OKLAHOMA CITY (OK)– STATION 22, A FIRE TOOL HOT SPOT

MID-WESTERN PERSONALITY. Oklahoma City, with a population of over 650,000, is the largest city in Oklahoma. In terms of population, it is the 29th largest city in the U.S. But, occupying 621 square miles, it is the 9th largest U.S. city in terms of pure size. So, its population is relatively sparse per unit of land area which, for the fire department, means some long runs and some complex mixes of occupancy types, requiring some unique approaches to fire protection coverage.

The Oklahoma City Fire Department (OKCFD) is focused primarily on fire suppression. Its 900 uniformed firefighters respond to roughly 70,000 calls per year out of 36 Fire Stations and several other special-purpose work sites. Oklahoma City is a prototypical Midwestern city with a diverse mixture of a small collection of modern commercial buildings, a similar array of older– occasionally distinctive– commercial and industrial buildings, a meandering mixture of mixed commercial, struggling industrial and older residential, surrounded by a sea of residential developments and malls.

STATION 22. As a side-trip during a visit to headquarters of the International Fire Service Training Association (IFSTA) on the campus of Oklahoma State University, in Stillwater, I made a visit to OKCFD’s Station 22.

O.K.C.F.D. TOOL CULTURE– DENNIS PAIGE. Oklahoma City firefighters have made a significant number of contributions to the “serious” fire service tool market.** That was my principal reason for going to Station 22. I discovered that one such tool designer, Corporal Dennis Paige, was working there on the night I was in town. Dennis (pictured below) was the designer of the “Devil’s Claw” pike pole, one of the firefighter-produced tools marketed by Tim Brozoskie of RAGE.

*NOTE: Here, “serious” is used to distinguish fairly successful commercial tool ventures, from smaller production, virtually one-of-a-kind tools “crafted” tools produced for friends or personal use.

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Like many (probably MOST) designers of fire hooks, Dennis was inspired to action by the limitations of the hooks his department provided. In his case, it was the typical flat plate, “boat-hook”-inspired pike pole. He has recounted that at one particularly stressful residential fire, his crew encountered heavy smoke and high heat with a well-involved fire in the attic. His team’s assignment was to pull the ceiling and find the seat of the fire. A traditional pike pole was a typical choice for this task. What they found on the ceiling was sheetrock laid over lath and plaster, a combination that was virtually impenetrable using his standard pike pole. And, when it did enter, its narrow hook brought down little material when it was withdrawn. Fire conditions continued to escalate and Dennis’ crew had to back out of the structure and go defensive because of not being able to access the seat of the fire quickly.

With his Devil’s Claw, Dennis was seeking a design that would break through virtually any materials the firefighter was likely to encounter. He wanted his tool to penetrate, like a harpoon, yet firmly hook itself into walls, ceilings and floors so each pull would pull apart a worthwhile section of material.

In the process, he also developed a note-worthy roof hook. Most pike poles, when used to open or remove cut roof sections, allow pieces to rotate or spin off their single hook. By contrast, the Devil’s Claw’s two hooks work like an “LA Rubbish Hook” to keep cut panels on their original alignment, resulting in more controlled and efficient removal of roof sections– but without the Rubbish Hook’s bulk and awkward imbalance.

MORE O.K.C.F.D. TOOL CULTURE. After some general discussion and a look at variations of the Devil’s Claw, I was given a thorough tour of Station 22’s apparatus floor, accompanied by two of the station’s newer troops. Twenty-two’s ladder truck was interesting from several perspectives. For one thing, like many (if not all) of OKCFD’s other 100′ rear-mount aerials, 22’s Pierce is designated as a “Rescue-Ladder.” That’s not really surprising given that many ladder companies throughout the U.S. have been carrying extrication equipment for years and America’s near wholesale consolidation of rescue squads and pumpers into quasi-rescue (and sometimes fully equipped) “Rescue Engines.” Still, we don’t see many ladders that carry the “Rescue-Ladder” label.

