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Building Construction Firefighter Firefighting

The Fireman’s Guide to Main Street: 5 Buildings to Know, Part 2

Lex Shady & Chris Tobin

There is a quote that I believe represents the vast majority of the fire service concerning buildings, it reads;

“Many an object is not seen, though it falls within the range of our visual ray, because it does not come within the range of our intellectual ray.”

Thoreau, Henry

Simply put, we all see buildings but few understand what they’re actually looking at. That’s a problem, a really big problem and for two important reasons; which are a building is the one thing that directly or indirectly effects everything we do on the fire ground, and the only thing we can do about a compromised building is avoid it entirely. We show up with no solution to sagging roofs, crumbling walls, or missing floors other than staying away. We can mitigate smoke, fire, and rescue trapped victims but we can do nothing about the leaning wall. It’s this stark reality that many forget and have paid the price. You can know all there is about fire behavior, your tools and strategies, none of which hold any value if you’re unfamiliar with the space in which they are relied upon. Some may say all fires are the same, which is true until you put one in a building. Behind every door are an infinite amount of variables, some known, some unknown and some unexpected. This is why nothing’s routine till it’s over and why knowing your buildings on a visceral level is paramount. If you want to be able to forward think you must understand the data you’re receiving.

This will be a five part series exclusively examining five different types of legacy construction, each with its own article as it pertains to firefighting. The types of buildings were selected based on their prominence in today’s main streets and historic districts. These specific types of buildings exist in small towns from coast to coast but more commonly found East of the Mississippi River where our national building stock originated before moving Westward.

The five buildings are the old house, the taxpayer, the old mill, the vacant theater, and the bowling alley. Each of these will be examined along with inherent hazards and a play book for handling fires specific to each occupancy. Additionally since many of these buildings are found in small towns with departments that may not have the adequate resources, there will be a section based on short staffed responses for each. The objective of this series is to present the most useful amount of information in the least amount of space. Each of these buildings are worthy of their own book in themselves, this series is meant to be concise and simple information for any level of firefighter. As with any article on architecture, regional vernacular and Departmental jargon may vary. Nothing in this piece is the final say, only the individual reader and their streets can make that claim.

Part 2

The Building

The Type 3 Taxpayer: AKA “Main-street USA”. These are the quintessential multi-story brick buildings that exist in some version in every North American town, big or small. Ordinary Type 3 construction is by far the most common type of buildings that make up what most consider Main Street. The notion that brick buildings are an “urban thing” is no further from the truth. Take a drive through any rural community and you’ll likely see a row or what’s left of an old general store, post office, or bank. These may be the only brick buildings for miles, but they are still the center of town and no less a fire hazard. For some rural fire departments that only go on a few dozen runs per year, a fire in a two or three story brick building built in 1909 will be an unfamiliar playing field.

The term taxpayer originates from a time period during which buildings were cheaply constructed in densely populated places so that property managers could recoup their property taxes. This manifested itself into a multi story brick building, with commercial occupancy on the bottom floor and residential on the upper floors. These buildings came into popularity after the Great Depression with the intent to be redeveloped, many of which were not and still exist. This definition has evolved with modern times to include type 2 non-combustible strip malls. For the sake of this article, we’ll be specifically speaking of the traditional definition of a taxpayer type building; a type 3 multistory, mixed use occupancy with commercial on the first floor and residential above.

Main streets in general exist in three types of configurations. The aforementioned, as an actual street fronted with legacy construction, a Shelbyville Square, or four sided town square built around a courthouse or common area, and lastly as a historic district with multiple blocks of taxpayer type buildings. This matters when preplanning incident action plans since a row of connected taxpayers is more hazardous than single buildings separated by gangways. Also, if you have a town square or multiple blocks of historic districts you may have roundabouts that will affect apparatus positioning differently than a traditional linear Main Street, as well as collapse zones for aerial master streams.

The buildings of taxpayer construction come in all shapes and sizes. They can be type 2, 3, and 4. Some have metal truss roof supports, cast iron columns, concrete floors, and heavy timber void-less layouts. The most common by a wide margin is the type 3 Ordinary building. This taxpayer will be masonry non-combustible walls with wooden combustible roof, floors, and interior walls. Foundations are typically stone with variably sized basements for storage. Keep in mind these may be connected to adjacent buildings or even across the street. Even if basements are not common in your areas residential building stock, they may be present in taxpayer buildings. Basements were cooler and a way for businesses to keep produce and stock before refrigeration.

Taxpayers are full of unique features that can make fighting a fire in these buildings a challenge. Typically found in rows of connected buildings their inherent exposure problems are an obvious concern. Occupancies may also share what was originally designed to be two separate buildings separated by a party wall. Renovations can make these layouts impossible to anticipate without preplanning. The masonry brick walls will be of triple wythe, tapering up as the building gets taller. This is important to understand when sizing up structural integrity. A crack down low doesn’t mean the same as a crack up high. Load bearing walls will be the shortest length of roof span, typically the sides with few exceptions. These buildings were long, narrow, and a perfect fit for densely populated lots. Roof designs can be either pitched or flat; however, a built up combustible flat roof is far more common on Taxpayers than a shingled pitched roof. The built-up flat roof consists of 1×6-1×8 planks across dimensional rafters on 16” centers with a slight slope for watershed. Expect multiple layers of tar applied over the decades, in some cases a newer membrane roof covering may have been put in place. Taxpayers with flat roof construction will have a cockloft. This is a common void between the top floor ceiling and roof that extends front to back getting smaller with the roof slope. Cockloft vents near the roof line in the front or side walls are an indication of its exact depth and presence in relation to the roof which may have side parapet walls. Taxpayers have three types of common facade features to beware of; cornices, parapets, and awnings. More will be discussed about these and their hazards later on. Additionally, billboard framework and water towers weren’t uncommon loads to find on top of these buildings. Cast iron is yet another facade design feature common for Taxpayers. These were often brightly painted ornate pillars, columns, and lintel work set into the brick, or supporting the bottom corner entrance of the business. The first floor also had large windows for viewing products by pedestrian traffic.

The residential aspect of these buildings was more of an afterthought during construction; their main function was to sell something, not be a home. The upper floors were accessible from either a front set of stairs off the main street or a rear alley. In a row of connected taxpayers it can be hard to tell which door accesses which upper floor apartment. Depending on the occupancy there may be a set of open interior stairs making any first floor fire even more detrimental to those above. The typical layout was bedrooms and common areas up front with kitchens in the rear. In shotgun style layouts the stairs come into the middle room. In wider buildings a side hallway was common. It is important to consider this if your stairs are in the rear and you’re stretching a line to a 2nd floor fire on the A side.

