Hell erupts in California


Firefighting in California has a definition all its own. And, unfortunately, those who battle the flames, heat, and smoke have been put to the test recently with the eruption of several large wildfires.

The smoke from the fire above (the Wragg fire near Lake Berryessa/Napa area) was easily seen from my backyard. In fact, the fire was so large—over 8,000 acres and counting—that we first saw the smoke as we drove out of San Francisco a couple of days ago.

As of today, over 1,400 firefighters are battling this blast furnace in the hills. Much of the terrain is steep and nearly unreachable, but they’re there, somehow. And they’re also fighting the fires that endanger homes and animals. This thing is massive and people have been forced to flee their homes, leaving precious belongings behind. Believe me, this is not a fire where the shiny red trucks roll up, hook a hose to a hydrant, spray water for a few minutes, and all is well. Not even close. This one is D.A.N.G.E.R.O.U.S.!

I know, sitting at your computer in an area that’s regularly dampened by wonderfully cool and refreshing summer rains, you have no concept of a California wildfire. So, here’s a closeup journey inside the searing heat and flames of the Wragg fire, courtesy of photographer Donna Forman. Notice the special firefighting equipment—air tankers and helicopters. Remember, much of the area is not accessible by vehicle.

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Thanks so much to Donna Forman for these incredible photos. You can view more images of the fire at Donna Forman Photography. While you’re there say hi, and please tell her I sent you.

By the way, Donna is a retired Richmond, California K9 officer who worked two K9’s back to back. She also worked HRET, narcotics, and was the first female dirt bike Motorcycle officer.


Patti Philips: what does a firefighter wear


Firefighters have one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. Walking into a house fire that could reach 1000 degrees in under a minute (that’s not a typo) or a chemical fire that may reach double or triple that temperature in seconds, while  battling smoke inhalation as well, means a firefighter’s life depends on being supplied with the best equipment that money can buy. Without the proper gear, firefighters can’t stay inside a burning structure long enough to rescue victims or fight the fire successfully.

So, what is the right gear that keeps them safe and still allows them to do their jobs?

Tim Fitts, a veteran firefighter in North Carolina, and Coordinator of certification classes for firefighters and rescue squads at Guilford Technical Community College, demonstrated his gear on a 95 degree day in September. Fire isn’t selective about the weather, so it’s a good thing for us that firefighters train and work under all kinds of conditions.


The firefighter uniform is generally called ‘turnout gear’ by firefighters because they turn it inside out when not in use, so that they can step into it quickly and pull it on/up when the fire bell/siren sounds. Firefighters need to get completely dressed in about a minute, so any safe system that will speed up the process is used. Some guys pull on the boots and pants, grab the rest of the gear and finish getting dressed in the truck as it pulls out of the fire station.

The official name for the gear is Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).

Parts of the firefighter uniform:

While on the job at a fire or rescue operation that might result in a fire, most firefighters will wear these pieces of clothing:

  • Boots, insulated with steel toes and steel shank
  • Cotton t-shirt
  • Gloves, insulated leather
  • Helmet, with neck flap and eye protection
  • Hood, Nomex
  • Jacket, insulated, with Velcro and spring hooks
  • Pants, insulated, with Velcro and spring hooks, with extra padding and pockets
  • Suspenders


These three hoods are each made of different fabrics:

  • Kevlar blend
  • PBI/Kevlar
  • Nomex

Firefighters put a hood on before the jacket, so that it sits properly on the shoulders. They tend to wear two hoods to protect against a flashover, giving their heads the extra defense needed in the intense heat. If a flashover occurs, the firefighter will have about two seconds to get out of the building. If the hoods are not providing enough coverage, it will feel like 1000 bees stinging the ears at one time – it’s too hot to stand. It’s time to get out.


The helmets are made of thick, heat resistant plastic and often include Kevlar or Nomex flaps for the ears.


Firefighters are taught to fight fires on their knees (not while crawling) so the extra padding helps cushion the wear and tear on the knees.


In addition, the firefighters put on:

  • Airline and pressure gauge
  • Flashlight
  • Positive pressure mask
  • PASS device
  • Radio
  • SCBA shoulder straps, airtank bottle and backpack frame

The PASS device (Personal Alert Safety System) is a personal safety device used by firefighters entering a hazardous environment – a burning building. When the firefighter does not move for 30 seconds, it makes a loud, shrill, really annoying  sound, letting others in the area know that something is wrong.

Copy of FirefighterFittsMasksOldNewWPA14IMG_2766

The mask on the left is a newer model, the one on the right? Older. There has been an upgrade in technology for the plastic in the mask, developed because at high temperatures, the old plastic would fail (melt). It was the weakest part of the uniform. The new version will not fail as quickly.


Note that even the air tank is protected with a fire retardant fabric.


The idea is to be protected from the fire and to be able to breathe safely while he/she works. The positive pressure mask on the SCBA (Self Contained Breathing Apparatus) gear keeps the toxic air out as much as possible by allowing the tank air to flow continuously, even if the firefighter is not inhaling. By the way, the tanks are full of compressed air, not oxygen.