“CRAFTED” TOOLS AND “SERIOUS” TOOLS. In its compartments, Rescue-Ladder 22’s tool cache included a broad range of types and applications worthy of the Rescue-Ladder distinction. Two contrasting pairs of tools (see above photos) were particularly eye-catching. The first pair was comprised of a Kelly bar reproduction and a convincing version of a Hayward Claw Tool. Both of these highly polished retro-classics appeared to have been artfully crafted in using hardened steel bar stock and splitting wedges formed by Quaker City Castings– perhaps in the fire department’s own shops.

And, the “serious” tools? This pair came together when (as shown in the bottom picture, above) each of the young firefighters pulled their personal axes of choice off the rig. The one on the left was an “Iron Fox” Pickhead. The one on the right was a “Wonderboy” Axe, produced by the Best Made Firefighter Tools, Blanchard, OK, a company operated by Oklahoma City Firefighters, featuring tools designed by Oklahoma City Firefighters. Incidentally, they also sell Dennis Paige’s Devil’s Claw.

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TRUCKS & TACTICAL RESILIENCE. If you asked a group of citizens to close their eyes and imagine firefighters battling a fire, I’m pretty sure their images would focus on water. And, even in some fire departments (many?) firefighter impressions of fire department operations concentrate almost entirely on water application.

Be that as it may, that’s certainly not the case in Oklahoma City. They’ve had their share of experiences that have underscored the criticality of broadly-based planning, training, and proficiency. One example comes instantly to mind– the bomb blast that swept away one whole side of Oklahoma City’s Alfred P. Murrah Federal Office Building on April 19, 1995. That act, still one of the most deadly acts of domestic terrorism in the U.S., killed 168 men, women and children and physically and emotionally scarred countless others, for life.

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In the immediate aftermath of one of America’s most horrible acts of domestic terrorism, the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Office Building, reliance on OKCFD’s fleet of ladder trucks was the real option available. AP Photo, Daily Beast.

In the hours immediately following the blast– before the full strength of the nation’s emergency response network could be mobilized– OKCFD understood the value of tactical resilience. Ladder trucks, rescue units, and ambulances, that normally played what might be considered a supportive role for engine companies at building fires– were elevated to the primary missions of scene stabilization, search, rescue and recovery, while engines picked up supportive roles. Ladder 22 was among the units deployed. Dennis Paige and his mates were among those on the scene.

Some places have ladder trucks, but lack “truckies.” Based on a short visit to OKCFD’s Station 22, there’s good evidence that isn’t a problem in OKC. The traditions of tool proficiency and “truck work” are alive, well, and in good hands.

SOURCES FOR THE DEVIL’S CLAW– THE R.A.G.E. COMPANY.  If you’re looking for a source for Dennis Paige’s “Devil’sClaw,” RAGE is always a good place to start.  Owner Tim Brozoskie specializes in fire tools and equipment developed and produced by firefighters. Tim is, himself, a career Firefighter/Emergency Vehicle Driver with Baltimore City Fire Department’s very busy Rescue 1, and a volunteer Captain with the Mt. Carmel Area Rescue Squad, Mt. Carmel, PA.  He’s a tool guy; he uses the stuff he sells.

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BALTIMORE (MD)– FORMER TRUCK 15, BALTIMORE FIRE DEPARTMENT

A UNIQUE “TRUCK” HOUSE.  Everybody’s got special interests in the fire service.” If your’s happens to focus on interesting “Enjine’s,” you’ve got pretty fertile territory; there’s likely to be an engine in virtually every fire station you pass– there’s got to be an interesting one every once in a while?  But, those whose preferences stray a little farther afield– say, heavy rescues or squads, hazmat units, trucks, etc.– have to be more patient, occasionally finding one mixed in with one of those ubiquitous pumpers.  For me, though, the real finds are those scarce single piece fire stations that house only a single, special service.

In this regard, it’s hard to imagine a better example than Baltimore’s former Truck 15. We were introduced to the station by a then-member of the company, Firefighter Jerry Smith, Jr. Jerry is now assigned to Rescue 1 at the Stedman mega-station.  15’s old house was a long, single-bay, turn-of-the-century station, which was, most recently, occupied by a single Seagrave tractor-drawn aerial– Truck 15.  On arrival, you found a wide street, populated by fairly spartan row-houses, a Baltimore staple.