The Hazards

Taxpayers are infamously known to firefighters for their voids. There are two kinds of voids in Type 3 buildings: inherent and acquired. Inherent voids are due to the buildings original design and acquired voids are due to additional construction and alterations. The latter being much more hazardous to firefighters since additions were commonly done without permits or with any regard to fire safety or building codes.

Inherent voids of type 3 Taxpayer construction:

Cornice work, mansard parapets, wood framed canopies and awnings

Window frame voids for sash weights

Decorative trim and crown molding

Floor voids

Ceiling voids

Stud bays behind plaster & lath

Cocklofts

Pipe chases

HVAC plenums

Cant stripping along parapet walls

Acquired voids commonly seen in Taxpayer construction:

Dropped ceiling on the bottom floor creating a double void under tin ceiling

Dropped ceiling on top floor creating a double void under a cockloft

Transom windows concealed with framed canopies or dropped ceilings

Hallways framed off into closets

Larger original rooms being framed into smaller rooms

Rear additions, enclosed porches into living space

Rain roofs added on top of original flat roof

These are just the commonly occurring voids in type 3 ordinary construction, there can be many more. The main takeaway is knowing where to expect the fire before it gets there. A good firefighter will build the skill of foresight in legacy construction. The benefit being a more effective and efficient operation. Preplanning and studying the construction of your districts are the first steps to accomplishing this. These buildings will often have legacy construction features making overhaul much more laborious. These include embellished trim work, crown moulding, tin ceilings and wainscoting.

The voids in these buildings also contribute to another well known hazard; the hostile fire event. Whether a backdraft or smoke explosion, either can be just as catastrophic. These hazards are two-fold, the initial hostile fire event and the ensuing collapse of structural members. This can set up a synergistic effect of calamity on the fireground.

The inherent/acquired voids and design of Taxpayers make them a high risk for both floor and exterior wall collapse. Fire cuts are angled cuts on the end of a wood beam, where it rests against a masonry wall. As the beam burns away, the fire cut allows it to pull away from the wall. The purpose of these cuts is to help save the exterior wall from collapse. The disadvantage is the increased potential for interior floor collapse. This was a construction feature from a time when firefighting was an exterior operation, keeping firemen safe. Terrazzo floors, polished floor covering made of chips of marble, quartz, glass, etc. poured into cement are another significant collapse hazard. Terrazzo floors add significant weight to the floor beams, and hides heat and weakness in the beams from the firefighters above. Twelve firefighters were killed at the 23rd Street Fire in New York City in 1966 from a Terrazzo floor collapse. To evaluate the floor’s structural integrity, forcefully strike the floor with your tool. Wooden floors make a hollow sound, and your tool with bounce significantly. Masonry floors will make a loud clanking sound with a lot of vibration across the floor. Finding Terrazzo floors needs to be communicated to Command immediately.

There are three ways a masonry wall can collapse: 90 degree angle, curtain fail, and inward/outward. Of the three, 90 degree is most common. Once interior floors collapse, the pile of debris creates a lateral force on the remaining exterior walls. This extra force on the walls can cause cracks at the top, or separation at the corners. The walls then begin to lean outward, starting at the top, and will fall at a 90 degree angle. This collapse area will be at minimum, the height of the building. The top of the wall falls forward, striking the ground at the height of the building. As always collapse zones need to be at least 1.5x the height of the building to account for pieces of brick and metal that bounce. Parapet walls with decorations, lights, signs, etc. increase the collapse risk of the wall.

Photo Credit: Brianna Mason

Curtain fall collapses occur when the wall crumbles and falls down, straight to the base of the wall. This is most common with veneer walls where the plywood backing is burnt away by fire. If there is an interior collapse and the exterior wall has windows whose lintels are made of brick arches, the masonry walls may start to lean out. If the lintels begin to crumble and fail, the wall will fall downward rather than out.

Photo Credit: Brianna Mason

Inward/outward collapse occurs when the top of the wall falls one direction, forcing the bottom of the wall in the other. Interior floors collapsing due to fire damage combined with the weight of the water being applied to the building; in turn, a massive burst of force is applied on the outward walls, which causes them to lean outward until they reach the point of failure and fall. An inward/outward collapse can also occur if the top portion of the wall begins to lean in. Just because the wall leans in, doesn’t mean it will collapse that way. The top portion could fall in and kick the bottom portion outward, or the top portion could begin to fall in, and then slide down, with the bottom of the wall going first.

Photo Credit: Brianna Mason

Evaluating walls for collapse risk needs to be done continuously throughout the entirety of the fire scene. Interior floor collapse increases the risk of the exterior walls failing. The force of a master stream directly on these walls can also cause the wall to collapse. To identify whether the wall is brick or veneer, look for quoin work in the corners or for what is referred to as the header course. Brick quoin work acts as a decoration and as structural support, tying the two walls together. If there is separation in these walls, it indicates weakness in the support systems, and collapse is imminent. Header course appears approximately every 7th layer; bricks will be laid end facing to act as a layer of support.

The Playbook

Size up is key in Type 3 Taxpayer buildings. Before any action can be taken, the structural integrity of the building must be assessed. Brick and joist construction has a high collapse potential, and compromised structural integrity is the one problem with no solution other than avoidance. Keep an eye on cracks above windows and doors; openings are inherent weak points in any wall, so they’re early indicators of wall collapse. If cornice work or a mansard brow is heavily involved, avoid the front entrance if possible. Cornices come down like a guillotine blocking entrances, burying lines and personnel masking up before entry. Buildings connected to one another in a row will have limited access and egress from the front and rear only. Keep this in mind if the front entrance is unsuitable, you’ll have to stretch the line through an adjacent building to the rear if the alley isn’t an option for apparatus placement. If the fire is confined to the cockloft, keep an eye on the parapet wall. Failing roof rafters can push out or pull in parapets. A parapet wall falling inward is just as destructive for those inside under a roof as those in the street when one falls outward. Floors are the next structural assessment, particularly the first floor, since basements commonly have open joist construction unprotected by plaster, making basement fires particularly hazardous. Beware of terrazzo and tiled hard flooring surfaces. These will mask any structural deficiency under them while adding weight to the potentially weakened decking. These surfaces are found in bottom floor business vestibules, stairwell landings, kitchens and bathrooms. Sounding with a tool will give you little indication of the actual wood decking so tread lightly and keep your eyes down for floor separation at the bottom of walls.

Once structural integrity has been assessed and an offensive strategy decided, the next key decision is your weapon of choice. Taxpayers present a unique challenge of having commercial fire loads with residential components, so many choose a larger diameter attack line for bottom floor fires. Keep in mind, every action has an equal reaction. What you gain in GPM for the bottom floor you’ll lose in maneuverability on the upper floors. This poses a challenging conundrum of sorts for incident commanders. The optimal choice of attack lines will vary based on conditions, resources, and training. Regardless of your line choice, plan for a long stretch. These fires are not 200ft victories. This is often figured out after the fact, causing valuable time to be wasted extending line under subpar conditions. A fire on an upper floor or basement especially will be a longer than normal hose line length due to stairs and corners. Once these arrival considerations are addressed the objective remains the same; to locate, confine, and extinguish the fire while protecting the upper floor living spaces.

