Sunday Fun – Red Lights

Do you have a red light outside your firehouse? Ever wonder why? Besides “tradition” or “it’s just always been there?”
Indeed some of the best stuff on this job comes from the early days of the American Fire Service.

Much like the early days of the railroad, when the brakeman would take the red light from the rear of the train and hang it from the door of wherever he was (Often houses of ill-repute, hence the red light district) the tradition of lanterns at firehouses is similar.

There have been great discussions about why fire apparatus run with the color lights they do. Most are red, some red and blue or red and green, but why red?

In my service the red lantern outside the house signified that the company, or even earlier, the hose wagon and hand pump were in the shed/building. In the early years the community served as firefighters. There is a great scene from the HBO miniseries John Adams when he returns home from a long day and someone outside yells “FIRE!” He scrambles for his coat and grabs his buckets and is out the door. Turns out it was British soldiers firing on a gathering, but that’s a different tale.

When hose carts and pumps are introduced, they aren’t simply parked on the street or in an ornate fire hall, but in a shed. The way to spot the shed was by the lantern hung on the door and a simple marking.

When the piece of equipment was taken out, the lantern was placed on it and the shed would be empty. If the door closed and others came for the pump, keep in mind everyone is mobilized to help, and the lantern is gone, they move to the next shed that keeps equipment.

The lantern on the door signifies the equipment is in place.

As companies began to specialize there was a need for volunteers to organize either at the scene or at the Company Hall. If they arrived at the hall and the lanterns were gone, they would go to the fire. If the lantern is hanging, they would organize a team to pull the gear. A lantern clearly visible from the end of the block saved each member from running to the hall to peek inside.

Here, Ladder companies hung green lanterns and steamers red. In dual company houses there needed to be such a separation to avoid confusion.

Today our ladders still run with a single green light on the front. It also makes it easier to see them coming at night so you can decide whether to lay a line and block the truck or wait a moment and let them through.

Conveniently, as the apparatus continued to evolve, the lantern became a lamp, then a light, then a beacon, now a strobe or LED. And the old position of the lantern is taken by a red light which still signifies to the community that the building is a fire hall. Although now the light is always on.

If you know of a company that shuts their lights off when they are out of quarters, I’d like to know.

Seat at the Table Ep15 – San Bruno Cont’d

Our discussion with Dan Gerrard, Bobby Halton and Jow Telles continues in our special look at building relationships in Emergency Response.

Whether a Chief Officer or Probationary Member, all can learn from this discussion, have a look.

Seat at the Table Success

We had a great day of filming yesterday in San Jose with disaster experts gathered to attend the Tak-Response conference which ends today.

Even though we have not yet found a sponsor to cover the expenses, this opportunity was too important to let pass.

The conference has been a lot of fun, with Thaddeus, Natalie, Jeremiah and Sam Bradley begin_of_the_skype_highlighting     end_of_the_skype_highlighting, the extended Chronicles family, all except Mark.
For a new conference in a new place with a new concept I think it did very well.

I think Kelly Greyson would have enjoyed the shooting simulator side by side with some of the SWAT folks on hand at the show.
And the law enforcement members we did meet were interested not only in what we were doing, but marveling at the wide array of equipment EMS carries, not just a bag and a cot.

Just the show floor was working to break down barriers and let disciplines mingle, imagine what the speakers are inspiring.

The audio difficulties in the filming of the Seat at the Table are well known, but finding a solution we can afford on a negative budget is difficult. We’re trying, I promise.

Today it’s back to the conference with the meetup tonight at Gordon Beirsch Brewery. See you there?

Gearing up for Tak Response

Over the next few weeks you’ll be hearing from me about the Tak Response Conference in San Jose coming up September 14th-16th.

Chronicles of EMS was invited to be a part of this collaborative training opportunity that will bring the best of all fields together to network and learn from each other.

This conference combines nursing, Fire, Haz-Mat, law enforcement, SWAT, EMS, public works and a number of other disciplines together, since when we all arrive on scene we have to work together.

