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Tales of a Volunteer Firefighter

January 20, 2002

Topics In This Journal Entry:

["Santa Says You are in Violation..."] [Cellar Savers] [What are Those Voices Upstairs?]
[Monday Nights are for Training] [A Picnic in the Woods Every Day] [Why Be a Vollie?]

"Santa Says You are in Violation..."

"Hey, Crabtree!" hollered one of the Captains at me "the Deputy Chief wants to see you in his office right away." We were putting our gear away after a ladder and roof venting drill one Monday night. I stopped what I was doing and went down to the Chief's office.

I found four other firefighters there ahead of me waiting. We were all volunteer firefighters on the Diamond Springs/El Dorado Fire Department in the California Sierra foothills. Just then Deputy Chief Christiansen came in and addressed us as we stood around his desk. "Well boys, the state fire marshall has come down hard on the department. We are no longer allowed to have any bearded firemen. The fire marshall says that facial hair prevents getting a good air-tight fit with your SCBA (self contained breathing apparatus) masks, and you are at risk if you have a beard."

All five of us had beards. One of the group started to ask a question... "What about if we use....." and the Deputy Chief interrupted him "No, even if you use a lubricant like KY-Jelly to make a seal, it won't be acceptable."

"You'll have to shave off your beards if you want to stay in the department" he concluded. "You've got a couple of weeks, until the Christmas party, to show up with a clean face. Any questions?"

"How about if I agree never to run into a burning building again?" I asked. Running into burning buildings had never been high on my list of favorite things. It was one of those things that you did because the job required it. "I'll even sign a waiver if you'd like."

"Sorry" he said "If you want to stay on as a volunteer you have to be able to do any of the jobs we may call on a firefighter to do. Either you or the beard has to go."

I drove home from training pretty depressed. I'd had a beard for nearly 15 years and the thought of losing it was same as if you'd told me that you were going to cut off my right arm! Penny had never seen me without a beard - how would she feel? And yet, I didn't want to leave the department. I really enjoyed working with the gang there and felt I was doing some good, even as a volunteer.

We talked it over at home. I knew that this was going to come, eventually. When I was in the Canterbury (NH) Fire Department, we had heard rumblings about beards and SCBAs. There had been "recommendations" but no requirements, but we all figured that it was just a matter of time. Penny wasn't real keen on the idea, but I decided to comply with the edict. However, I wasn't going to do it quietly and meekly. If I had to lose my beard, it was going to be done in style.

Over the next couple of weeks, the other four bearded "vollies" showed up clean shaven. They asked me what I was going to do - was I going to shave my beard? I just told them that I still had a little time, and was still making up my mind.

I quietly spoke with Forrest, our "sergeant at arms" and Eric, one of our paramedics. When I explained what I wanted to do, they grinned like a couple of conspirators. They agreed to make the arrangements. I swore them to secrecy "Above all, don't let the Chief or Deputy Chief know what is going on" I insisted. This has to be a surprise for them.

The night of the department Christmas party everyone turned out to the community hall in the little town of El Dorado - firefighters, paramedics, spouses, and children. There must have been a hundred people, more or less. I showed up in my suit and Christmas tie, and sporting my beard. The Deputy Chief looked at me real hard when I came in with my beard still on. I avoided eye contact, and managed to stay across the hall from him so he couldn't talk to me. I had a pretty good idea what was going through his head, however.

After the feed, one of the firefighters took the stage dressed up as Santa Claus and started handing out presents to the kids. When he was done with the toys, he pulled out an official looking document from his bag on the floor next to him. In a deep, serious voice, he announced to the group that had an unpleasant task to do and hoped that everyone would bear with him so he could get it over with as quickly as possible and not spoil the evening.

"Sergeant-at-arms Ward," he bellowed, "Escort firefighter Crabtree up here on the double!"

The Sergeant at arms "arrested" me
while the Deputy Chief looks on

Forrest was all ready - he even had his toy cowboy pistols strapped on. He and another firefighter were standing right behind me. With a show of roughness, they each grabbed one of my arms and marched me down to the stage. They flanked me as I stood before Santa, awaiting my sentencing. The children in the hall were all gathered around the stage, looking wide-eyed first at me and then Santa, and back again. They weren't sure what, but they knew that something was up.

