A Christmas story, told over and over no matter how things change

Watching the local post-Christmas news last week reminded me just how much things change and yet stay the same. I should note that practically any type of story might bring about such conclusions. But these were stories about firefighters at Christmas time.

Might I remind the young reporters that some stories are done to death and that they should always try to find a new angle while dealing either with Christmas or yuletide season stories. I speak specifically of the “some people don’t get to go home on Christmas day and watch the kids open presents or eat turkey and ham” type pieces. Cops and firefighters, maybe EMTs more often than in the past, subjects of the particular story. That is because of a) they are stuck at the station or on the job and don’t have a whole lot to do, b) Many of those types of people are themselves hams and like to see themselves on TV or in the paper as long as it isn’t something negative, and c) They are fairly accessible.

I can’t remember doing this type of story during the years I spent reporting. I am sure I did, I just can’t remember it. I did do a Christmas Day story in which I sat in for a few hours as a shopping mall Santa Claus.

Also, I can’t remember being the subject of such a story during the five or so years I worked as a firefighter. Yet, these stories still seem to go on with or without me.

What I saw in the report, which was not remarked upon or even noticed by the firefighters or reporters. I noticed the firefighter in his full turnout, or bunker, or firefighting gear — whatever one chooses to call it — had knee pads sewn into his bunker pants. I have seen these before yet I never had time with which to dwell upon the notion.

I don’t know if it was a particular structure fire or training exercise, but one day back in the early ’80s, I decided I was going to wear knee pads with my turnout pants. I asked my co-workers about it.

“Yeah, it might work,” one said.

Circa 1979, that's me with the handline and hidden by the other guys during a dangerous
Circa 1979, that’s me holding the fire line.

Just how much a firefighter is on his knees might not occur to the civilian who sees the fire people on the outside of a house with a hose or an ax or perhaps on a ladder. But believe it or not, firefighters are probably outmatched only by hookers and Catholic parishioners among those who spend time on their knees. If you want to put out the fire you have to go to it and not wait for it to come to you.

My experience was a miserable failure. I bought a pair of basketball knee pads. It took too long to get them over my gigantic fire boots. They also never seemed to stay in place. Next time out I tried out putting them on and then pulling up my bunker pants. Slippage there too. Always slippage.

The pads slip-slide away. That is because even if you are on your knees you are moving — every which-a-ways. You will advance forwards, sideways and back. You have to be a master at rapidly backing out the threshold. I can remember twice I might have set a world championship indoor backwards knee-walk.

One never knows what they will find lurking inside a burning house.

Once I was trying to contain a fire inside a mobile home while watching for potential flashovers. I was perched with my knees on the floor and the rest of my legs and feet outside. The door was continually wanting to close on me. That was one sign on which I was keeping my eyes peeled. Meanwhile, in an adjoining room the fire had begun to find the stock of ammunition the homeowner kept in a bedroom drawer. The bullets were popping off like we will likely hear tonight when today turns into 2014. My guess, the shells were .22-caliber longs.

At another residence there was a reason to expect anything because of the neighborhood. What I didn’t expect was to find the electricity service still turned on when I entered the house and hit with a stream of water a fuse or some kind of similar electrical box. An electrical arc immediately flew along the water stream right toward me. I almost jumped backwards on my knees to outside of the house and was so freaked that I managed to hyperventilate myself. It was some what embarrassing.

Much of the personal fire protection gear you find today is often not that different from the old days. I’m sure you will find firefighters who carry a spanner wrench, flashlight and gloves along with the slightly newer personal alert device.The traditional leather fire helmets began making a return just as I left firefighting. I don’t know the style of helmet I started with. It was like the ones in the above picture. I was fighting a gasoline truck fire. It was most likely the scariest event I ever encountered. Sorry about the photo, I took a photo of the photo with my iPhone camera. The helmet I wore was made of some kind of composite materials. It kind of reminded me of wearing a bowling ball on my head. It had a face visor and a reasonably long bill on back. We then went to what was a more compact-looking composite helmet that was known as a European-style. It didn’t offer much protection except for your noggin.

Until they finally replace firefighters with non-union robots there likely will be a firehouse full of folks not having Christmas dinner with the wife, kids and relatives. But with some of the new innovations, well-trained and intelligent firefighters, the chances will remain in their favor that they will go home when the shift ends.

Here is wishing everyone a joyous new year.



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