Most of the clothes have reflective tape so that the firefighter can be seen more easily through the smoke and low light/darkness. Some departments are large enough that they use color-coded reflective tape in order to tell the full-time firefighters and the volunteers apart.

The uniforms are sized to the individual firefighters, so that when they bend over, there is at least a two-inch overlap with the fabric pieces, and no skin is exposed to the crippling, blistering heat.


Hip boots of years ago, are now old school because of the area of the body they left unprotected from heat. Now the boots have steel toes and shanks and are calf high or knee high in length.

When fully dressed, the firefighter is wearing about 70 pounds of equipment. Add more weight for the tools they have to carry – picks, axes, etc – needed to fight the fire.

After ten years, all turnout gear must be thrown away. It wears out because of repeated exposure to the intense heat and toxic elements. Many large, active fire departments dispose of the clothing after only five years, because of their more frequent use and improvements in technology.

Firefighting gear is not fireproof. It is fire retardant.

Some of the clothing has 3 layers, each layer performing a different function. People can only tolerate temperatures to 135 degrees, so the specialized fabrics extend the time available to do the job. Firefighters get very uncomfortable at 250 degrees, and the time limit for the firefighter at that point is about 30 seconds to reach someone and get out. One of the firefighters at Command keeps track of the men/women – where they are in the structure and how long they’ve been working the fire.

Nomex degrades at 400 degrees, so needs to be used in addition to other fabrics if fighting a structural fire. It tends to split when the wearer is running. When combined with Kevlar, it becomes more flexible and the fabric breathes a bit better.

PBI degrades at 1100 degrees, allowing a much better chance for the firefighter to stay safe while fighting a house blaze. It stays intact in the extreme temperatures and allows the firefighter extra time to get to a victim and then get out.

Gortex helps shed water

Copy of FirefighterFittsPantsFabricWPA14DSC_1313

Heat goes through each layer a bit at a time. Each layer is a necessary barrier, in its place to protect the firefighter and keep his body from getting hotter than is safe.

After fires, all of the clothing needs to be taken apart and washed, because everything in a fire is carcinogenic. Hmm…that means that the entire time a firefighter is working the fire, his equipment has to protect him from the flames and the smoke, as well as anything else thrown into the air, both in the active fire and in the area outside the building.

Some fire Captains insist that the clothing be stored away from the sleeping area at the station, because it may still contain toxins even after being washed. If you get a chance to visit a Fire Station, you might be able to tell where the gear is kept, before you ever reach the room. The smoky odor is sharp and unforgettable.

Cost of Basic Turnout Gear (approximate)

  • Pants, jacket, gloves – $1,150.
  • Boots – $175.
  • Helmet – $150.
  • Nomex hood – $60.
  • PASS device – $300.
  • Airpack with mask – $4,500.



Tim Fitts told us about the testing going on at NC State’s College of Textiles, in the search for better, more effective, fire retardant fabrics.

To see a demonstration of how a firefighter’s uniform reacts to fire, click here for NC State’s PyroMan video:


For a demonstration of how quickly heat from a flame penetrates protective layers before reaching the skin, click here for NC State’s PyroMan animation:


Every second counts when rescuing you or your pets in a fire. We know that a simple house fire can fully engulf an 8’x10’ room in 90 seconds. That’s not a typo. If the firefighters are on the scene before that happens to the entire house, they need as much lead time as possible in order to keep a rescue operation from becoming a recovery operation. That’s when the best turnout gear on the market is worth every dime.

*Photos by Patti Phillips, taken at Guilford Technical Community College, NC, during The 2014 Writers’ Police Academy.


Thanks to Tim Fitts for generously sharing his knowledge and expertise. Tim is a veteran firefighter and Fire Occupational Extension Coordinator at GTCC. He’s in charge of all Con Ed certification and non-certification classes in Fire and Rescue subjects to members of NC fire departments and rescue squads. Any errors in fact are mine, not his.

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Patti Phillips is a transplanted metropolitan New Yorker/north Texan, now living in the piney state of North Carolina.

Her best investigative days are spent writing, attending The Writers’ Police Academy, cooking, traveling for research and playing golf. Her time on the golf course has been murderously valuable while creating the perfect alibi for the chief villain in her novel, One Sweet Motion. Did you know that there are spots on a golf course that can’t be accessed by listening devices?

Ms. Phillips (writing as Detective Charlie Kerrian) can be found at www.kerriansnotebook.com. Her book reviews can be read at www.nightstandbookreviews.com

Unexpected fire hazards


Most people know it’s dangerous to smoke inside the house or leave candles unattended because it could start a fire. But not all fire hazards are so predictable. The lesser-known fire hazards are just as concerning, if not more so, than the most common ones because you don’t see them coming until it’s too late. Here are the top 10 unexpected fire hazards in the home.

  1. Laptops

    If you have a laptop, then you know that thing can get pretty hot in no time. A hot laptop that’s left on a bed, couch, blanket, or another soft surface can prevent proper airflow in and out of the cooling vents, and it may produce enough heat to ignite and start a fire. Protect your laptop from overheating and starting a fire by leaving it on a desk or laptop stand.