Santa began "Under the power vested in me by the Fire Marshal of the State of California and the Diamond Springs/El Dorado Fire Department, I declare that your beard is in violation of NFPA regulations. I therefore sentence you to be shorn of said beard, immediately! Paramedics, carry out the sentence!"

"Lather him up good!"

"This hurts you more than it does us!"

With that, Forrest escorted me to a chair set in the middle of the stage. Eric and another paramedic lathered my face and, to the great delight of all the kids in the audience. shaved off my beard. I looked over to where Penny was seated, but she had left. She said later that she just couldn't bear to see what was going to happen. Deputy Chief Christensen had a funny look on his face as if he couldn't quite figure out whether he should be pleased or annoyed at all this monkey-business. He got back at me for my stunt, however. For six months thereafter, I was always the one that he picked to wear an SCBA at the scene, and he always timed my SCBA "suit up" drills personally. The look on his face at the Christmas party was worth it, however.

Penny had never seen me
without my beard

When I got home and looked in the mirror, I was shocked to see that sometime over the last 15 years, a second chin had snuck in and was firmly attached to my face. Penny didn't like my naked face at all, and hoped that this whole business was only temporary. And, it was. About a year or more later, we moved from El Dorado down the slope to a house we bought in Rescue, California. I now lived out of my old fire district and with a great deal of regret turned in my gear. The requirements of my "day job" increased, including a lot of business travel, and I just didn't have the time to join the Rescue Fire Department. I really missed being on the department - but I did grow my beard back, and have had it ever since!

Cellar Savers

"Yeah, I know all about the fire department - they're just a bunch of cellar savers". You hear this comment from folks even today. Every time I do it never fails to anger me. The departments and the volunteers work hard to save property and lives. Our response time to calls is measured in minutes, and almost always we are able to put fires out when they are small with minimal damage. It has not always been this way, however.

My first experience as a volunteer firefighter was in Effingham, New Hampshire, when I joined the town fire department in 1957 with a couple of my buddies. I was just finishing high school.

This was 45 years ago, and by today's standard things were pretty primitive. Like so many other towns in New Hampshire and Maine, Effingham didn't really have a fire department until the huge and disastrous wild fire of 1947. Shortly thereafter, one of the wealthier citizens in town, Charles Watts, donated a small piece of land and the money to build a two-bay, cinder-block fire station at Lord's Hill. This was in the geographical center of town, which meant it was a long run to most of the town. But, we had a station and were certainly not complaining.

Effingham Fire Department's
1950 Ford pumper

We only had a small department, with a 1931 Chevrolet pumper (purchased from the Rochester, NH Fire Department in 1948 for $500.00) and a home-made pumper on a 1950 Ford truck chassis. A local welder made a 1,000 gallon water tank for it. I remember spending one cold winter day with Bobby Laitinen and his older brother (who was then 2nd Deputy Chief on the Department) installing a 300 gpm single-stage pump on it. It was never got above -22o F all day, and we were laying under the truck on the snow to rig up the plumbing. One of us shuttled back and forth to the hardware store to cut and thread the lengths of galvanized pipe. When it was all done, however, we had a working fire engine for the one fire station in town.

It was tough getting enough volunteers to turn out for a call during the day time. Most everybody had jobs and were usually out of town. Sometimes only one or two would respond, and so we all worked to be able to handle any of the jobs that were needed - driving the engine, running the pumps, attacking the fire, etc. The concept of mutual aid, where other towns turned out to help, was brand new (The Ossipee Valley Mutual Aid Association wasn't organized until 1970, dispatched by the Carroll County Sheriff's Department). With not enough firefighters, limited equipment, primitive communications, and spotty mutual aid assistance, we often didn't get to the scene of a fire soon enough to do much more than save the chimneys and cellars.