For basement fires a line should be stretched to an exterior entrance if possible; this may be in the front on the sidewalk down bifold doors, but typically it will be in a rear walk down or bulkhead entrance. For interior entrances care must be taken in assessing floor integrity while understanding the greater load of merchandise on top of open joist construction underneath. A second line must be stretched to the first floor to secure egress on interior entrances and to cut off extension. Basements in Taxpayers are usually cramped with stock in storage lockers made of lightweight lumber and wire mesh. Taking this into consideration a smaller diameter, more maneuverable hand line may be more effective. Keep in mind the wire mesh will diminish stream quality if not removed. Basement windows are also commonly secured with burglar bars, so be ready for egress issues that need to be immediately addressed by the first arriving company assigned to truck duties.

First floor fires will be of commercial fire loads so be prepared for commercial fire flows. Forward progress will be slow going; these fires are tough and are almost never seated easily near the front. Rows of merchandise inhibit movement, drop ceilings collapse from HVAC ducts, stocks falls over on hoselines, and high heat zero visibility vent limited conditions are common.

Some places opt for a large diameter hose line as a default while others quickly deploy two smaller diameter hand lines in tandem. One large diameter line may fully extinguish the fire quicker but redeployment to the second or third floor for extension will be greatly diminished compared to smaller more maneuverable hand-lines that occupy more real estate in the same amount of time. One option is leading off with a large diameter line for the first floor fire and stretching a second small diameter line for the upper floors. This gives you the benefit of greater GPM with enhanced maneuverability. The deck gun isn’t typically a good option due to subpar stream angles. Save that card for upper floors.

Fires on the upper floors have two key considerations. First is the likelihood of living space and the second is fire extension into the cockloft. Any fire in a taxpayer on an upper floor has an implied life threat so operations should be conducted in a rescue mode with emphasis on search. If conditions permit, Truck companies should search ahead and close doors confining any rooms of fire while lines are being stretched. VES is a an effective option as well as ladder based entry to upper floors keeping the stairs clear for the Engine company deploying lines. Fires on 3rd floors or higher should be dry stretched one floor below for speed. If overwhelming fire conditions meet you on arrival, don’t hesitate to deploy the deck gun. Make sure to sweep any cornice work above the windows before zeroing in on the rooms of fire. This will slow any lapping into the cockloft and cool the combustible cornice work. Roof operations are implied on any top floor fire in taxpayer construction, even more so in a row of connected type 3 buildings with a common cockloft. This needs to be proactive and happen early in the operations. A report of cockloft conditions needs to be transmitted as soon as possible by roof teams. Assign multiple roof crews downwind to monitor for extension, as well as the top floor of adjacent buildings.

If the fire has taken hold of a cockloft, your options are resource dependent. If you choose offensive roof ops, you have three options; use existing scuttles, skylights and vents, dice a heat hole or holes where needed, or a trench cut. Built up flat roof ventilation is a laborious task requiring numerous saws and more manpower than a residential op. If that’s your play, then position additional crews downwind first and work the party walls if the buildings are connected. The point here is to balance the need:time ratio. If you don’t have the manpower for roof ops, then the work must get done from below by pulling ceilings and extinguishing fire without the assistance of vertical ventilation. This will be a tough endeavor, but it’s possible and may take multiple advances into and out of the fire area by crews pushed back by deteriorating conditions. In this situation it’s best to position crews inside the downwind exposure to pull ceilings along the party wall and hold the fire to the original building.

The last possibility and the most hazardous circumstance on arrival is an impending backdraft situation. If you’re facing high heat vent limited conditions forcefully pushing from the first floor, then you have a few options.

-Flanking at an angle with a large diameter lines

-Remote water application via piercing nozzles, Bresnan distributors

-Remote water application via piercing nozzles, Bresnan distributors

-Vertical ventilation while flowing into the superheated gases before advancing

The inherent voids in Taxpayers makes these conditions a common occurrence. Once again conditions and resources will determine your play. The simplest is by flanking two large diameter hose lines on superheated conditions to cool the environment from outside. Crews are positioned safely at offset angles in case of a backdraft or smoke explosion. Never congregate in front of openings in case of a hostile fire event unexpectedly occurs. Vertical ventilation is the most effective, but obviously a first floor or basement fire in a multi story building limits that option to an extent. One option is opening the display bump-outs inside the front windows. Remote cooling or water application requires some special equipment and training. You may also need to breach a wall or floor which is a time consuming operation. In the end, be cognizant of ventilation limited indicators before haphazardly opening doors and windows leading to a hostile fire event.

The Short Staffed Response

The best thing you can do for these structures is to pre-plan. Short staffed departments do not have the luxury of resources making time all that more important upon arrival on scene. Knowing the inherent risks of each individual building can help you quickly make initial assignments upon arrival. Get your crews out into these buildings- regularly. There are many things to look for during walk throughs, just a few of them are:

– Air vents in the floors indicating basements

– Exterior/interior basement access

– High ceilings in one building, low ceilings in the next indicate it is probably a drop ceiling (void above)

– Parapet walls, marquees, canopies, and cornices as they increase the risk for structural collapse.

– Construction remodeling- legacy vs. lightweight construction

– Location of stairs

– Terrazzo Floors

Modern codes require fire walls between occupancies; however, sometimes these codes are not enforced in existing structures or in older historic districts. When fire gets in a cockloft without fire walls, it can rapidly spread horizontally to the exposure structures on either side. If this occurs, you will not win against these fires with 4-6 firefighters. A “simple” fire in a taxpayer can overwhelm your resources quickly due to the excessive amount of voids we’ve already spoken of. Additional manpower isn’t a want, but a necessity. Refusing to call for more help can result in the loss of an entire block.

As always, situation dictates response. Like every fire, Taxpayer fires need an attack crew for the seat of the fire, protecting stairs/egresses, search, ventilation, and more. With the complexity and variability of commercial and residential properties, successfully fighting these fires is not something you can do with minimum manpower. Big fire, big building, means lots of water. As discussed above, typically the initial attack line we think to pull is a large diameter line. However, with minimum manpower, when advancing through structures such as these; you risk a slow advance on the fire, and you can quickly wear even the most advanced firemen. Short staffed departments may want to automatically opt for the two smaller handlines, if for no other reason than not wearing out your crew. Once additional crews arrive, if you need more GPM on the first floor, you could choose to also advance the large diameter line. Yet another reason you’ll need the additional manpower.