  2. Dryer lint

    Dryer lint may not seem like a legitimate danger, but this little ball of fluff can be quite the fire hazard if it’s not removed before or after drying clothes. Excessive heat and lint buildup are a recipe for disaster. It’s important to clean the dryer vent and exhaust duct regularly, as well as the interior of the dryer chassis to clear any lint clogs.

  3. Stacks of newspaper

    That stack of newspapers you’re collecting in the corner to recycle or eventually read is more of a fire hazard than you may think. If newspapers get too close to a heat source, they can catch on fire. If you’re going to keep newspapers in your house, keep the stacks short and store them in a cool, dry place.

  4. Electric blankets and heating pads

    Electric blankets and heating pads might not seem very concerning, but these heating tools can be extremely hazardous if misused. Heating pads and electric blankets have the ability to get very hot and anytime you have excessive heat buildup, a fire can start. To prevent these tools from starting a fire, keep your heating pad and electric blanket on the lowest setting and do not use for more than the recommended time.

  5. Old appliances

    An old appliance is more than a nuisance; it’s a disaster waiting to happen. Old appliances can have shoddy wiring and deteriorated insulation that could start a fire with just one spark. It’s crucial that you check your appliances regularly and inspect electrical cords and connections to make sure they are in good condition.

  6. Barbecue charcoal

    After barbecuing, many people just throw their bag of charcoal into a storage closet and shut the door without any concern for what could happen. If the coal is damp, it could ignite itself and start a serious fire. To prevent such a devastating disaster, place the charcoal in a metal pail or garbage can and secure it tightly with a lid. Store the container in a cool, dry place that has enough space to let heat escape should the coals self-ignite.

  7. Oil soaked rags

    The next time you work on your car or clean and lubricate your bicycle, be sure to hang your oil soaked rags outside or in a well ventilated room so that they can dry properly and the heat fully escapes before washing. Oily rags that are piled up can ignite themselves and cause a serious fire.

  8. Matches and lighters

    How many times have you collected match books and carelessly thrown them into a drawer? Chances are you’ve done this once or twice before. Matches can easily ignite if they rub against a rough surface, and lighters can accidentally ignite if the wheel moves in just the right way. If your matches are stored with paper or other flammable materials, it could be disastrous. When keeping matches and lighters in your house, make sure they are out of a child’s reach and they are stored in a safe, dry place away from anything that might accidentally ignite them.

  9. Clutter in the closet

    Stacking your clothes to the top of the closet might not seem like a big deal, but if your wool sweater or cotton T-shirt touches an exposed light bulb, it could lead to a major fire. Nearly 12% of all house fires start in a closet because homeowners ignore the closet light fixtures and stack combustible materials close to the glowing, hot bulb. You can prevent a disaster from happening inside your closet by installing the proper enclosed light fixtures and keeping your belongings far away from the light bulb.

  10. Dust

    Dust bunnies aren’t just an annoyance — they’re also a danger to your safety. Dust can be a fire hazard if it collects near floor heaters, electronics, and sockets. If sparks fly, dust piles can ignite and cause a fire. Regular dusting and vacuuming with a hose can significantly reduce the amount of dust that lingers near your electrical outlets and appliances. Pay special attention to the back of entertainment centers and any crevices that might collect dust.

*Today’s article brought to you by www.RentersInsurance.com

What Goes Up...Explodes


Fireworks displays are often hand-fired, Joe Collins’ favorite way of shooting a show. And, this past weekend, he and a friend photographed a hand-fired show from beginning to end. Here’s what he had to say about the experience.

Loaded Trailer

Above, is a trailer loaded out for the show with racks, mortars, buckets, post-hole digger, fire extinguishers and other things needed.

Dropped Show

The show is “Dropped”—delivered by a special crew with the proper training, equipment, placards, trucks and certifications.


The mortars are dug in. Fours are in front, fives are in the middle and threes are at the end. This placement reduces the chances of loading the wrong sized shell into a mortar.

Dropping Finales

Finale racks are screwed together, and the shells are dropped. Finales are long chains of shells tied together with quickmatch so that when one shell is lit, the entire rack will fire in sequence.

Finale Racks

Above, you can see all the finale racks ready to be shot.

Bucket of 5s

The shells to be shot individually are put into buckets—basically a garbage can. With the lid turned upside down this provides some protection for the shells before they are loaded. Each size of shell has its own bucket. The person responsible for getting the shells out for the loader is called a “Bucket Tender.”


The cakes are set up. A cake is a multi-part firework. Each cardboard tube contains a shell or effect and all are lit off in sequence once the fuse is lit.

The next step is to wait for it to get dark. Bring bug spray, lawn chairs and plenty of water to drink!

Fusee Closeup

Something very much like a road flare—called a “Fusee” is fastened to the end of a piece of conduit. To light a shell, touch the burning end of the Fusee to the quickmatch or visco, make sure it is lit and briskly step away.

