Rookie Firefighters Get Their Feet Wet
Once a year, every hose in the Wauwatosa Fire Department's service has to be pressure-tested – and guess who gets to do the grunt work?
Thursday was Conor Quinlevan's one-year anniversary with the Wauwatosa Fire Department, which means it was also his first day off probation – a full-fledged Tosa firefighter at last.
You'd think he'd get a party or some kind of ceremony. Instead, they sent him out to test hoses, on the wet end.
He did rate an assistant, though, now that he's ranked – Christopher Sandoval, who's been on the job all of three months, got to help.
I stepped out of my house Thursday afternoon to find Quinlevan, Sandoval and a host of other firefighters hemming me in with a pumper truck and a massive firehose snaking down my street in long loops.
With all the utility excavation that's been going on for weeks on my street and throughout the neighborhood – the concrete saws and backhoes were hard at it again Friday morning – I was sure something seriously bad had happened to my nearest fire hydrant or the water main itself.
Nope, said Lt. Barbara Kadrich. "We're just testing our hoses."
It seemed worth a picture or two, anyway, and since I couldn't leave my driveway until they were finished, I got the whole scoop on hose-testing.
An annual equipment checkup
Once each year, every hose in the firefighting inventory has to be tested at high pressure. Thursday was the day to check the largest hoses in service on two pumper units from Fire Station No. 1.
Step one in the process is to find a long, steep hill – in this case, the 800 block of North 60th Street and around the corner onto Menomonee Drive.
Known as "Suicide Hill" to some local joggers and high school cross-country teams that train on it, this run of pavement descends from one of the higher points in metro Milwaukee to one of the lowest.
"We like it because we can drain the hoses really quickly," Kadrich said.
That's not just a matter of convenience – it could be a very important expediency in an emergency where every available unit was needed in a hurry.
Newbies Quinlevan and Sandoval got to handle the nozzles, and while waiting for the test to start they showed they are ready with the facts of firefighting.
"This is 5-inch diameter hose," Quinlevan said, "the biggest that we use. Every year we have to test them all, at 225 pounds per square inch pressure."
That, in case you're wondering, is enough to peel your skin off when it's coming out of a 1-inch nozzle.
"We have 800 feet set up here," Sandoval said. "Each truck carries eight 100-foot sections. We would rarely use that much – usually 200 or 300 feet is enough – but a situation could come up where we'd need it, like if we had a couple of bad hydrants in a row."
This is only a test – but you still need your gear
Sound as their functional knowledge is, there is some seasoning to come, and a lot of ribbing.
As Quinlevan knelt and gripped the nozzle, Hadrich stopped him.
"Helmet, Conor, helmet. Gloves and helmets with hoses," she reminded him.
Bareheaded and abashed, Quinlevan ran to his unit to fetch it.
Before long, after blasting a few thousand gallons of water up the street and later uncoupling filled hoses that produced fountains, he would be kneeling in soaked trousers.
"Serves the rookie right for forgetting his gear," snickered a senior firefighter.
"It's OK, Conor," Kadrich said. "It's only your first day off probation."
A sobering reminder that duty never stops
About the time the test of the first set of hoses finished with flying colors, a radio crackled and half the crowd sprinted to the second pumper and a medical unit parked on Menomonee Drive – an emergency call.
"A stroke," one of the firefighters said grimly when they returned.
The second set of hoses proved a little more problematic than the first. The connections were made from hydrant to truck and from truck to length after length of limp hose sections. With the truck's 500-gallon tank filled and 60 to 100 pounds of pressure coming from the hydrant, the pump went to work ramping it up to 225 psi, and piece by piece the hose jumped and bucked like something come to life.
As it came up toward maximum pressure, a tiny geyser appeared above one section, then another.
"We've got a leak here – no, two."
"Conor, how 'bout the couplings?"
"Good – no, wait, there's a leak at the nozzle."
Three sections of hose, eventually, sat rolled up and segregated on the sidewalk, to be repaired if possible or replaced if necessary. The rest, logged as service-ready, were returned to equipment storage on the trucks.
And off they all went, turning 60th Street back over to the backhoes, with two young men just a little bit wiser on their way to becoming veteran firefighters.