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Inside the single door of the two-story station was an equally spare daytime environment.  The truck was out when we first arrived.  The front 2/3rds of the station which would normally be occupied by the truck was flanked by an array of old and older call-taking equipment (on the driver’s side of the truck) and rows of red-doored lockers, some of them with paneled wood doors, others the more modern louvered steel locker-room type. Hanging on the outside of many of the locker’s were the user’s personal day-to-day hand tool(s).

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TOOL PARADE. This should be a tradition– a requirement– for every special ops station. Put your tools out on the table, like wild west gunslingers in a poker game. It gives visitors an immediate lay of the land, and for occupants, an open invitation for continued tall tales, discussion, debate, and ridicule. In old 15’s, for example, there were, among other tools, a Boston Rake, a cane and a so-called “Ringer” Hook from Fire Hooks Unlimited, a combination of a Halligan Hook on one end and a Boston Rake on the other. Looking back on the histories of some of the tools hanging there was probably enough to rekindle memories of many an incident or opinion of the past.

Behind the truck, at the back of the bay, was an informal, open-plan “day room” composed of a mixed bag of lived in, “all-star” furniture.  And, along another outside wall, at the base of a spiral stair to the second floor (to keep the horses out of the bunk room) was a one-wall kitchen with a suspended Pompier ladder forming a very classy rack for pots and pans. VERY classy.

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This shot, taken from the spiral stair illustrated above, pretty well summarizes the unique character of Truck 15’s operation. The ultimate “truck cave,” right?
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Truck 15’s crew (Jerry Smith at the right), a short while before Truck 15 was taken out of service and the station was closed.

TOOL TIPS– A BREACHING PICKHEAD AXE FOR ROOF WORK.  You can tell a lot about the culture of a special ops company by looking at their tools and apparatus.  After 15’s truck was back in quarters, Jerry brought out a few tools that the company had tweaked-up. First, the tip of the 100′ stick was equipped with a very well-placed, self-leveling 500 Watt flood light, guaranteed to light up not only the contact area of the tip but also the entire roof area beyond.  The crew had also machined out a rounded somewhat sharpened cut in the adze of their Halligan for lock-pulling chores– the obvious advantage of their approach was that it left a very robust leading edge on the adz, rather than the pointed “Devil’s ears” of an “A-tool” machined out of the same area– ears that you commonly see that get peened over so quickly and aren’t aligned for lock pulling when you need them. Tools needed by the operator for roof ventilation chores were appropriately mounted at the tip of the aerial fly section.

To me, the simplest, but neatest, tweak was the slightly rounded “breaking” edge (rather than a sharp cutting edge) that Truck 15 had formed on the blade of their ventilation pickhead. Although this visit substantially pre-dated the Iron Fox’s popularization of this kind of striking edge, they were clearly following the same play book.

TOOL TIPS– THE HAND MAUL. As we walked by the lockers, Jerry (at the far right in the photo below) mentioned that, on those occasions when he was riding as acting officer, he carried a 3-pound rock hammer (small, short, hand maul or sledge) in his pocket.  Later, as we were about to leave, we had to ask: “Why would anyone carry that small sledge hammer in their pocket?”  The explanation actually made lots of sense; in Baltimore, truck officers customary perform forcible entry, by themselves.  Rather than awkwardly trying to strike and drive the Halligan bar with an axe, Jerry (and others?) did so with the rock hammer.

Nice idea.  We tried it out back home.  A car fire and a separate motor vehicle collision were all it took to confirm that the hand maul and Halligan are a great combination. Driving the Halligan, alone, with the hand maul is a pretty precise operation (which is more than most teams can say for the flat-head and Halligan combination). Over time, this idea has generated a lot of discussion and experimentation.  So much so that separate running blog post is devoted to the topic.  See “Smith-It” under the “Tools” category– we’ve dedicated the concept to Jerry.