The sight of a chimney standing a lonely sentinal over an empty cellar hole was not all that uncommon then. Perhaps 45 years ago the label "cellar saver" might have been justified. But every department I've been on since then has worked to improve their performance. Equipment and radios are much better, training is serious business, and response times are short anywhere in town. Mutual aid from adjacent towns is common. The "cellar saver" label no longer applies. They are insulting and mean-spirited words. I wish the folks that were so free with their opinions would put their labor where their mouths are and volunteer to their local fire department and work to make a difference.

What are Those Voices Upstairs?

"We had a guest staying with us when I was growing up, and they were at our place alone while we were out one time. When we got back, they were terrified!" Trish recounted to me one day at Church. "There are voices upstairs talking!" her guest said. "I didn't know there was anyone in the house with me - are you sure there aren't ghosts?"

Trish's father was in a volunteer fire department in New Jersey, but no one had told their guest about the fire department Plectron receiver that sat on a shelf upstairs. The Plectron system was the state-of-the-art for rural fire departments 15-20 years ago, and is still in use in here and there.

It can be set to "monitor" and all the radio chatter between dispatch and the fire engines on the assigned frequency is picked up. Or it can be set on "alarm" and will be silent until dispatch triggers a "tone" and then announces a fire call. Once the Plectron receives a "tone" all radio chatter comes through until it is reset to "alarm". Trish's guest was hearing the voices over the Plectron. I can understand how, if a person didn't know what it was, it could be pretty scary!

Son Jim (2nd row, left) and
I (2nd row, 4th from left)
and our Canterbury department

I got my first Plectron when I joined the Canterbury (NH) Volunteer Fire Department in 1986. It was a big, black metal box with a little short antenna. I installed it in the upstairs hall and turned the volume up as high as it would go. It could be heard from just about anywhere in the house. And, being right outside our bedroom door, it was guaranteed to raise you out of the soundest sleep when it went off at 3:00am - and everyone else in the house as well. Don, a former Fire Chief in Sebago, said that he would come out of a sound sleep in the middle of the night and be fully clothed before the tone and turn out call was completed! I have never been quite that fast, but I still lay out my clothes every night as if I am going to have to get into them quickly if the alarm sounds during the night.

Before the Plectron system rural fire departments relied on a system of fire sirens and fire phones spotted around town. We had a big red siren mounted on the front of our house in Taylor City, Effingham (NH) and a red fire phone in the kitchen. There were three or four of these phones and sirens located around town, and if someone wanted to report a fire there was number to call that rang all the phones at the same time. It would also ring if the fire tower on Green Mountain spotted a smoke or a forest fire.

My father's job for the Effingham Volunteer Fire Department was to answer the fire phone when it rang and blow the fire siren. We knew from the number of wails from the siren in what part of town the fire was and would turn out to get the fire engine or to go to the scene. Often the firemen would stop out front on their way and my father would yell from the porch where the call was.

Plectrons replaced the community fire phone system, and were replaced in turn by portable belt pagers. I received my first Motorola Minitor I in 1987. It was in a red plastic box a little bigger than a pack of cigarettes and slipped into a leather box clipped to your belt. With the Minitor system each fire fighter could receive the tones and announcements wherever they were - it was a wonderful improvement. Since then we have gone to smaller and more sensitive Minitor II and III models, but the basic concept is the same.

Most of us carry our turnout gear in our cars with us, so we can respond from anywhere in town when a call comes in. Shortly after the Minitors became available, so did the wider use of portable and car transceivers. In a rural department, communication has always been the weak link, and things are now much better than what they used to be only a few years ago so that the emphasis could shift from responding to the quality of the response.

Monday Nights are for Training

Every fire department I've been in have had their meetings and weekly training sessions on Monday night. One night of the month is the business meeting night, where the gang gathers to plan activities, schedule training nights, and just get together.

In Diamond Springs/El Dorado we had 40+ volunteers and about a dozen full-time firefighters or paramedics. Our monthly gatherings were held at Station 46. We'd pull out the trucks and set up folding tables and chairs in the equipment bay. We also had a full kitchen in the station, and we took turns cooking the meal. The highlight of the monthly meeting was the competition for two awards. The "Good Guy" award went to the firefighter who had done something really outstanding during the month preceeding - a spectacular medical rescue, work on a community service event, etc. It was much sought after, and always well deserved. The winner got to keep the trophy until the next month's meeting. The other award was the "Horse's Ass" award, and went to the biggest screw-up of the month. The trophy was the south end of a horse heading north. One time it went to the vollie who had responded to a call and didn't notice that he was laying out nearly a mile of 5" hose out the back of the engine as he sped down the road. Another time, the firefighter who got an engine stuck in the mud responding to a wildfire call was the lucky recipient. Sometimes if the meal was especially bad the cooks of the day got to share the award - and received the honor of cooking the next month's meal as well.