Lighting Shells

The bucket tender is to the left. And the shooter is lighting quickmatch which will light the shell.

Lifting Shell

To the loaders and bucket tenders, this is what a shell looks like as it’s lifting. In this case, it’s a five-inch shell.

I like to tell people I haven’t seen a fireworks show since I started shooting them because what you see above is pretty much all that I get to see.

Shell Hand-off

The loader is getting more shells from the bucket tender to be loaded into mortars. Note the fusee in the back pocket of the loader—in this case me. The extra fusee is a backup if something goes wrong with the one being used to light shells.

Loading Shells

Yes, we are often that close to lifting shells as we are loading. Although it looks as though I have my head over the mortar, I’m trying to be as far away from the mortar as I can, facing another direction as I drop the shell.

A lot of teamwork, training, experience and most importantly, trust is involved in shooting a fireworks show.

Stepping Fast

And everyone has to hustle, while being safe.

Cakes Lifting

Every once in a while, hit a cake or two. Yes, it does sometimes get a bit bright.

When the bucket tenders are out of shells, they turn their bucket over to let everyone know that they have no more shells. Then they can watch the end of the show.

Finale Lifting

Naturally, the last thing fired are the finale’s. I was about three-foot away from the racks when the shells started lifting.

Safety Check

When the show is done, every mortar and cake is checked to see if all the shells have fired. If a shell hasn’t lifted for some reason, the mortar is filled with water and it’s removed to go back to the fireworks company to see what went wrong.


Above, you can see where we blew the top off a five-inch mortar. It landed two-feet from a bucket tender’s head.

Then the hard work starts, tearing down everything and packing it away for the trip back to the fireworks bunker.

The job of a pyrotechnician is physically demanding, sometimes dangerous, doesn’t pay very well, and requires a lot of planning, training and experience to pull off, but the result is worth it!

* Joe Collins is a twelve-year veteran firefighter/paramedic in the busiest volunteer fire department in his county. He holds numerous fire and EMS certifications—many of the same as professional firefighters. During the day he works as a Critical Care Paramedic in the highest call volume EMS service in Iowa. For the past seven years, he has been a professional pyrotechnican working in the fireworks display industry.



fireworks: behind the scenes

Everyone likes the Fourth of July–fireworks, food, and fun. For some of us, it’s a time of hard work, thrills, and sometimes danger.

For the past seven years, I have been a professional pyrotechnican working in the fireworks display industry.

The BATF—Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, abbreviated to ATF has defined various classes of fireworks. Consumer fireworks are most often classified as Class 1.4G—stuff you can buy in stores and shoot in your back yard—state and local laws permitting.

Most display fireworks are classified as Class 1.3G. I have a federal license to posses and shoot Class 1.3G fireworks as long as I am working for the display company that sponsored my license.

Now that the legalities are out of the way, let’s get to the fun stuff!


The cone at the bottom of a typical shell is where the lift charge is located which is simply a bag of black powder enclosed in a protective cone of cardboard.

five inch shell

Tied into the bottom of the shell is quickmatch which is black match—cotton string covered or soaked in black powder that is enclosed in a paper tube or plastic tube all along the whole length. The tube forces the fire down at a very high speed (approximately 30 feet per second). This is what we light to “lift” the shell from the mortar, either electrically or by fire.


quickmatch closeup

You can see the blackmatch in the close up above.

The whole shell is wrapped in craft-type paper secured with glue.

On the top is a loop of string that is used to keep the quickmatch in the right place and in larger shells is used to lower the shell into the mortar.

To lift a shell, you need a mortar. They come in various sizes and are often held together to accomplish certain effects—the one below is called a finale rack—a series of mortars tied together that all lift shells at the end of a show.

finale rack

As you can see, there are several different sizes and the company I work for has a few of them.

mortar storage

Single mortars are what you see below and are often buried into the ground to stabilize them.


And, they come in a wide variety of sizes.

single mortar storage

big mortar

Our mortars are constructed of fiberglass which doesn’t cause the shrapnel problems if they blow out like the old steel mortars. They are also cheap to make and are lightweight.

mortar closeup

Shells blowing apart mortars happens more often than you would think and makes for an exciting experience when you are close to them.

This is why we wear protective clothing: it’s mandatory that you wear blue jeans, a cotton shirt, a helmet with a face shield and ear protection, gloves, and safety glasses.

safety gear

The most complex of shows to set up and shoot are electrically fired. Some shows are also required to be electrically fired—like those set to music and every barge shoot.

wired barge

The shells are ignited by an electric match which, when an electric current is applied to it, ignites a combustible compound. Think of a model rocket igniter but much more powerful.


The matches are wired into slats which are screwed to the top of the mortar racks.


slat closeup

The slats plug into cables.

slat cables

As you can see, it takes more than a few cables to wire up the shows.

The cables are plugged into a firing panel.

firing panel back

Firing panels come in a wide variety of configurations and sizes, some small:

small firing panel

Note the battery cables—most shows are fired using a car battery.

And some large-bigger shows are fired with larger panels.