Knowing which structures are occupied vs. vacant is extremely important for departments with short staffing. As initial response is small, you’ll want to know which structures are more likely to be occupied- thus being your primary focus for initial search. Once additional crews arrive, search can be extended to the other structures if not already completed.

As discussed previously, roof ops may not be an option for short staffed departments. In this case, going interior may not be possible. Without the lift of heat and smoke from vertical ventilation interior conditions can become unbearable. You may have to utilize deck guns, flanking the angles with large diameter lines, or an aerial if available to fight the fire from the exterior.

Many have mistaken sound decisions in unsound buildings. All things considered, collapse and unseen fire spread should be the two red flags in the back of your mind on arrival on a Taxpayer fire. These fires aren’t won at 3am; they’re won the previous day during a preplanned walkthrough. Use every available opportunity to become intimately familiar with these buildings, whether it’s an EMS call or just getting out of the house on a nice day. The devil is in the details, and the minutiae matters.

Citations

Due to the nature of how common trade knowledge, jargon, terminology and methods are passed down amongst the fire service much of the articles information can not be cited as a proprietary source to one particular piece of work, individual, group or otherwise.

Dunn V. Collapse of Burning Buildings: a Guide to Fireground Safety: 2nd Ed. 2nd. Ed. Tulsa, OK: Pennwell; 2010.

Hill HJ. Failure Point: How to Determine Burning Building Stability. PennWell Publishing Company; 2012.

Categories
Building Construction

The Fireman’s Guide to Main Street: 5 Buildings to Know, Part 1

Lex Shady & Chris Tobin

There is a quote that we believe represents the vast majority of the fire service concerning buildings; it reads,

“Many an object is not seen, though it falls within the range of our visual ray, because it does not come within the range of our intellectual ray.” Thoreau, Henry

Simply put, we all see buildings, but few understand what they’re actually looking at. That’s a problem, a really big problem for two important reasons: a building is the one thing that directly or indirectly affects everything we do on the fire ground and the only thing we can do about a compromised building is avoid it entirely. We show up with no solution to sagging roofs, crumbling walls, or missing floors other than staying away. We can mitigate smoke, fire, and rescue trapped victims, but we can do nothing about the leaning wall. It’s this stark reality that many forget and have paid the price. You can know all there is about fire behavior, your tools and strategies, none of which hold any value if you’re unfamiliar with the space in which they are relied upon. Some may say all fires are the same, which is true until you put one in a building. Behind every door are an infinite amount of variables, some known, some unknown and some unexpected. This is why nothing’s routine till it’s over and why knowing your buildings on a visceral level is paramount. If you want to be able to forward think, you must understand the data you’re receiving.

This will be a five part series exclusively examining five different types of legacy construction, each with its own article as it pertains to firefighting. The types of buildings were selected based on their prominence in today’s main streets and historic districts. These specific types of buildings exist in small towns from coast to coast but are more commonly found East of the Mississippi River where our national building stock originated before moving Westward.

The five buildings are the old house, the taxpayer, the old mill, the vacant theater, and the bowling alley. Each of these will be examined along with inherent hazards and a play book for handling fires specific to each occupancy. Additionally since many of these buildings are found in small towns with departments that may not have the adequate resources, there will be a section based on short staffed responses for each. The objective of this series is to present the most useful amount of information in the least amount of space. Each of these buildings are worthy of their own book themselves; this series is meant to be concise and simple information for any level of firefighter. As with any article on architecture, regional vernacular and departmental jargon may vary. Nothing in this piece is the final say, only the individual reader and their streets can make that claim.

Part 1

The Building

The old house: The older single family homes in historic districts and around Main streets come in a countless styles and forms, from large ornate Victorians that line avenues owned by early prominent landowners to small shotgun bungalows within walking distance to factories facilitating the local workforce. The majority of what we see today are legacy framed or masonry brick buildings dating from the 1850s-1930s. Due to their abundance and because the other buildings in this series are all commonly of masonry construction, this section will address specifically wood framed houses. Access to railroads for Eastern timber played a pivotal role in how early or late your areas legacy building stock will be. A towns layout also determined what type of structure would be built. Long narrow urban lots would be best suited for gable front or shotgun style houses while wider ones would accommodate “I-Houses,” two rooms wide and one room deep. Most legacy frame houses were multi-story with half-storied gable windows or dormers of some sort. These buildings are easily identified from the exterior by stone foundations, center chimneys, wood siding, transoms, long narrow windows, metal roofs, and upper floor window AC units are common due to sub par centralized air.

The Hazards

The inherent architectural hazards in old legacy homes starts in the framing. With access to timber and saw mills these “mass planned” homes went up fast with balloon framing techniques taking the place of rough cut post and beam. The fire spread in balloon framing is nothing new to firefighters. The continuous stud bay existing from basement to attic creates a direct avenue of fire extension that can blow past floors of unsuspecting occupants and the unprepared fireman. Balloon framing ended in the 1940s and was replaced with today’s platform framing. The classic indicators of balloon framing are, long stacked windows sharing the same stud bay, stone foundation and center chimney placement. Beware of modern additions to the exterior of these houses such as garages or sun rooms. This will create an interior balloon framed wall that was originally an outside one.

In addition to the framing voids created, legacy homes contained older lumber. Go into an old attic and rub your finger on a ceiling joist, you’ll find what appears to be charcoal like dust. The structural members in these places are subject to what’s called pyrophoric carbonization. The wood is slowly oxidizing, losing moisture and thus burns more intensely due to lower ignition temperatures than expected. Many a fire has been started by a lightbulb being hung too close to a century’s old piece of lumber.

The layouts of these homes present some challenges to firemen. Two sets of stairs would be common, one main set near the entrance and smaller set in the rear off the kitchen called “servants stairs.” A common roof style is the “ saltbox or catslide” depending on your region, which poses a significant upper floor fire spread potential via the roof soffit. In addition some lesser known hazards are pocket doors, window transoms, laundry chutes, tin ceilings, metal roofs and combustible varnished wall coverings. These are all things to be cognizant of during firefighting operations.

The Playbook

Three words, hold the stairs! These buildings are almost always multiple stories with the bedrooms up stairs. The stairs and egress paths must be your strategic priority, fire heat and smoke will naturally be drawn up the stairs and into the sleeping areas above. If there are servants stairs this task will be doubled but no less important. Keep an eye out for a side entrance, these were common and offered access to the basement and second floor stairs from one location. The first line off must address this without delay. Any time paused outside is more time the upper floors are filling with deadly byproducts of combustion. Confinement is key in legacy wood framed houses, search teams need to be aggressively diligent in getting above and ahead of hose lines if conditions permit in order to close doors and start overhaul concurrently with fire attack. Keep in mind if you VES and close the door for confinement there may be a failed transom window above, a high scan with a TIC should address this.