The other three Monday nights were always for drills. There was a rough cycle of technical training that filled the year. For example, just prior to wildfire season we all broke out our Nomex fire gear, "Alice" packs and "shake and bake" shelters. We practiced tieing forestry hose into bundles for back packing. We ran up and down hills with the gear, firing up the portable pumps and practicing building fire lines in the woods. I don't know how the training officer did it, but it seemed that wildfire drills were always on the hottest days of the year. Deploying our wildfire "shake and bake" shelters was also an annual event, run against the clock, and usually in the face of a stiff breeze from a large fan just to make things interesting.

The rest of the year was filled with ladder drills, roof venting drills, practic in drafting and pumping, setting up portable water tanks and shuttling water to them, hydrant drills, driver training, high angle rescue, negotiating an interior building obstacle course (with charged hose line, blacked out SCBA masks and full turnouts), vehicle extrication, and training in every other type of situation we might encounter. We had indoor drills on incident command, handling hazardous waste, propane truck fires, and mass casualty situations. At least once a month we all had to pass the SCBA drill - from street clothes, don your turnouts and your SCBA in less than one minute. For those of us who were Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs) we also had our annual continuing education requirements. In Canterbury we also made pre-disaster tours of sites around town with special hazards, like the apple orchard and turf farm where hazardous chemicals were stored. In both Effingham and Canterbury we took courses every spring at the Brentwood Fire School, and in Sebago we go to fire school in Gorham. There a variety of hands-on courses are taught, from pump operation to hose laying and more. And, there are the Fire Fighter I and II courses that are available evenings and weekends to further develop your skills.

Most of us liked vehicle extrication training the best. In Canterbury, for example, there was a steady supply of junk cars at the town dump for us to rip and cut apart to our hearts content. We would have extrication drills at least three or four times a year, and all of us were well trained when we had to deal with the real thing. In California we would make arrangements with a local salvage yard and met there to tear apart old cars at least twice a year.

We were able to put our extrication skills to use several times in Canterbury and Diamond Springs. One call I vividly remember involved a horrible car accident early one morning in a heavy rain. There were five people in the car that had slammed into a retaining wall and impaled the car on an old railroad rail. We were able to extricate all but one lady who was in the back seat, pinned to the wall. I crawled into the car to stabilize and monitor her while the rest of the department cut the car away from around us. I remember that call particularly because after the lady got out of the hospital and divorced her husband (who had been driving, drunk), she sued him and the department. I always try to take good notes or file a statement after a real bad one.

One extrication training drill used tire irons and common tools. Not a month later I came across another accident where the training was put to use. A car had hit the side of the mountain in the California Sierras and I found myself on the scene, off duty, with only my EMT jump kit. All four people in the car were badly injured, but the worst was the lady in the back seat. Her unfastened seat belt ripped her left arm off at the socket. We saved her arm, stabilized her and kept her from going into shock, and she was airlifted out in a helicopter and survived. All of the others recovered as well. Training pays off!

Another very important part of our training program was time spent after a bad accident call or an ugly medical call. In Canterbury the Deparment chaplain was also my neighbor and the local minister. Capt. (Rev) Carl would sit us all down and work through things with us. We had a section of interstate, an old folks home, and several of us on the fire department provided the first level of medical response before a rescue unit could respond from the next town. In my 5 years in Canterbury we had several motor vehicle deaths, some serious injuries, several deaths at the seniors housing, and a couple of emergency childbirths. Being on the scene of a bad accident, or having someone die while you were trying your best to save their life - these were traumatic experiences, especially for our younger firemen. Carl's calm words helped a lot of us through the trauma.