100 shot firing panel

You may only notice that there are fifty switches. There are two banks. When you’ve fired the first fifty-shells, you flip a switch and you can shoot the second bank of shells.

bank switch

The really difficult part is making sure that the shells will fire when you flip the switch. There is a test function on the firing board which you can see below.

test and firing switch

There is an LED over each switch and if it doesn’t glow when you hit the test switch, then you have to figure out what is wrong with the circuit which can be very tedious to track down.

firing switches

Once the shells are loaded, wired, tested and otherwise ready to go, you can sit back and enjoy the show.

Next time we get to my favorite way of shooting a fireworks show—hand fired.


Fire-Fighting Up On Blue


Today, you are going to learn how to run a fire apparatus pump. It isn’t as hard as you think and the steps are almost universal among all apparatus pumps. Naturally, there sometimes are more steps involved, and details like priming the pump–if needed, and proper settings of the throttle, but this should give you a rough idea as to how it’s done.

Who runs the pump? That’s easy, the person that drove the apparatus. Often called the engineer, they are responsible for getting the crew safely to the fire, placing the apparatus where it is most effectively used, and all aspects of pump operations including charging hoses, water supply, and making sure that the crews have sufficient water at an appropriate pressure to effectively fight the fire.

drivers side

Yes, it looks like something from Star Trek, but most of the switches are for emergency lights and radios.

The first step is to provide power to the pump. Usually, this is done by a PTO—Power Take Off.

On our Engine One, you put the apparatus into neutral, put the parking brake on, flip this switch, and then put it into drive. Yes, that means where you stop is where you pump. Some apparatus can “pump and roll,” but that’s a subject for another day. When the green lights come on, you can move to the pump panel.


Engine One’s pump panel is used in this example.

pump panel

Another part of the engine that looks like it’s from Star Trek, but it isn’t that hard to run.

The second step is to get water to the pump. There are several potential sources ranging from hydrants to drop tanks, and other apparatus and all are handled in different ways.

For illustration purposes, let’s use the internal water supply of 1500 gallons from Engine One. It’s one lever. Move it all the way forward, slowly.

Step three can be a bit tricky—provide water to the hose. To make it easier, our department has color coded tags everywhere. Say the crew wants to use the blue pre-connect, they grab the blue hose, and check the blue tag above the hose tray to make sure the color matches which line they want charged.

Up on Blue

blue pre-connect

And on the pump panel, you see a blue tag, and a name on the hose your attack crew should have in their hands. “Up on blue!” would be the command to charge this hose with water. Again, you want to do this slowly. Everyone, be it the engineer to the attack crews must open and close their nozzles or valves slowly to prevent something called, “water hammer” where the sudden change in pressure could rupture a hose or damage the pump.

Hint, make sure the hose is completely out of the tray before charging it with water as expands to the point where you can’t get the hose out. Generally, you have to cut the hose to pieces to get it out which is very embarrassing.

The final step is to build pressure to the hose you have selected. This is done by a hand throttle on the pump panel.

hand throttle

This controls the throttle to the pump and the pressure of the water to the hoses. The red button in the middle is an emergency shut down.

Almost every aspect of the pump is connected to a gauge, making it a bit easier to see what you are doing.


How much pressure you use is dependent on the size of the hose. Say you have an 1-3/4 hose, generally it will have 100 PSI or so of pressure. Yes, you can stuff 275 PSI down it, but the attack crews will be screaming at you as the line will be uncontrollable.

That’s it, four steps to pump water from a fire apparatus. It doesn’t matter if the pump panel looks like this:

t4 pump panel

Or is a completely computer controlled system like what is on our Squad 3:

S3 pump panel

The new systems can do almost everything short of ordering you pizza, but I still like the old way of doing things as that is what I learned on when I joined the fire service.

That’s roughly about all you need to know how to pump water from fire apparatus. It isn’t that hard, is it?

Joe Collins is a twelve-year veteran firefighter/paramedic in the busiest volunteer fire department in our county. He holds numerous fire and EMS certifications—many of the same as professional firefighters. During the day he works as a Critical Care Paramedic in the highest call volume EMS service in Iowa.

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Want to learn more about firefighters and firefighting equipment? The Writers’ Police Academy features an on-site, working fire station. You’ll have to opportunity to see, touch, and try on the gear!



Hurry! Hurry! Hurry!

Sisters in Crime will pay most of your registration fee!

Sisters in Crime members can attend the Writers’ Police Academy, to be held Sept. 23 to 25, 2011 near Greensboro, North Carolina, for a deeply-discounted registration fee of $100. SinC national will pay the balance of members’ $255 registration.

Act quickly to take advantage of this offer, which is in effect until June 15, 2011.

If you’re not a Sisters in Crime member, you can sign up for a SinC membership to receive the discount. The annual membership fee for a SinC professional membership is $40.


Firefighter Joe Collins: Breathing Fire

I’m a twelve-year veteran firefighter/paramedic in the busiest volunteer fire department in our county. I hold numerous fire and EMS certifications—many of the same as professional firefighters. My day job is as a Critical Care Paramedic in the highest call volume EMS service in Iowa.