Ventilation in these buildings should play off the compartmented nature of their design. This means hydraulic ventilation by the hose team will be much more effective than the wide area floor plans seen in modern homes. This also allows extinguishment, overhaul and ventilation to be done simultaneously with one or two crews in the area of origin. Careful with PPV early on, as the many voids will give way to some very undesirable conditions. Fans should be used only in conjunction with overhaul well after the fires under control. Due to the prevalence of hip and gabled roofs, vertical ventilation is a common tactic for top floor fires containing knee walls. Understand you’re venting voids not living space.

Since these buildings are compartmentalized by design a single 1.75 hose line flowing 150gpm will do considerable knockdown to multiple rooms or even multiple floors of fire. Even so, as a regular precaution a second line should be put advanced to the upper floors for cutting off extension. This line can be dry stretched initially to get it in place quicker to upper floors.

Maneuverability wins the day in these buildings. If conditions require a large amount of water on arrival, choose the deck gun before the 2.5 if possible. Trying to advance a large diameter line to upper floors inside a building with numerous small rooms creating corners will be futile. A well off fire will out pace your advance regardless of your available GPM. Save the 2.5 for defensive operations or exposure protection.

Once the main body of fire is knocked, overhaul needs to start in two places as simultaneously as possible. Once in the room of origin, and the bathroom or kitchen closest to the fire. Plaster and lath walls and ceilings are common and need to be overhauled appropriately by working the connections along a stud, rafter or joist. Kitchens and bathrooms are important to immediately check due to the presence of “wet walls,” or the wall that contains the plumbing and vents creating a pipe chase. These walls are even more important when they’re directly above the fire floor or any fire in the basement. A general rule of thumb for overhauling in legacy construction is fire in the floor, open the wall. Fire in the wall, open the ceiling. Fire in the ceiling, open the baseboards on the floor above. These are fires you must stay ahead of by understanding where they’re going before it gets there. This forward thinking is the difference between evacuation tones and a quickly extinguished fire.

The Short Staffed Response

The initial response to an “old house” fire for a short staffed department includes the same actions as that of an urban department. The initial attack line gets stretched, water is pumped, and command is established. It has the potential to get complicated when your initial response consists of anywhere from 2-6 personnel. If your initial response does not have adequate manpower to complete tasks safely, your attack choices are made for you until additional personnel arrive. The only exception to this rule is for rescues, with confirmed or suspected entrapment departments must search.

As we talked about before, protecting the stairs can make or break how quickly you beat the fire. With low man power you may have to make an educated guess as to where the fire is, and make a choice as to which set of stairs to protect. Another line must be stretched to the second set of stairs as soon as manpower allows. The wrong choice can have dire consequences, so understanding fire behavior and fire spread in your old homes is extremely important.

Then there are the “other” tasks that must be completed at every fire. Manpower and the scene will dictate the tasks that are prioritized. Officers must be capable of reading fire behavior and be able to quickly and correctly prioritize tasks across their members. Understanding the construction of the homes in your district will help you with these decisions. It is imperative that officers know their crews strengths and weaknesses and assigns tasks appropriately.

Without the luxury of having specific companies your members will need to be cross trained and capable of completing all of the tasks a fire requires. Frequently, members will be responsible for more than one task. An example of this could be your initial attack team also completing the primary search. Nozzle man focuses on the fire, and the second man quickly searches rooms and closes doors as they advance. Engineers must be comfortable pumping tank water to the first line, and then establishing their own water supply. Communication and speed are crucial.

Pre-planned mutual aid agreements may be beneficial. Having mutual aid departments automatically dispatched to your fires allows the officer to focus on the fire in front of them instead of worrying about what resources he or she will need to request from mutual aid – help is already coming. Recall for members and mutual aid from surrounding departments can take anywhere from 5-20 minutes on a good day, which is great for manpower on longer scenes, but doesn’t help for initial response tactics. You’ll still need them though, as you’ll need to provide your members with a chance to rest.

Old house fires also come with the potential for it to be a rural fire which adds an entirely new set of complications. Rapid response and establishing adequate water supply early are the keys to success for these scenes. This is where pre-planning of your district is extremely important. The officer and driver must be aware of where the closest hydrant or dry hydrant is and be able to rapidly establish a tanker shuttle if necessary. Tank water can get you a long way, but with delayed response due to travel times, it may not be enough. Don’t be afraid to call for help. It’s better to have too many on scene and send them home, than not enough. You can’t put out a fire if you run out of water.

Regardless of department size or response, legacy wood framed buildings require strategic foresee-ability on arrival. A wood framed building and its seven sides of fire spread have been the thorn in many a Chiefs side. The old houses that exist in every small town, in every state, demand a certain level of respect that has been lost to modern lightweight construction in the name of a penny. These homes were built to last and will test every skill set a firefighter claims to have. Never forget the reality is, no matter how much you know, where you work, or how good you think you, are the simple fact remains; the building does not care.

Categories
Firefighting

Saltbox Construction

Lex Shady

Building construction styles vary across the country, states, and even in your own city. It’s important to understand your district, so you can understand how a fire may spread in a structure, and what the inherent fire spread/collapse risks of that structure may be.

As I started to study the construction styles in my city, I noticed several unique design styles. I honestly wasn’t sure what I was looking at, so I started to do some research. I assumed that with unique styles comes changes in fire spread and firefighting tactics. One such style of construction in my district is the “saltbox”.

A saltbox house is designed with a Colonial style of architecture originating in New England, first seen around 1650. The rumor is that saltboxes gained popularity during colonial times due to the Queen Ann taxation of houses taller than one story. By having one roof line, with the rear being single-story, they could avoid the tax. In reality, during that time, multiple families would live in the same home. So most likely, the style came from needing more space, not needing to avoid a tax.

Note the central chimney.

Saltboxes are frame houses with two stories in front and one in back, having a continuous pitched roof. The original homes were designed around a central chimney with a family room and kitchen on the first floor and the bedrooms upstairs. When the families expanded and they needed more room, a shed was added to the back of the home and the roof extended. The kitchen was then moved to this room. In the early 17th century original homes began to be constructed in this style. The name comes from wooden boxes used at that time to store salt. The boxes and homes both shared the same gable style roof shape. (Gable roofs are the most common roof types in the midwest- two roof sections sloping in opposite directions, the highest edge meeting to form the roof ridge.) Saltbox gable roofs have asymmetrical sides, one section being tall, the other short.

It’s important to note there will be additional void spaces in these types of structures.

Not every structure that has a rear addition with a pitched roof is considered saltbox. An example would be the images below. The important difference here is that there is no continuous roof line. The soffit will act as a sort of “fire stop” preventing the trench effect spread of fire from the first floor.

Notice the soffit provides a break in the roofline.