The Sebago Volunteer Fire Department
at the open house this fall with our new Engine 4.
I was out of town and missed the event but did get
to go on the first call with the new Engine a few days later!

The drills are time consuming, and to an older experienced member of the department, may seem unnecessary. I mean, if you already have been through extrication drill and know how to operate the "Jaws", why do you need to do it again? But drills are necessary. The training drills do two important things - they help meld the department of volunteers into a team who are used to working together. They also help ingrain what needs to be done, so that it becomes automatic. Further, with any volunteer department, none of us knows who will be responding to the next call and what task each of us might have to do. It really helps to be able to do most everything that is required.

A Picnic in the Woods Every Day

The annual exercise to deploy your "shake and bake" shelter and crawl into it in 60 seconds were fun training sessions, but the actual use of them when a forest fire has "blown up" and has encircled you is not. This flimsy little tinfoil tent has saved a lot of fire fighters since it was introduced.

They didn't have such a thing, however, when I worked for a summer as a Forest Technician with the US Forest Service. As part of the curriculum at the University of New Hampshire School of Forestry, all forestry and wildlife students were encouraged to work in their field for at least one summer before graduating. Dr. Paul Bruns arranged for me to work at the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest in Baker, Oregon the summer of 1960, between my sophmore and junior years.

As a Forest Technician (GS-4, $4,040 salary per year - a princely sum!) I was supposed to cruise and mark timber for forest sales. My supervisor at the District Ranger Station was Ranger Rasmussen. He met the crew of new summer help and promised us "a picnic in the woods every day" while we worked for him. I liked him immediately, and he turned out to be a great boss. He met his promise, too. We had a picnic in the woods every day that summer - sometimes it was baloney sandwiches from the cafes in town, sometime it was C-rations. And we saw all kinds of weather - snow, rain, hail, blistering heat, cold - but every day was a "picnic in the woods". We loved it!

We spent the first week learning to cruise and mark Douglas Fir and Ponderosa Pine, and were outfitted with hard hats, rucksacks, paint guns, talley sheets and biltmore sticks. As sort of an afterthought, we spent one afternoon building fire lines. "Will we have to fight any forest fires?" one of the crew asked Ranger Rasmussen. "Probably not, but just in case, you need to be prepared." And so we learned about Pulaskis, rubber Indian pumps, and fire rakes.

What we didn't know was that the summer of 1960 was going to be one of the driest on record in the Wallowa Whitman, and the forest fire season one of the worst. We spent more than half our time on forest fire crews, and we learned first-hand how powerful a forest fire can be. We were encircled by fire twice, and had a fire "blow up" in our face and narrowly escaped by running down a ridge ahead of it. And we learned to sleep in ashes and scrounge for food when the fire boss forgot about us a few times and left us on the line.

The forest fire crowned
and came back toward us

Let me quote from my journal of August 10, 1960 - Wednesday:

On standby AM. Played poker till noon - won 15 cents. Called to Baker at 1:30pm and went to Sumpter for a fire. Dug line for awhile, and then went to patrol fire line - got 1/2 way down into gulch when fire jumped line - before we got to bottom it had crowned out and we were surrounded by fire so we went up the hill into a burnt over area and had lunch. Patroled [sic] line until 5AM - slept an hour with Darrell while Woody + Chet patroled, then we patroled while they slept. Ron + Mike slept most of the time. Had camera + got flame pics. Barked shin on stump.

This was the Spaulding Gulch Fire near Sumpter, Oregon. Neither my journal nor the pictures I took don't do justice to the images, sounds, and smells I can remember vividly to this day. Our crew hiked up the fire line that had been made by a D-9 bulldozer, a huge piece of equipment with a blade about 9 feet wide. The line had originally been hand dug and then the bulldozer expanded it. This had been a stubborn fire to contain in difficult terrain. At the top of a ridge we were given instructions by the line boss to patrol about 1/2 mile of this broad fire line and put out any sparks that jumped it. We started down from the ridge into a gulley where our section of fire line to patrol was located. We had only gone 1/4 mile when the wind picked up and fire started spreading into the crowns of the trees. The wind sounded like a train, it was blowing so hard. The fire leapt from crown to crown, engulfing entire trees in flame in minutes. The crown fire, pushed by the dry wind, leaped across the fire line as if it were not there at all.