Let’s start to train together.

Tak Response is not only a chance to learn from other disciplines where you fit in at “their” scene, but to network socially with your fellow providers before the you know what hits you know where.

Imagine a scene where the Battalion Chief, Patrol Officer and EMT all already know each other and what each agency expects from the others.  That’s a smooth running scene.

Here’s the episode of Seat at the Table where we meet the organizers of the Tak Response Conference and run the concept by paramedics, firefighters and even a cop.

He’s no Otis

The 3 AM building alarm.  This is the Fire Service equivalent of an abdominal pain from a month ago.  Thing is, when it’s in a retirement home, all bets are off as to what might be going on.


Audible and visual warning devices triggered by an automatic alarm, water flow indicated.


When the bells strike at work, I always get out of bed and sit on the corner and wait for 2 distinct dispatcher comments:

1. “Unit dispatch…” Which means it’s a medical job and I should continue waking up, OR

2. “Units stand by for the box…” Which means we have a report of smoke or fire in a building.

But there is a glimmer of hope when the dispatcher calls out a building alarm box because our Truck Company also covers 2 other engine areas.  Sometimes they’re the only ones going out.  Sometimes.

Tonight it’s everyone and we’re quickly on scene to a very beautiful brick 4 story type 3 we drive by all the time wondering what’s inside.

Old people.

We’re met by a security guard who of course is more interested in our supervisor’s name than telling us the situation inside.  A representative from the water department wanders over from a giant hole in the ground surrounded by water department vehicles and informs us they just turned the main back on.

As the pressure slowly built against the sprinkler valve, it likely shuddered and set off the alarm.  We relax and go in to make sure and reset the alarm.

Like in a zombie movie, we enter to see various persons in pajamas and robes wandering the halls and standing on the stairs, all staring at us as we go by.  They say nothing, only watch and slowly begin to come closer the longer we stand at the alarm panel under the grand staircase.  At some time in the past 100 years, this was one hell of a mansion, but now is populated by scores of the aged.

Which is odd, since I’ve never been on a medical run here before.

As we reset the alarm, the occupants begin to slowly shuffle away in different directions, except for one.

He corners the other firefighter and asks her if she knew they had a new elevator installed recently.

“OK, wonderful, thanks.” She says, being as polite as you can at 3:15 AM.

“No, you need a key to use it if the alarm goes off,” he informs her.

“Yes, we have that key,” she says, trying to walk away.

“No, it’s a new kind of elevator, come, I’ll show you.” and he begins to lead her down a hallway.

As much as I wanted to follow and keep her company, she went along as one might go along to look at baby pictures of your third cousin while visiting long lost family.

She eventually emerged, unharmed and still in good spirits, to inform us that it was a standard elevator.  Go figure.  It wasn’t until later I learned that the inventor of the modern elevator, Elisha Otis, died long ago.  I was half hoping that was him, remarkably old and well preserved, in a home for the very old and the very rich.

Specialty Centers Text Discussion

Seems the neato thing to do these days is get your hospital registered some kind of specialist center.  we have STEMI Centers, Stroke Centers, Trauma Centers, Burn Centers, Pediatric Centers and so on and so on.  Well, in my system we also have a microsurgery center.

So I got a text message on July 3rd from an old intern who had an interesting question:

John- “If I get a firework injury with fingers blown off, but there is burns, do I go to burn center, microsurg or trauma?”

HM- “You decide, because each of the decision matrix end with Paramedic Judgment. If the burns are considered extensive, go to the burn center, unless there is significant trauma, otherwise go to the trauma center.  BUT, if there is tissue that could be salvaged and repaired, immediate transport to the micro surg unit is warranted.”

John- “What about a peds?”

HM- “The system will implode.”

Happy Hour on Firefighter Netcast

Tuesday night at 6pm Pacific time I’ll be taking over the Firefighter Netcast show LIVE on blogtalk radio.  You can call in at  (347) 327-9920  and join the chat room at the link below.