Breathing Fire

In the old days of firefighting, firefighters rarely entered a burning building as the environment was hot, smoky and filled with dangerous gases that could kill immediately or slowly—over years and why many of those old firefighters are dead from cancer.

SCBA—Self Contained Breathing Apparatus has evolved over the years into equipment that can protect a firefighter in IDLH (Immediate Danger to Life and Health) Atmospheres. Note, these aren’t rated for use in deep water like SCUBA.

An important fact that is gotten wrong by many writers and reporters is that the bottles used in SCBA don’t contain pure oxygen, but the same air that you breathe—though filtered. Oxygen is an accelerant and if there was a leak, it would be like having a flame thrower on your back.

The typical SCBA is comprised of several components starting with the air bottle. The old air bottles were made of steel and rarely could take a pressure of more than 2300 PSI, so they didn’t provide as much time in a fire. They were also quite heavy.

old bottle

Modern bottles are constructed of aluminum covered with spun fiberglass or carbon fiber and are filled to pressures of 4,500 PSI. In theory, that means that you can breathe for forty-five minutes in a fire—which never happens even under ideal conditions.

scba bottle

Since you can’t breathe air at 4,500 PSI, so there are two regulators, the first stage to reduce the pressure of air to allow it to be used by the mask, and a second stage to reduce it to a level just above atmospheric pressure.


Air is delivered to the mask via a demand valve—which means that they are activated by inhalation. A safety feature is that if your mask seal against your face is broken, it will provide continuous positive pressure—providing constant airflow to keep smoke and other dangerous gases out of the mask.


This is an SCBA. Ours are made by MSA, but there are several manufacturers.


What you see here is a a combined PASS device along with an air gauge. Various alarms, from bells to buzzers mean that you have less than ten-minutes of air remaining and better get out of the fire.


A PASS device (Personal Alert Safety System) is a personal safety device used primarily by firefighters which sounds a loud audible alert notifying others in the area that a firefighter is in trouble. The PASS device will automatically activate if the device does not detect motion for a certain short time, typically 15-30 seconds, so that the alert will sound if the firefighter is seriously injured or otherwise incapacitated. They are loud, at least 95-decibels and can be manually activated by the firefighter if they get into trouble.

Our masks have a display which shows the remaining air. Some SCBA even have remote monitoring—each firefighter’s air status and other information can be monitored from outside the building.

Mask Display

scba mask

Many of the seats in fire apparatus have SCBA holders built into them. You sit on the seat, put on your safety belt and can slip on your air pack and other equipment. When you arrive on a fire scene, you pull a cord to release the SCBA.

911 Seat

Extra air packs and bottles are stored in various places all throughout the apparatus. When a firefighter comes out from the fire, they can, generally in less than a minute, change out their air bottle for a full one and the empty ones refilled.

Extra Bottles

Stowed SCBA

SCBA bottles are filled using a cascade system. There is one on our Engine 1, as you can see here. There are three six-thousand PSI tanks. How a cascade system works and is used is for another article.

E1 Cascade

There is no air compressor on the engine, so those air bottles are filled from a cascade system in the fire station that does have an air compressor. The yellow cylinder that you see in both pictures holds the bottles while they are being filled, to provide protection if the bottle ruptures.

Cascade Compressor

SCBA systems typically weigh about 25 lbs and start at about $1,500 and can easily go above $7,000. This means that a firefighter, full outfitted, when they step of the apparatus, ready to fight the fire, is wearing upwards of 60 lbs of gear costing up to or over $10,000.

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Want to learn more about firefighters and firefighting equipment? The Writers’ Police Academy features an on-site, working fire station. You’ll have to opportunity to see, touch, and try on the gear!




Firefighter Joe Collins: Bunker Gear


I’m a twelve-year veteran firefighter/paramedic in the busiest volunteer fire department in our county. I hold numerous fire and EMS certifications—many of the same as professional firefighters. My day job is as a Critical Care Paramedic in the highest call volume EMS service in Iowa.

Bunker Gear

Crawling into a burning building isn’t for everyone. But with the protection offered by modern bunker gear, also known as turnout gear or structural firefighting gear it just a bit safer. The picture above shows me in some of my old gear.

Modern bunker gear is constructed of space age materials—some of the same used in space suits. It must meet the requirement of not melting, igniting, dripping or separating when exposed to a heat of 500°F for five-minutes. Considering that in structure fires ceiling temperatures as much as 1000 F have been recorded, it doesn’t provide as much protection as you would think. Those temperatures are also why we do most of our work crawling along the floor.

The outer shell is constructed of various combinations of Kevlar and Nomex. Constructed of rip stop weave, it is treated with a water repellent finish. It also has a great deal of reflective material—the yellow and gray strips you see in the picture. Standard colors are black, khaki, rust, yellow.

outside coat

The inner shell has two components, a moisture barrier and a thermal barrier. The moisture barrier could be made of several different materials including Nomex/Kevlar, and Aramid or similar materials. In the picture, the white layer is the moisture barrier.

inside coat

The quilted layer is the thermal layer and is also made of several different materials much like the moisture barrier in various combinations as specified by government standards.