So why does knowing this construction style matter? Typically first floor fires spread to the upper floors in various ways such as extending out the windows to the second story windows, traveling up a stairwell, burning through the floor, etc. With saltbox style construction, fire can spread from the first floor to the attic space by following the voids in the roof line all the way to the top. This can happen fairly quickly, without being seen from the outside. Think similar principles to a basement fire traveling up the walls of a balloon frame house.

In a saltbox style home, this vertical fire spread occurs through the trench effect, such as the Kings Cross Fire in London in 1987. Once the fire gets into the roof line, there is nothing to stop it from going to the ridge and spreading across the rest of the roof. As with any peaked roof structure, there is collapse risk from fire exposure due to the structural framing, roof decking, etc. What makes these structures different, is the potential for rapid fire spread to the stories above. When fighting these fires you’ll want to be sure to send a second crew to the upper floors to check for extension.

Citations

Chimney- and Trench Effect, MSB [Video file]. (2015, February 16). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PSmeg-vn6ho

Dunn, V. (2010). Collapse of Burning Buildings, 2nd Edition: A Guide to Fireground Safety. PennWell Books.

Framing Styles for Timber Frames and Post & Beam Barns. (2018, September 10). Retrieved from https://www.vermonttimberworks.com/learn/post-beam-framing-styles-bents/

Gable roof. (2009, November 25). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gable_roof

History of Saltbox Style Homes. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://houseplansandmore.com/resource_center/history-of-saltbox-homes.aspx

The King’s Cross fire, 1987 ? fires that changed history. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.london-fire.gov.uk/museum/history-and-stories/historical-fires-and-incidents/the-kings-cross-fire-1987/

London Fire Journal. (2005, July 13). KINGS CROSS FIRE – 1987. Retrieved from https://londonfirejournal.blogspot.com/2005/07/kings-cross-fire-1987.html

Saltbox. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/technology/saltbox

Trench effect. (2004, June 27). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trench_effect

Categories
Firefighting

Time, reps, and a whole lot of sweat.

Lex Shady

Anyone who knows me well, knows that for me just “doing the job” is not enough. I’d say at bare minimum I want to be competent, but minimum standards are a trip hazard. I want to put in the work to be a “good” fireman one day. Someone that can help pass on everything taught to me, to the next generation. There is only one path to get there. That’s time, reps, and a whole lot of sweat.

There’s obviously only one way to get the time, and that is to put in the years on the job. But what better way to put in the reps and sweat than investing your time in training with humble and hardworking firefighters. Personally, there is absolutely nothing more motivating or clarifying than spending time with other like minded individuals. Having the opportunity to listen to, train with, and learn from some of the most talented firefighters in the industry is an opportunity I’m not going to pass up.

This weekend I was able to fit in a quick trip to New York to the First Due Training Conference. (If you didn’t go, you missed out and should go next year.) It was yet another incredible training experience. The conference offered both lectures, and hands on. After the first day was a Tactics on Tap discussion, which if you don’t know what that is, is a bunch of firemen sitting around telling stories. Most of which are hilarious. For the hands on portion, I took the Truck class, and the group of instructors was one of, if not the best, I have had. Everyone was knowledgeable, and answered every student’s question with tricks they’ve learned from their experiences. They took time to work with each individual student, showing them various techniques, and gave specific suggestions on how to keep improving. They also gave advice on how to implement the training and props at your own department. The class was essentially divided into three parts: rotating skill stations, exploring the city and talking ladder placement, and several evolutions of live fire.

I’ve learned a lot from attending trainings and conferences over the last several years, and some of the best stuff I’ve learned has come from simply listening to people talk. If quality training from high caliber instructors isn’t enough reason for you to get outside of your department, below are a few of the other benefits I have found from them:

Mentors.

    I’ve talked a lot about this before, because I think it’s so important to your career; but find yourself quality mentors. I would without a doubt, not be where I am today without mine. The experience they have is invaluable, and they are the kind of fireman I aspire to be one day.
    A good mentor is willing to give you their honest opinion based on their experiences, and can be a voice of reason when you need it. However, if you’re going to request their time, you need to be willing to consider what they’re saying, even if it’s not something you necessarily wanted to hear. You never know who you may meet at a conference that would be willing to mentor you during your career.

Networking.

    Now, I don’t mean walking up to every “big name” you see on the or going on a Facebook friend request rampage and asking them to be your friend. I mean making quality connections. Find like minded firefighters from other departments in your area, or even across the country. Firefighters that you would want on your truck with you.
    It will never cease to fascinate me how different firefighting is across the country, yet departments have many of the same personality types or morale issues. I’m a firm believer there is something to be learned from everyone. Take the time to ask people questions, and really listen to their answers. Doing this has made a huge difference in my career.
    I’ve been fortunate enough to make some great connections literally across the country, many of these people I would never had met if I hadn’t attended these types of courses.

Friendships.

    Some of my best friends have come from Twitter and/or various conferences. Find people who are invested in the job, and who are constantly trying to better themselves. Find people who won’t sugar coat the truth for you, and who you can count on to help you keep moving forward when it feels like you’re knee deep in the mud.
    When I’m annoyed that I’m struggling with a certain technique or learning a new skill, one person will say, “you don’t know what you don’t know.” …not that it makes me feel better but it is true, and it’s the clarity I need to focus. Essentially, you didn’t know it, you know now, move on.
    And if all I’m doing is venting about a problem they’ll also tell me to “quit complaining and fix the problem, and if you can’t fix the problem, then it’s not your problem so quit complaining.” As you can imagine, both of those statements can be infuriating when you’re in the middle of a rant. It’s basically like saying “shut up and keep working, you’ll get there eventually.” As mad as I get in the moment, that is exactly the kind of person you need, or at least I need.
    I need someone who knows when to let me vent, but also isn’t afraid to call me out on my crap and keep my head straight when I feel frustrated and lose perspective. These are the people that are going to essentially say, “what the *$%#? are you doing?” If they think you’re getting off track of your goals. These are the people you can call or text at 2am when you get back from a fire to hash out how to make the next one go better. And who are as excited to talk about the job as you are.

Shattering comfort zones.

    Traveling to conferences forces you out of your comfort zone. When I first started I was quiet (still am, I prefer to listen), and terrified of looking like an idiot in class. This resulted in not asking many questions, to the point that sometimes I would leave confused, with no one to blame but myself.
    Now I don’t care, in order to be effective I need the answer, and the only way I’ll get it is to ask. No one wants to look incompetent, but I’m no longer afraid to learn. Instead I’m afraid of doing something wrong my entire career.
    Take classes on topics you’re not confident in. Get out of your comfort zone in class, it can be a humbling experience, but it shows you exactly what you need to work on. If you only attend classes on skills you do frequently, say fire attack or EMS, you’ll never get better.