Listen to internet radio with FirefighterNetCast on Blog Talk Radio

As is usual with the Happy Hour Show I’ve got a few things I want to talk about so I’m taking over.

Some topics discussed may include:

PPV fans

Crew size

Officer experience

Rural vs Urban and many many more.  But since it’s a live call in show, YOU can ask me about what you want to talk about.

See you on the radio!

Where there’s smoke…

blog engineI hate that saying “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire” because we all know it to be false.  Don’t believe me?  Light a candle.  No smoke.  Now blow it out. Poof…smoke.  Where there’s smoke there are byproducts of combustion.

Now where did they put that darned combustion?


11 PM and things are winding down at the firehouse when the radio teases us the way they love to do, “Standby for the box” the voice calmly states as if settling on a choice of new carpet.

Most times the alarms hit somewhere else and we get to listen to the response, but when that tease is followed by the automatics firing on and the bells ringing, we get moving.  And fast.

“Engine 99, Engine 66, Engine 88, Truck 4, Truck 21, Battalion 5, Battalion 12, Rescue 3, Division 4 and Medic 99 respond to 123 Maple for a reported smoke in a building, alarm sounding.  Repeating…”

She went on but I was already heading for the engine, turnout pants buckling as I went, weaving in and out of the paths of the firemen descending the poles.


There are folks outside of the 4 story type 3 with similar buildings on each exposure-attached and we see nothing showing.  Alarm bells are ringing and folks tell us of smoke on the third floor.

Grabbing the can and a tool I’m right behind the officer as we make entry to the lobby to an old alarm panel that simply has a light flashing next to “trouble.”  Trouble indeed, no zone, no detector, we’ll have to do the walk.

The walk, as we call it, is the systematic check of all doors by opening them to check for fire conditions.  If they can not be opened we gently break the seal at the top of the door feeling for heat and looking for smoke.

As we continue our walk there is indeed a scent of burning paper on the third floor, but no visible sign of smoke.  the truck has made the roof and done a 360 of the building, (yes we do that part of the sizeup from the roof) and are now searching top down.

Minutes pass as we investigate the source of the smell of smoke.  None of the units have fireplaces, the garbage chute is clear, the grills are clean and cool, but darn it if we can’t find the source.

After making another walk through each unit I was resigned to take the apartment hose pack back downstairs when the firefighter emerged from the hallway and said, “Come take a look at this, will ya?”

Inside one of the kitchens he has a headlamp I admired at FDIC pointed towards the ceiling and said, “Do you see smoke up there or am I crazy?”

“Command Engine 99, we have smoke in unit 4.” was my traffic and we set out to discover the source.  As more bodies came into the tiny unit and the even tinier kitchen, all in full gear, I stuck my head out the kitchen windows and looked outside.  I could smell the burning paper, but where was it?

As I turned to leave the spot near the window behind a table, my axe handle rubbed against a large paper bag and the bottom fell right out of it.  The burnt bottom.  And all the trash in it was burnt.  We dug through looking for a match or a cigarette or some other source but found nothing but trash.

Where there was smoke, there had been an early stage of combustion.  but had it not been for the smoke detectors, the occupants likely would have gone to bed, not knowing they would be awoken by fire cutting off their only means of egress.

A 9v battery saves the day again.

You Make the Call…Day Off…What Happened

ymtk-140x200It figures.  Finally a day away and the job finds you.  Well, at least everyone evacuated, that’s a plus, but when no notification appears to have been made to the Fire Department, soemthing should be done…but what and by whom?

First, let’s walk this back a few Departments and talk to the young kid who was an Explorer scout in a sub-urban system:

  • I can’t do anything because 1) I have no gear with me and 2) all the payphones are inside, so I can’t call it in.  Maybe someone here has a car phone they can use.  Keep everyone outside until help arrives.

Thanks kid, and this is likely the most common response aside from pulling out the cell phone and calling 911 these days which, to my surprise no one was doing this particular day.  One bicyclist stops to fix a flat and 5 people report him unconscious but 1000 people listening to a fire alarm do nothing.