Between the inner shell and the outer shell, which are snapped or zipped together are air pockets, “dead zones,” to help to further insulate the wearer from the extreme environments of fires.

Bunker boots are made out of leather or rubber and are slipped inside the bunker pants to provide more protection. There is a steel plate along the bottom of the boot as well as a steel toe. While it does look like these boots are insulated, when standing around in the winter, they can get very cold—I always kept a thick pair of cotton socks with my gear to keep from getting frozen feet.

old boot

Our new boots provide a great deal more comfort and insulation with the same or more protection.

new boot

The helmet is designed to protect firefighters from falling debris and it also protects against electrical, heat, and steam burns. The traditional helmet is constructed of leather, but they are also constructed of other materials including carbon fiber and plastic combinations for a lightweight design for comfort. A Kevlar lining adds strength and protection. You can see my helmet has a visor, and extrication goggles. Some firefighters put a band around their helmet which can hold a flashlight, door props, etc or otherwise personalize it.


Although the helmet does provide some protection for the ears, neck and part of the face, most firefighters wear a smoke hood constructed of Nomex and other materials to provide protection for ears, neck and parts of the face not covered by a SCBA mask. Smoke hoods are also handy for keeping your ears warm while working a winter car wreck.

smoke hood

Firefighting gloves are designed to protect from extreme heat, sharp objects while still allowing some dexterity. They aren’t waterproof and can get cold during a winter structure fire.

bunker gloves

Below is some of the stuff I carry in my pockets, including a traffic vest, radio, various wrenches, shears, door stops and strapping that can be used to bail out of a building or secure various things, and firefighting and extrication gloves. What you bring with you is entirely is an individual choice and is sometimes dictated by the area where you work—I don’t carry elevator tools because we don’t have very many in this area. You can also see my SCBA mask which when not being used, I carry in a bag on a loop on my gear.

carry stuff

There are other types of firefighting gear including woodland, Haz-Mat, proximity gear which has is turnout gear with an outer layer of heat-reflecting metallic materials and is used in extreme firefighting environments such as aircraft fires.

Considering the things that firefighters are exposed to, many of them cancer causing, you need a special washing machine to clean the gear.

washing machine

Bunker gear has a life expectancy and should be replaced at least every five-years. Considering that it costs upwards of $1,700 for just basic bunker gear, smoke hood, helmet, gloves and bunker boots, outfitting a firefighter is very expensive and you can imagine how much it would cost for a large department.

old gear

No matter, modern bunker gear has made great strides since the times of plastic helmets, rubber jackets and thigh high boots.

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Want to learn more about firefighters and the equipment used by them? We have an on-site, working fire station on the Writers’ Police Academy grounds, and we’re offering workshops on arson and much more! Did I mention the firefighters and EMS workers who’ll be on hand to answer your questions? Real action demos throughout the event.

Have you registered?


Big announcement coming soon!!


Firefighter Joe Collins: Vehicle Extrication - Getting The Victims Out Safely


I’m a twelve-year veteran firefighter/paramedic in the busiest volunteer fire department in our county. I hold numerous fire and EMS certifications—many of the same as professional firefighters. My day job is as a Critical Care Paramedic in the highest call volume EMS service in Iowa.

Vehicle Extrication

At our department we have two sets of tools, one completely portable and the other built into the Rescue Squad.

This is the portable set of tools. To get it running, you need to take the generator from a compartment, hook up the hoses and tools and then power up the generator. This tool is handy when you have a car wreck a long ways away from the street, road or highway. Below are the tools in the engine as they are stowed.

power unit

You can see that the power unit is accessible, but sort of crammed into the engine along with a number of other things including wooden cribbing, ventilation fans, and hotel packs of hose.

The tools built into the squad are powered by a generator in the vehicle which is handy–pull up close to the car wreck, hit a switch, grab the tools and go to work. They can also have more hose added to them for car wrecks that are further away than can normally reached with the fifty-foot reel of hose hooked into the tools.


Before a vehicle is worked on, it must be properly secured as the tools are so powerful that they can lift a vehicle from the ground. Most departments use various forms of cribbing. Ours are made of constructed of a high strength polymer. We still have wooden cribbing on some of our apparatus. At a complex car wreck, you sometimes can’t have enough cribbing.

cribbing storage

Above, you can see our cribbing storage in our Rescue Squad.



You can see cribbing being used on the right-hand side of the vehicle.


We also use rescue jacks to stabilize vehicles. Above you can see where they are stowed and below you can see them employed.


We also use a wide variety of hand tools to extricate victims from vehicles.

hand tools

The most important tool used for extrication is a long-blade saw. While one part of the crew is using a cutter to pull a roof, another can be sawing on the other side.

Air powered lift bags are also an important tool. The smallest one in the picture below can lift a fully loaded fire engine. This is another tool that needs to be used with cribbing.


With the amount of force that these tools can generate, they are often quite dangerous for the operator and require constant training to use safely.