TEAMWORK– RIDING ASSIGNMENTS. While some companies divide up chores at roll-call or prefer to do it en route to a call, Many others have chosen to develop more regularly used job descriptions for riding positions. The latter system was in effect at Truck 15, as summarized below. The most common building type in Truck 15’s first due was 2-story row houses, of “ordinary” construction (masonry walls w/ wood, floor and ceiling structure), so the assignments shown below are tailored for them– they might have been markedly different for other categories of emergencies:

 

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The crew had made several tool-related decisions in the interests of maximizing their efficiency, including the following:

  • Laddering Strategy. On arrival, the “Step” and “Tillerman” work together, as necessary to ladder the building. At 3-story dwellings, 24′ and 35′ ladders are thrown– heaviest first, to use freshness and strength effectively.  For 2-story buildings, 16′ and 24′ extensions were sometimes used instead, again with heaviest thrown first. So, ordinarily, the “Step” and “Tiller” threw the heavier ladder together. Then the “Step” climbed to the upper floor, while the “Tiller” threw the second ladder and started V.E.S. on the lower floor.
  • Pre-Mounted Roof Tools. Roof tools for the “Driver” were pre-mounted on the aerial to save time. The roof saw was secured in a diamond-plate box bolted to the transverse compartment of the tractor. An 8′ fiberglass-handled pike pole and pickhead axe were mounted on the tip of the aerial.
  • Distributing Other Tools. The “Step” customarily came off the rig with a 5′ Halligan Hook (or NY Roof Hook) and a Halligan Bar (for the officer). So these were within reach of the left (driver) side rear riding position. Hooks for the “Officer” and “Step” positions were laying transversely on the floor of the rear riding compartment, easily removed from either side. The “Tiller’s” Boston Rake was mounted on the upper trailer deck (as can be seen in the right-hand photo of the axe, above).

The “Step” and “Tiller” Positions (V.E.S.): At the scene (on the “A” side for the first due truck), the “Step” dismounts the truck and– if the building isn’t more than a few steps away– quickly tosses a Halligan bar toward the front porch (for the Officer) and their own 5′ Halligan Hook to a spot below or near the area they expect to be laddering. By then, the “Tiller” has dismounted and the two of them work on laddering for V.E.S., starting with the heaviest ladder (while they’re together and freshest) and working down from there. The “Step” generally takes the uppermost window, so on a two-story row house, they’re likely to be using their 5′ Halligan Hook working off of a 24″ extension ladder. In this scenario, the “Tiller” is likely to be using the roof ladder with their Boston Rake already attached, ready for use. Off they go.

The “Officer” Position (Initial Entry & Support of the Interior Team): The “Officer” gets off with a 4′ Halligan Hook, and does a quick size-up of the fire location and probable engine crew interior needs. After using the Halligan Bar, if needed, the Officer takes the Halligan Hook and starts searching and reconnoitering along the most direct route to the principal fire area, supporting the engine crew as necessary. Some officers preferred performing their search with the pickhead axe that was mounted on the right running board of the tractor.

The “Driver” Position (Roof Ventilation): The “Driver” positions the truck’s turntable for optimal access to the roof, then raises and positions the aerial for maximum roof ventilation convenience. A pickhead axe and a pike pole are already mounted at the tip so the “Driver” only has the saw to carry to the roof.  If there are skylights, vents and other roof features that can be opened relatively quickly, they will do so with the hand tools, before using the saw, as needed, for larger-surface-area ventilation.

TRAINING TIPS– ON-SITE ENTRY PROPS. Besides an organized plan of action, the presence of training props is a good sign of an active, engaged company– especially those with signs of use. Truck 15’s back yard had a nice multi-purpose forcible entry prop, and stacks of replacement materials for practicing and refining the kinds of entry hurdles they are likely to encounter.

POSTSCRIPT.  I visited Truck 15 in February of 2012.  At the time, it was the busiest truck in Baltimore.  Nevertheless, as a budget-saving measure, the city closed it and demobilized Truck 15, soon after my visit.  The most popular explanation for closing that house was that, since it was surrounded by so many other trucks, it had the territory that could be most easily divided up among other companies.  But the house wasn’t empty long.  It was reopened in July of 2012 by Engine 33 (formerly housed with Truck 5).