tea and relaxing in my comfy “executive” leather office chair. Home never felt so good. :-)