Many of the action pictures you see above are from training and we try to cut apart a number of cars during training exercises throughout the year. The firefighters wearing yellow helmets are probationary members so everyone will learn to properly use them in controlled circumstances. There are also experts in the field who travel throughout the country teaching classes and always new information in the trade journals about extrication from newer vehicles.

Extrication tools and the techniques to use them have changed a great deal throughout the years. The first set of tools that I learned to use were Hurst tools and it took two strong men to properly operate safely as they were so heavy.

Patient safety is also a consideration due to the number of air-bags and explosive seat belt tensioners now in vehicles—it’s never a good idea to cut through one of these as they can deploy, injuring responders inside the vehicle doing patient care and furthering injuring patients.

Hybrid cars are also another very dangerous vehicle to cut apart. You aren’t supposed to cut certain colored wires, but in the dark, at 2 a.m., under the lights we use to illuminate a scene it’s sometimes makes it difficult to find them. The batteries, conventional and the ones in hybrid vehicles are all dangerous to responders.

What you have seen above isn’t necessarily all the tools used by all departments, but should give you an idea of what the tools and accessories are and how they are used.

If you want to see some very interesting techniques behind vehicle extrication, I encourage you to to to <http://www.fireengineering.com/index/extrication_zone.html> The videos and photos are what we use to train our members in the increasingly complex skills required to safely do vehicle extrication.

Firefighter Joe Collins: Jaws Of Life


I’m a twelve-year veteran firefighter/paramedic in the busiest volunteer fire department in our county. I hold numerous fire and EMS certifications—many of the same as professional firefighters. My day job is as a Critical Care Paramedic in the highest call volume EMS service in Iowa.

Jaws Of Life

The “Jaws of Life” while sounding only like one tool are actually a series of tools including cutters, spreaders, spreader-cutters, and rams. The jaws were originally designed and trademarked by Hurst Performance Tools in 1963 as tools to cut entrapped race car drivers from their vehicles after a crash.

The philosophy behind the use of these tools is to remove the vehicle from around the patient, not the other way around. It can take over twenty-minutes to properly do this during a difficult extrication, such as a rollover or a vehicle on its side in a ditch. Often, when news pictures or videos are shown after a car wreck it’s after the tools have been used to extricate the victims from the vehicle so the wreck looks worse than it did when the fire department rolled up.

Above, you can see a door that we had to pop off–”Door Pop,” to get the patient from the vehicle.

Powered by a gasoline, diesel, self-contained generators, or even hand or foot pumps all use hydraulics at pressures up to or over 10,000 psi.

The above power unit is gas-powered. Notice the two valves on the left side of the generator. Both tools can be used simultaneously and one firefighter always stays by the unit to control those valves.

The tools used at our department are TNT Rescue Tools (http://www.tntrescue.com/), but there are other manufacturers. Since I’m more familiar with TNT Rescue Tools, I’ll be quoting numbers from their specifications.

A cutter is tool that cuts through metal with as much as 320,000 pounds of cutting force using metal blades and is often called a crab cutter due to the shape of the blades. When we cut off a roof–”Roof Pull,” to get a patient, this tool can cut through all the pillars holding the roof on a vehicle in a matter of minutes.

The cutter, like most tools is controlled by twisting the handle on the left side, one direction spreads the tool, the other closes it.

A spreader has two arms that come together in a narrow tip. It is often inserted between two panels to create space between the panels when it spreads—usually to remove a door from the hinges with 56,000 pounds of force. Many can spread as far as several-feet.

This tool can also be used to crush parts of the vehicle, like over the front tire to gain space between panels so the door can be popped. With 25,000 pounds of crush force, it can easily smash parts of the vehicle.

The spreader-cutter is a combination of both tools and is quite popular with many fire departments as it is two tools in one smaller package. Since our department doesn’t use this tool, I’ve posted a picture from the company website.

dash roll spreader

The ram is being used less and less in automobile extrication. They come in multiple sizes and configurations and are often used to push the dashboards off an entrapped patient. They come in a wide variety of sizes depending on the required use. “Rolling a Dash” is often now often done with spreaders after performing strategic cuts on the frame of the vehicle as you can see above.


Above, the ram is being used to support the vehicle after we pulled the doors, and cut the frame. It’s important that if you remove structural elements from a vehicle that you support it some other way be it a ram or cribbing. Though, power tools can fail, so the best bet is to using cribbing whenever you can.

In the next segment, we’ll talk about how extrication tools are powered, some of the hand tools we use and how we stabilize a vehicle before doing an extrication.

If you want to see some very interesting techniques behind vehicle extrication, I encourage you to go to <http://www.fireengineering.com/index/extrication_zone.html> The videos and photos are what we use to train our members in the increasingly complex skills required to safely do vehicle extrication.


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*Remember, we have an onsite, working fire station at the Writers’ Police Academy. We’re featuring workshops on firefighting, including one on arson investigation. And, yes, the WPA comes with firefighters…

Romance author Samantha Kane trying on the gear at the 2010 WPA.