A little over a week ago it began as just another day at work.
Yesterday it ended with thousands of firefighters, a hundred bagpipes, and the obligatory television cameras.
(turn your speakers all the way up)
Career or volunteer, big city or small town, FDNY or Oquossoc, ME; when the tones drop we all accept the same risks. We all feel the same pain when one of us doesn’t make it home.
I met a few old friends and missed meeting a lot more. I rubbed shoulders with the Chief of Fire from Syracuse, NY and with jakes from the ‘hood in DC. We were the proverbial Sea of Blue in support of our brothers and their families in Worcester. I hope we did them proud.
Sunday night we were in a Christmas mood at work. We dug the tree out of storage, hung the lights, and took a few embarrassing photos for Facebook. Then we started to notice the updates.
A Fallon ambulance was struck head-on on the other side of our metropolitan area. We followed live on FB, Twitter, and the Internet radio stream as the events unfolded. I listened as the crew was airlifted to Big City hospitals.
Overnight a NH State Trooper crashed his cruiser and was seriously injured along with his K9. I saw the crash site in my travels before I knew what happened.
Monday morning, a police sergeant in one of our cities was struck on the highway. He was seriously injured but is recovering in Big City Trauma Center.
Wednesday night, a Worcester firefighter was killed in the collapse of a burning three-decker. John Davies, a 17 year veteran, was searching for a missing civilian when he and his partner were trapped. His partner survived.
Services are next Thursday.
This evening I learned that FF Sarah Fox of Portsmouth, NH, lost her hard-fought battle with cancer this week. I’m not feeling much holiday spirit right now.
This is part 2 of a multipart series. If you missed the beginning, you might want to check out part 1.
So it was off to northern NH to retrieve the Howe. The current owner said she’s been well maintained and should be ready for the long trip home, but antique trucks can be full of surprises. I loaded the pickup with every possible supply and tool I could conceive of needing: oil, coolant, brake fluid, jumper cables, spare charged battery, air compressor with hoses and chuck, extension cords, fuel stabilizer, lead substitute, Marvel Mystery Oil, and an assortment of basic tools.
Captain Murphy often rides with me. (I know he’s at least a captain because I’m a lieutenant, and Murphy outranks me.). Whatever breaks, it will be the one thing I didn’t consider. That’s why I also carry the number of a good heavy towing service.
The GPS says it’s a 3 1/2 hour trip up. It’s pretty accurate, but it translates to a 5 hour return trip at 1963 speeds. It’s gray, foggy, and threatening rain, but at least the weather is still unseasonably warm.
My first glimpse of her is in her owner’s driveway. We round a corner, and there she is at the top of a small rise. The last 18 years have not been kind to her, but I’ve aged a bit as well. Her body is not as good as I had hoped, but it’s much better than I had feared. If the mechanicals are intact, I can work with this.
They seem to be OK. She starts quickly and idles well. Her original siren is missing, but I know where it is. Her original seat has been replaced with buckets, but they seem comfortable. She’s lost her 35′ extension ladder, and her nicely matched set of chrome suction hoses has been replaced with a ratty mixed set. The brakes need bleeding. I hope that’s all; it may be a bad master cylinder. The tires are iffy, and I’ll need to find and repair that exhaust leak. And I’m sorry, East Haven, but the lettering job is ugly. It will have to go. Some of the original paint may yet survive under it, though.
In summary she needs a fair amount of work, but it’s not insurmountable. We take care of the formalities, and then I’m off.
It’s a blast from the past. Low revving, lots of torque, lots of noise; but she doesn’t seem as hard to drive as I remember. Perhaps I’ve grown up, or perhaps it’s the lack of a deputy chief watching me from the right seat.
It takes less than a mile for me to realize the first tool I’ve forgotten: duct tape. Fortunately there is a hardware store next to the gas station. With a full tank of gas/Stabil/lead substitute mixture, and with the headliner taped securely out of my field of vision, we begin the long hard climb south out of town on US 3.
When I was a young recruit, we trained a lot on our reserve engine. Engine 3 was a 1963 International/Howe with a 750 GPM pump and 500 gallons of water. She was a legend in our department.
When delivered in 1964, Engine 3 provided an 88% increase in the department’s pumping capacity. Although only rated at 750, she was documented to pump 1100 GPM on multiple occasions. She was physically our largest engine until 1987, even dwarfing 1979’s Engine 1. I learned my chauffeur’s trade with her. She had a Waterous pump with a rotary gear primer. You had to pull a switch to drop the clutch, shift the primer transmission in, then release the clutch to raise water. Pumping required reversing the procedure.
Driving her was equally interesting. She was cold and unhappy in the morning. Of course, as a fire engine you had to learn to drive her cold. She had a constant mesh (non-synchronized) transmission which required double clutching all shifts. Shifting up was hard; shifting down near impossible. Missing a shift meant coming to a complete stop and starting over. Legend has it that a synchro-mesh transmission would have cost an extra $17 in 1963. Ahh, small town politics.
