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July 11, 2004
Only 50 engines left
By Jake Rixner

It was about 0200 hours on a warm summer night.  Dan and I were sitting on the front bumper of the fire engine at my volunteer house shooting the breeze waiting for another fire to erupt.  Dan, an accomplished fireman, remarked that because of all of the distractions and the reduction in fires, there are probably only 50 kick-butt engine companies left nationwide.  He was sure that only a few knew what good aggressive firefighting was anymore.  The discussion was interesting to me, as I have advocated realistic training to replace the lost actual work for the past ten years.  

Although working fires (a room or more) have decreased approximately 40%, firefighter injuries and deaths have held steady.  Traveling around the country teaching firemen, I see two schools of thought.  One is to not take any risks once life is reported out of the building.  The other is to attack every fire as if it’s the last one we will ever see.  Somewhere in between is probably the way we should be striving to operate.


These guys have been in the fire service since the beginning of time.  We once called them full duty cowards.  They were the guys who disappeared for the first ten minutes of every job.  But since the adoption of NFPA 1500, these guys feel legitimate.  In some towns they have been promoted to chief officer levels and are not afraid to watch someone’s life’s work go up in smoke. 

The problem with the declaration that everyone’s out is, you don’t know that until you search the building.  I remember working overtime in 1 Truck in Richmond back in the 80’s.  It was a warm summer night much like the night Dan got my brain to thinking.  

The engine was out on an automobile fire about 2100 hrs when a man pulled up onto the ramp of the firehouse and reported a house fire just two blocks away.  When we pulled up on our Hook & Ladder truck, thick black smoke was pushing through the cracks in the boarded up front windows, and flames lit up the rear yard of the century old two-story frame building. Nick and I pried the plywood off the front door and proceeded to the rear where the fire had full possession of the kitchen.  

Moving quickly, we searched away from the fire back to the front, and then up the stairs to the second floor.  On every door on the second floor was a padlock hasp. This “VACANT BUILDING” was in fact low rent single room occupancy.  Padlocks on the inside of the door, indicated that someone was home.  I kicked the first door we came to as Nick proceeded to the next door.  Inside I found a man in his 30’s overcome with smoke.  Nick found 2 men in the next room and when all was said and done we made 3 grabs from our “EVERYONE’S OUT JOB.”


No doubt about it, our turnout gear is better than it’s ever been in the history of firefighting.  So why are so many fireman being burned so horribly?  I see young firefighters time and time again crawling right into the fire before they put water on it. Why?  For that salty helmet look?  To prove to your buddies you can take it?  The stream reaches 50 feet, use it.  

Modern turnout gear collects heat until it reaches it saturation point and then dumps the full thermal insult onto the user.  Sort of like a turkey in the oven.  Something is wrong if we are consistently melting parts of out gear in one-room fires.  

Maybe it’s because I am old and fat, but I think we need to go back to wearing ¾ boots during the hot months, and during training.  I think it would help some of these young guys appreciate the tremendous heat they nonchalantly wander into, at great risk to themselves and their partners who will have to come get them when their face piece begins to melt.

So there you have it, not too timid, not too crazy but using the correct level of aggressiveness to combat the fire problem at hand.  

The next day as I was driving home, I began to compile the top 50 in my mind.  Engine Companies that were once on top of their game.  I don’t know if they still are, but here’s a list of the one’s I’ve worked with, or had the honor of watching in action.

FDNY 290-75-48-41-82  
DCFD 10-6-11
RBF 5-6-10-11-12
PGFD 33-29-8
That’s only 16 companies; add your thoughts on the forums for the best hose jockeys in your area.  Stay low and safe, and use your head for more than a thermometer.
About the author: 
Jake Rixner is a fire Lieutenant with 20 years service in the Richmond, Virginia Fire Department. He previously worked as a firefighter in Washington DC. His fire service career started as a volunteer in Monroeville, Pennsylvania in 1978 at Company #5 (the busiest in Alleghany County).  He has had articles featured in Fire Engineering Magazine and has instructed at the FDIC. He is an instructor in Virginia. Lt. Rixner holds an associate's degree in Fire Science. Lt. Rixner still volunteers in Kentland in Prince Georges County, MD.
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