In my opinion, you have no excuse to not want to learn, except laziness. And there are small conferences and trainings popping up across the country making it easier than ever to learn. I’m fortunate my department is supportive of me wanting to travel and learn. I’ve found this is the best way to keep myself focused and pushing forward. If nothing else, I want to listen to firemen tell stories. Hopefully I’ll see you there!

As always, move with a purpose.

Photo cred: Chief Woolery

 

Categories
Firefighting

The Paradox of Choice

Lex Shady

Do you ever struggle with training, or studying about the job? I don’t mean in struggling to find motivation or drive to do it, but rather where to even start? I want to soak everything up I possibly can about the job. There are so many different avenues to the fire service: engine company, truck company, squad, technical rescue, HAZMAT, RIT, even EMS, the list is almost endless. Have a RIT article for me? Send it. Oh there’s a good video showing vertical vent? Ok I’ll watch that too. Fire Engineering sent out another email? Better save that to read later. Someone tweeted tips on things to look for in building construction? Better drive around the city looking for similarities.

Sometimes I find myself jumping from book to book, article to article, tweet to tweet. Trying to soak up everything but not really getting what I want or need. So a few months ago I decided to try and lay out a schedule for myself to help keep me a little more on track. I stick to this schedule religiously on shift days, on my off days I still find myself jumping around on different topics, but it has helped give me some structure. I also have about 6 different fire books that I am currently reading in my free time- which one just depends on my mood that day. I didn’t say I had my studying completely nailed down yet. I’m definitely not saying this idea works for everyone, but it’s been great for me so far.

**Note: These topics are pretty broad for a purpose. They give me guidance on the kind of thing to study that day, but allow me to pick things that interest me. This also forces me to pay attention to things I wouldn’t normally choose to study – aka EMS).

Monday

  • Mayday/RIT

Tuesday

  • Truck/Rescue/Search

Wednesday

  • Water (supplies, staffing, pumping, etc.)

Thursday

  • Historical fires

Friday

  • Tactics (Ex. Basement fires, UL studies, etc.)

Saturday

  • Leadership/Personal Development

Sunday

  • EMS

Read 1 LODD report a week.

**Another tip: Take notes on everything you read, watch, or study. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve referred back to them. Also, if you see something you don’t understand, reach out to someone. As long as you’re studying and trying to get better there are no stupid questions.

Maybe there are different topics you would choose to focus on, or have some suggestions for me? I’d love to hear!

 

Categories
Uncategorized

Firehouse Fitness

Lex Shady

One of the many recent changes in the fire service is recognizing the importance of health; mental, sleep, eating, and fitness. I could go on all day about the importance of proper nutrition and enough sleep. All I’ll say about that stuff for now is that you should probably take a nap, it’s all about moderation, eat more protein, and include some green stuff on your plate.

One thing I will talk a little about is fitness. Before I joined the fire service I was not in good physical shape (aka chunky😆). So, I spent quite a bit of time, effort, and money paying for trainers and workout plans to get in shape. With some hard work I was able to get in very good shape and pass several different physical agility tests such as the CPAT. Then… I fell into the trap of “I passed the test and now I’m set” mentality and I lost some of the progress I had made. When I finally got the offer from my department I quickly realized I needed to make fitness one of my top priorities again.

My favorite thing about my shift is that they all prioritize fitness as well, and we workout as a group. We start the morning with our daily checks, chat about the workout, then head upstairs and get a workout in. **With the obvious disclaimer that we stop to run calls.** Afterwards, we all sit around the table again drinking protein shakes- gotta get the gains lol. My shift started doing this before I started, and it has helped build camaraderie, motivate us to work harder, and teach us lessons we can use outside of the gym. Our shift works well together and I firmly believe this is a huge part of the reason why. Consistently doing the workouts, upping the intensity and pushing ourselves to continuously improve week over week, and most importantly not letting each other quit on ourselves builds confidence. As my Senior Fireman said just a few days ago, this confidence stays with us into the back of the ambulance and onto the fireground where it really matters.

As far as general health and wellness it doesn’t really matter what you do for workouts as long as you’re moving your body. Whether it’s CrossFit, body building, running, walking, hiking, whatever…Just pick something you enjoy and do it, something is better than nothing. For first responders it still doesn’t really matter what workout you do, just make sure you include both strength training and cardio. If you’re new to working out, start slow and build up your program, there’s no point in trying to bench 300lbs if you haven’t picked up a bar in years. Also no point in trying to bust out 1,000 pushups a day if you can’t string more than 20 together in a row. There is NOTHING wrong with where you’re starting, what matters is the fact that you’re starting, so don’t over do it.

One thing I’ve found since working out with my shift is that it doesn’t have to be complicated to be effective. I used to think I needed to have workouts programmed for me with lots of different kinds of lifts and complicated cardio HIIT sessions. Honestly you can get a good workout in with a pull-up bar, some dumbbells, a place to do pushups, a set of stairs, and some good music.

Monthly assessments are a great way to gauge your progress. Once a month we “test” ourselves to see how we’re improving and to hold each other accountable. These numbers are shared with no one but ourselves, and we don’t compare to each other. The only thing that matters is that we get more reps than the last month.

Our monthly assessment looks like this:

  1. Max number of pushups without stopping
  2. Max pull-ups without stopping
  3. Max number of reps on bench press to failure (once the reps get high enough you start building in weight)
  4. 15 Leg press/20 calf raises at 270lbs
  5. Max dips without stopping
  6. Max pull-ups without stopping

When I first started I’m ashamed to admit I could hardly do 30 push-ups without stopping, could barely get a pull-up with 3 bands assisting, and would die if you mentioned running stairs. (Told ya I had let my fitness slack). The last fitness test we did for ourselves I had 172 push-ups, 6 pull-ups without a band, and I now love using our Jacobs Ladder for cardio….and this is just a few months later. I’m excited to see how far we all get in 6 more months.

So what changed for me?

  1. I eat to perform, not diet.
  2. I began doing 100 pushups a day
  3. If I find a move I’m not good at, I incorporated it into every workout (ex. Satan push-ups)
  4. Keep it simple, most of the workouts I do at work include a bunch of push-ups, pull-ups, dips, squats, etc.
  5. Pay attention to my body, if I’m exhausted I may choose not to workout, but I’ll at least try to move in some way whether it’s stretching or a walk.

If you’re not sure where to start- google is your friend…though sometimes this can get overwhelming. I also frequently use Pinterest for ideas on workouts and typically combine several to come up with my own. 555 fitness is another great resource for quick and effective workouts. Again, keeping it simple is your best bet. You can also try finding a trainer, someone on your department, or someone you trust. I’m no professional but I love talking fitness so I’d be happy to help. I’ve also included some of our workouts below, but please remember modifying is totally cool, and expected if you’re new to working out. The last thing you want to do is injure yourself or be unable to complete the workout. The goal is to slowly improve and build physical strength and confidence, and that won’t happen if you do too much too soon.