By my day, Engine 3 ran as our third-due pump and as a tanker to support the brush trucks. In that capacity, I drove her a few times in my first four years. By modern standards she was a bear, but she had character and style, and she was reliable.
When she was replaced in 1993, no one wanted to see her go to a collector or to scrap. We eventually sold her to our sister department in rural Vermont. The most they could scrape together was $3000.
This week I was contacted by a collector. Our beloved Howe has been in his care for a few years now, but he could no longer afford to keep her. He offered her to me for the grand sum of $3000.
At 18:13 hours on Friday, December 3, 1999, Worcester Fire Alarm struck box 1438 for the Worcester Cold Storage building at 266 Franklin Street. Before the night was over, six firefighters would perish inside the hulking, windowless six-story maze of a building. Two would lose their way while searching for possible occupants; four more would die attempting to rescue them. And a district chief would be forced to stand in a doorway, face his men, and tell them, “No more.”
It’s no easier to watch today than it was to attend back then. God bless, gentlemen.
Thirty years ago tonight @0235 hours, Lynn Fire Alarm transmitted box 414 for a reported fire at 264-266 Broad Street. The first arriving engine found fire showing from the front of an eight story mill and called for the Working Fire at 0238. By 0245, the district chief had struck the second, third, and fourth alarms. The Chief of Department would go on to strike the fifth through tenth alarms by 0255.
At 0257 he took the unprecedented step of declaring a conflagration. 95 engines, 25 ladders, 2 rescue companies, and 10 Civil Defense engines would eventually respond.
My own small FD would not be among them. Legend has it that we had our own fire and were the only department in the county to not attend.
More history on the Great Lynn Fire of 1981 can be found at the Box 41 website, and there is a fine pictorial of all the Great Lynn Fires available in book form.
I was organizing my iPhoto library, and I came across these.
Engine 1 v3.0 was our last ‘rural’ fire engine. Gas engine, manual transmission, hydrovac brakes, 3″ supply hose and a Squad 51 lightbar. It was a relic from another era when it was new, but it served valiantly for 21 years before retirement in 2000.
When I first joined the department, we still rode this back step. Now it seems stupid and dangerous. Back then it was just cold and wet. Some days I still miss it.
Long standing readers of NfMH will know that I commonly use the designation Engine 68 in my writings. Engine 68 is entirely a creation of my imagination, using experiences and impressions from my days on the engine as well as my interactions with other fire units. The 68 is simply a random number from my past, taken from a favorite ambulance once ridden with a good friend.
Imagine how tickled I was today to read the story of Baltimore City Engine 68 in Fire Apparatus Journal:
Baltimore City has rebuilt the 1993 Pierce . . .that was the first Pierce to go into service in Baltimore. . . Reserve Engine 68 was wrecked in an accident, so the department rebuilt Engine 60 using parts from several dead-lined pumpers and put it back into reserve service [as] Engine 68.
I’m not much of a Pierce fan nor am I interested in the Baltimore FD, but the notion of a real Engine 68 constructed of parts of other engines fits right in here. Life imitating art and all that stuff. . .
Many years ago I watched a volunteer firefighter climb down from the cab of his ladder truck in nothing but shorts, boots, and a helmet. He took a portable radio and went to investigate a box alarm. I was embarrassed — for him, for his agency, for the fire service in general and myself by extension. I don’t know what he intended to do if he actually found a problem.
Yesterday at the firehouse I was thumbing through the latest edition of Fire Chief magazine. There is a Pierce ad inside the front cover. It shows their newest shiny model Photoshopped into a Detroit fire scene. It’s a pretty truck, and it has some interesting engineering features. The mechanical engineer and apparatus buff in me is intrigued.
THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS TOO PREPARED. BE SITUATION READY blares the tagline. And directly below the ad copy is this guy:
T-shirt. Some kind of vest which looks like fleece. Orange fireball gloves(?!). And untied duty boots.
BE SITUATION READY. Hey, at least he is wearing a helmet.
I can only hope he’s an actor. He’s not SITUATION READY for anything more than fueling the truck on the way back to quarters.
I could philosophize about the stereotype that this encourages, or about how some city managers value shiny fire trucks over having sufficient numbers of skilled staff. I could rant about how someone at Pierce and someone at Fire Chief magazine should have caught this. (ORANGE RUBBER GLOVES!) I could note that Pierce has a major social media campaign on Facebook and YouTube for product engagement.
I haven’t seen that video in a long time. It looks so old now. I was in Providence attending college and buffing the PFD when it was filmed. In my heart the PFD will always run a fleet of classic Macks and Maxims. They purchased their last Mack, a 1991 CF with body by Ranger, when I was a sophomore. It’s retired now. The modern rigs may be better/faster/safer, but they don’t have the same class.
My local firehouse had a matched pair with custom Fox Point crests on their noses.
Its a calm night on the porch. In the back of my mind I can still hear Ladder 8’s old Maxim diesel roaring up Brook Street.
A tip of the hat to Michael Morse. I knew I’d seen that link somewhere recently.
random musings from the life of a firefighter, paramedic, train buff, photographer, family man