Now skip to the rural volunteer firefighter of old and let’s see what he does:

  • My pager is on my belt, but my radio and gear is always in the truck.  I’m on the radio calling in the whole South region of the County and getting bunkered up and to the head of the museum to investigate the panel, then radio ahead my findings.  Since there is only a paid driver on the engines around here I’ll be able to get an airpack no problem.

Again, a go getter that guy, recently dropped out of college to get more “street time.”  We’ll see how that goes for him.  But a fair response in a volunteer district.  No point running back to the car, driving to the firehouse, then returning.

And now to the paid guy in the public safety system, let’s see how he handles it.

  • I don’t carry my radio or gear off duty, but we’re a small community, so I’m getting my badge out and asking what is going on.  Judging by the delay in response the cross staffed engine is likely out of service transporting someone into town in their ambulance.  It happens.  If I can I’ll find out what is going on.

Not a bad solution, at least for peace of mind, see if they’ll tell you what’s happening.

So, you ask, what did Happy do?

  • The first 15 minutes were annoying to say the least.  Even the 3rd due on a 3rd alarm would have made it by then and the alarm was still ringing which meant only one thing: They couldn’t reset it alone.  I grabbed my handy iphone and called the non emergency dispatch number and asked if they had received an alarm bell at the museum.  He checked the board and found no incident and asked if I wanted it rung out.
  • Just as he asked the strobes stopped and the bells went silent.  I told him to hold off, I’ll find out what’s going on.
  • ID came out of the wallet and with phone to ear I identified myself and asked if they had an emergency.
  • “No, it was a smoke detector in the kitchen, just a false alarm.”

What do we say here at the Happy Medic when we get answers like that?


Radio, in my other ear, was asking me to confirm what he heard, that a fire alarm was activated by a smoke detector that was triggered by smoke and the location asked the alarm company to cancel the fire department.

The woman who called herself the manager indeed confirmed that information and I simply advised dispatch.  It was just then there was a tug at my pant leg and the 4 year old needed the restroom and folks were already being let back in.

Radio advised me they would have a supervisor come by and speak to the staff about when to and not to cancel a fire alarm activation.

Reasons to cancel it: “I saw that guy pull the alarm by mistake thinking it was the elevator button.”

There are no other reasons.

If you said find out what is going on and relay when necessary, you made the right call.

He got lucky

The following tale is of a guy who got lucky, but not for the reason you think.


Don’t you just love when your dinner is interrupted at work?  I do, especially when your bells are preceded by dispatch calling out for units on the air to stand by for a fire dispatch. “Stand by for the box!”


It is the evening and we are first due with the truck close behind.  On arrival we have light smoke showing from the alley between two 5+ story type 5 apartment buildings, this is going to be tricky.

As we pack up the truck is already stopped and I hear the PTO kick in as the officer calls for a ready line and I pull it down and onto the nozzleman’s (woman tonight) shoulder.

She advances as I follow laying the line out, irons in my other hand.

The sound of the aerial going up is just below the shouts of people down the alley shouting and pointing at a rear garden apartment with heavy white smoke coming out.

As we set the line for entry we can see it was a small kitchen fire which has been extinguished with a small dry chem can which is now sitting in the doorway.

The doors and windows are opened up to ventilate the chemical and the offending pan is removed to the alley.

As we down shift from working fire to PR mode I notice two folks in their late teens or early twenties who appear to have been hastily dressed.  Hair tossled, faces red.

When the Battalion Chief asked them what happened there was the embarrassed smile and a look at each other.

“I should have waited to start the oil.” He says and smiles to the now dozen firefighters cleaning up and helping to open windows.

“Tough way to learn that lesson,” the Chief remarks later.

Back at the dinner table we discussed various comments that may have been made in the other room while the kitchen began to burn.

Everyone got out safe and they were able to stay there that night.  The lucky part of all of this was that their smoke detector did not go off…no battery.  Lucky guy indeed.