One workout we do pretty frequently was created by our Senior fireman, it definitely sucks but it’s honestly mostly mental. He calls it the

“Millennial Workout”

  • 250 decline pushups
  • 250 incline pushups
  • 250 regular pushups
  • 125 pull-ups
  • 125 body weight squats

Doesn’t matter how you do it, just keep track of your numbers until you complete all of the reps. We’ve obviously built up to this, so unless you’ve had a pretty intense workout regiment lately I would cut the reps down and build up to it.

A couple more example workouts are included below.

Workout 1:

Warmup

45 of each: diamond, decline, incline, and regular push-ups. 5 pull-ups and 50 flutter kicks between each set

3 rounds:

  • 1.5 min Jacobs Ladder (or run stairs)
  • 10 upright rows
  • 5 reverse pull-ups
  • 1.5 min Jacobs Ladder (or run stairs)
  • 20 dips
  • 25 ab-ups (knees to chest)
  • 10 tricep kickbacks
  • 1.5 min Jacobs Ladder (or run stairs)
  • 15 leg press/20 calf raises
  • 5 weighted Bulgarian split squats
  • 10 back squats
  • 1.5 min Jacobs Ladder (or run stairs)
  • 2 min rest

Finish with:

2 rounds

  • 1 min wall-sit
  • 1 min plank

 

Workout 2:

Warmup

50 of each: diamond, decline, incline, and regular push-ups. 5 pull-ups and 50 flutter kicks between each set

2 min Jacobs Ladder at 90-100 steps per minute (or stairs)

3 rounds:

  • 10 pull-ups
  • 5 weighted Bulgarian split squats
  • 20 dips
  • 50 flutter kicks
  • 10 burpees
  • 10 alternating dumbbell bench press
  • 15 leg press/20 calf raises
  • 10 skull crushers
  • 50 flutter kicks
  • 10 burpees
  • 20 ab-ups
  • 10 goblet squats
  • 10 upright rows
  • 50 flutter kicks
  • 10 burpees

Finish with:

2 rounds

  • 1:15 wall-sits
  • 1:15 plank

 

Workout 3:

Warmup

50 of each: diamond, decline, incline, and regular push-ups. 5 pull-ups and 50 flutter kicks between each set

Jacobs Ladder, accumulating 2600 ft. Each person does 100ft, gets off and the next person gets on before the timer stops. Keep going rounds until you get 2600ft. Could do this with running stairs or sprints in the bay.

2 Rounds:

  • 15 leg press/20 calf raises
  • 50 flutters
  • 10 satan push-ups
  • 6 pull-ups
  • 10 hammer curls
  • 10 upright rows

Finish with:

2 rounds

  • 1 min wall-sit
  • 1 min plank

Final thoughts: I know the saying from Fit to Fight Fire may be cheesy to some but I think it’s important to consider: “Would you want you, rescuing you?” If you can’t say yes, maybe it’s time to take a hard look in the mirror. Change isn’t easy, but nothing worth doing is found on the easy path.

Good luck, stay safe, and remember why you’re doing this- for them.

 

 

Categories
Uncategorized

Mentors

Lex Shady

Mentors

The Oxford dictionary defines a mentor as an “experienced and trusted advisor.”

Bob Proctor says a mentor is “someone who sees more talent and ability within you, than you see in yourself and helps bring it out of you.”

I think it’s important to constantly evaluate yourself: are you pushing yourself everyday to be a better person, are you improving your improving basic skills, and learning new things? Having good mentors can help you continue to take steps to improve yourself, and they’re willing to call you out if you get off track. I firmly believe these people are the key to your success in the fire service.

With that being said, you want to be careful who you look up to and ask for guidance. With social media everyone likes to talk these days, so make sure who you’re listening to is worth it.

Things I look for in a mentor:

⁃ Easy to talk with

⁃ Trustworthy

⁃ Compassionate

⁃ Hard working

⁃ Driven

⁃ Honest

⁃ Experienced (in life and in firefighting)

⁃ Knowledgeable

⁃ Morals/Values that align with mine

Good mentors are impossible to replace and don’t necessarily have to all be from your department. I believe you need three types of mentors. (If you’re lucky like me you’ll have more than one of each).

1. The department mentor. This person should obviously have more experience than you, and be someone worth looking up to. What I mean by this isn’t necessarily that they’ve won the most awards or had the most promotions; but they have a strong work ethic, are willing to teach, and are always working to find ways to improve themselves and the department. You should be able to trust that when you talk to them (unless it’s something they would have to report) that what you say will stay between the two of you. This is the person you turn to to when you have specific questions about your department- whether it be about how a call was handled, a training question, or when you’re unsure of how to handle various situations specific to your shifts.

2. Someone that is similar to you. (Does not necessarily have to be from your department.) This similarity could be in rank, such as if you’re both Lieutenants. Or a common specialization such as in Hazmat or EMS; if you’re a female, another female, etc. Someone that is able to more closely understand your situation. They are able to offer guidance in a way that takes into consideration your specific needs that someone without that similarity may not be able to.

3. Someone experienced outside of your department. In my opinion I believe this is the most important person for two reasons. One, if you only have mentors in your department they may not be able to see the situation outside of personal biases. The second reason is that if your only mentor is promoted to your supervisor, it may make future conversations difficult as they would have to separate being your boss from giving you unbiased advice. Again, this person should be easy to talk to, open with their personal experiences, and someone you can trust that what you say will stay in confidence. This person needs to be in your corner, but you also have to be able to trust that this person will call you on your crap if you need it.

When you find people who you would like to mentor you- reach out! Ask them if they would be willing to help teach and guide you in your career. Every few months ask them to meet for a cup of coffee or go visit them at their station. These meetings don’t have to be long, but they allow you to discuss how your career is going, and to get fresh advice. I think you’ll find most people are more than willing to share what they’ve learned with you if you just ask. I promise you, you will learn more than you can ever imagine, and it isn’t necessarily all about firefighting.

And one day, if you do it right, soaking up everything you can from the generations before us, you’ll become worth being a mentor to someone else. But you have to put in a lot of work first, and you better be willing to shut up and listen today.

I am beyond lucky to have the mentors I do, I firmly believe I would not be where I am today without them. They have pushed me to apply for the job at my department when I was unsure if I was ready, guided me when I’ve come across situations I didn’t know how to handle, and have motivated and pushed me when I was struggling.

Finally, remember to thank all of those who have been a mentor to you. They don’t have to take time out of their lives to teach and guide us, but we’re lucky they do. Express how much it all means to you, because you never know when the last time you’ll get to learn from them will be.

To all those who have been a mentor and friend to me- you know who you are. Thank you, it means more to me than you’ll ever know.