The fire encircled us

Our crew took shelter
in a burned-over area

The wind shifted, and the fire then started to move up the hill towards us. It was moving faster than a man could walk, and burning fire brands were falling all around us. The smoke was so thick that you couldn't see 5 yards in front of you.

Our whole crew ran back up the ridge about 1/2 miles into a small area where the fire had previously "spotted" and the fire recently put out. We took refuge on the ground next to a big log that was still smoking. The ashes were still warm. The roar of the forest fire surounded us, and then moved on down the ridge. We stayed in the burned over area for probably an hour, joined by another crew that had been cutting out "hot" snags. We shared our lunch of C-rations with them, but were out of water. I saw that they had a large 2-quart canteen, the kind with the striped canvas cover. "Can I have a drink?" I asked. "Sure, help yourself." the crew chief said with a grin.

I unscrewed the cap of the canteen and took a big swig - and spat it right out again! The canteen was filled with gasoline for their chain saw! "Oh, did you want water?" the guy said. "We're just about out, sorry."

I was usually pretty grubby
after a few days on the fire lines

We fought forest fires most of July and August. We dug a lot of fire line. Several of the areas where we went in to fight fires were the areas where we had marked and cruised timber. When the fires were out, we went back in to do a salvage cruise, marking the trees to cut with silver paint. We were black from the ashes, smelled and tasted like ashes, and when we finally got back to Baker to take a shower the water ran black. The smell of smoke never quite got out of our clothes, and we left a lot of them there when we headed back home after the summer was over.

I've had a lot of respect for the power of a forest fire ever since, and take my nomex wild fire gear and "shake and bake" shelters very seriously. It is an experience that I have no desire to repeat.

Why Be a Vollie?

So why do otherwise perfectly sane folks decide that they want to be a volunteer firefighter? It sure isn't the hours, or the pay. Getting roused out of bed when the tone goes off at 3:00 am when the roads are all ice and it is 10o below isn't much of an incentive either. Nor is spending the night on the fire line, or on the end of a hose line pouring water into what remains of someone's barn. No, there has to be something more that motivates the small but dedicated group of men and women in small towns around America to volunteer.

If you asked most of the vollies why they are on the department they probably would have to think a bit. I think a part of it is the camaraderie with the other firefighters on the department. You spend a lot of time with them, in training and on calls, and you develop into a team that share special skills and depend on each other to get the job done. Another part is a common sharing of discomfort and danger - something that the average person in town usually doesn't begin to comprehend.

I have found that the quickest way to learn the streets and roads in a small town, and to get acquainted with more people quickly, is to be on the local volunteer fire department. It is also a clear way to give back to the town some of the benefits that it gives to you by living there. And, it is a quick introduction to local politics, although that is not always a benefit.

Still a vollie, complete with beard!

Being a volunteer is also a bit of a thrill at times. There is a rush of adrenalin when responding to a call, with lights flashing and siren blasting. The acrid taste of danger in your mouth when a ceiling collapses above you while you are deep in a burning house. The warm feeling you get when you revive a man who had no pulse and no respiration when you arrived on the scene. These are the intangibles that make being a volunteer worth while.

I've been a vollie for over ten years now in four different small town fire departments as well as the U.S. Forest Service. The experience has returned more to me than I have been able to give, and I hope to be able to make a contribution for many years to come. And, yes - I have grown back my beard, but that is OK. I have no desire to run into burning buildings any more, and besides there is always a need for someone to drive the engine and run the pumps.

Topics In This Journal Entry:

["Santa Says You are in Violation..."] [Cellar Savers]
[What are Those Voices Upstairs?]
[Monday Nights are for Training] [A Picnic in the Woods Every Day]
[Why Be a Vollie?]

My memory on the Effingham FD is supplemented by the "Brief History of the Effingham Volunteer Fire Department", August 1978, by Chief Richard W. Thompson.

Allen Crabtree

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Last updated March 3, 2002

Copyright © 2001, 2002 Allen Crabtree