Engine Boss Apprenticeship
Kates Basin Fatality Report
“How to Operate a Fire Apparatus Mechanic” — by Lt. Bill Dyer
A long, long time ago, back in the days of iron men and horse-drawn pumpers, a ritual began. It takes place when a Firefighter approaches a mechanic to report some difficulty with his apparatus. All mechanics seem to be aware of the ritual, which leads to the conclusion that it's included somewhere in their training, and most are diligent in practicing it.
New Firefighters are largely ignorant of the ritual because it's neither included in their training, nor handed down to them by older Firefighters. Older Firefighters feel that the pain of learning everything the hard way was so exquisite, that they shouldn't deny anyone the pleasure.
There are Firefighters who refuse to recognize the ritual as a serious professional amenity, no matter how many times they perform it, and are driven to distraction by it. Some take it personally. They get red in the face, fume and boil, and do foolish dances. Some try to take it as a joke, but it's always dead serious. Most Firefighters find they can't change it, and so accept it and try to practice it with some grace.
The ritual is accomplished before any work is actually done on the apparatus. It has four parts, and goes something like this:
After the ritual has been played through in it's entirety, serious discussion begins, and the problem is usually solved forthwith.
Like most rituals, this one has it's roots in antiquity and a basis in experience and common sense. It started back when mechanics first learned to operate Firefighters, and still serves a number of purposes. It's most important function is that it is a good basic diagnostic technique. Causing the Firefighter to explain the symptoms of the problem several times in increasing detail not only saves troubleshooting time, but gives the mechanic insight into the Firefighter's knowledge of how the machine works, and his state of mind.
Every mechanic knows that if the last run was performed at night or in bad weather, some of the problems reported are imagined, some exaggerated, and some are real. Likewise, a personal problem, especially romantic or financial, but including simple fatigue, affects a Firefighter's perception of every little rattle and thump. There are also chronic whiners and complainers to be weeded out and dealt with. While performing the ritual, an unscrupulous mechanic can find out if the Firefighter can be easily intimidated. If the Engineer has an obvious personality disorder like prejudices, pet peeves, tender spots, or other manias, they will stick out like handles, with which he can be steered around.
There is a proper way to operate a mechanic as well. Don't confuse “operating” a mechanic with “putting one in his place.” The worst and most often repeated mistake is to try to establish an “I'm the Firefighter, and you're just the mechanic” hierarchy. Although a lot of mechanics can and do fight fires recreationally, they could give a damn about doing it for a living. Their satisfaction comes from working on complex and expensive machinery. As a Firefighter, you are neither feared nor envied, but merely tolerated. Until they actually train monkeys to run a pump, he needs a Firefighter to put the parts in motion so he can tell if everything is working properly.
The Engineer who tries to put a mechanic in his “place” is headed for a fall. Sooner or later, he'll try to engage the pump while the engine is still in gear. After the Engineer has rammed the deluge gun into the bay door and completely burnt out the pump, he'll see the mechanic there sporting a funny little smirk. A good mechanic's personality should contain unpredictable mixtures of irascibility and nonchalance, and should exhibit at least some bizarre behavior.
The basic operation of a mechanic involves four steps:
As you can see, operating a fire apparatus mechanic is simple, but it is not easy. What it boils down to is that if a Firefighter performs his Firefighter rituals religiously in no time at all he will find the mechanic operating smoothly. I have not attempted to explain how to make friends with a mechanic, for that is not known. Apparatus Engineers and mechanics have a strange relationship. It's a symbiotic partnership because one's job depends on the other, but it's an adversary situation too, since one's job is to provide the apparatus with loving care, and the other's is to provide wear and tear. Firefighters will probably always regard mechanics as lazy, lecherous, intemperate swine who couldn't make it through probationary training, and mechanics will always be convinced that Firefighters are petulant children with pathological ego problems, a big lightbar, and a little whatchamacallit.
Both points of view are viciously slanderous, of course, and only partly true.
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