Bill Packard: The Pink Slipper
I’ve been thinking about going in a different direction with my articles and with the blessing of the editor, we’re going to give this a try. If people like it, I have lots of stories. If people don’t like it, I still have lots of stories, but I’ll keep them to myself. I spent almost 30 years in the volunteer fire service, eleven as assistant chief. I kept a sort of unofficial diary or notes and created some articles from them. In the next few months, (if this is accepted) I’ll share them with you.
Other than a couple of pieces, there will be no names. Some of the stories could be considered embarrassing. That happens quite often in volunteer fire departments. It goes with the territory. If you think a story is talking about you, or if you’re certain the story is talking about you, if you don’t say anything, nobody will know. If you get all nerved up and tell everyone it’s you, well, you brought it on yourself.
There is no timeline. The incidents didn’t happen in any particular order and they are only my version of what happened.
Volunteer firefighting is one of the most rewarding, fun things anyone can do if they’re on a department with the right culture. My hope is that these stories can create enough interest in even one person to join a local department and feel the satisfaction that comes from being a firefighter and understand what makes it so special.
Let me tell you about the Pink Slipper.
Ever since it was in existence, the volunteer fire department had only two officers, a chief and assistant chief. If they both happened to be out of town or unavailable, nobody was in charge.
That was the situation one night when an abandoned, run-down house that was painted pink and known as the Pink Slipper caught fire.
As things turned out that night, I ended up driving the last engine that left the station and the one that usually went to the water supply. With no instruction nor radio traffic from the fire ground, I proceeded directly to the scene.
The attack engine was down by the fire and a line had been laid from the second-in piece.
After a few minutes with no communication, I could see what was going to happen and it did. When the second engine ran out of water, they told me to pump to that engine. Once I ran out of water, there was no water to put out the fire.
Being proactive and closest to the highway, I drove to the nearest water supply and tried to set up to draft. Once hooked up, I tried and tried to get a prime, but there was no way I could get the engine to pump. When the second engine arrived, we set it up to draft and they filled my engine.
By the time I returned to the scene, the fire was pretty much out, and I felt like a real failure for not being able to draft.
In hindsight, the property had no value to begin with and whether I could draft and load other engines was a moot point, but I still felt badly. Like most volunteer departments, we had a veteran engine/pump guy and when I shared with him my struggle to draft, he told me that the tank valve leaked on that pumper so air was getting into the pump, I should never have pumped all the water out and there was no way with an empty tank that I would ever be able to get a prime.
The way he explained it, he made it sound like anybody should have known that and I was a real dummy.
The Slipper burned to the ground. What I didn’t know was that on the fire ground there was a department veteran who decided the town would be better off without The Slipper, as well as a native son who had been away and recently returned. He knew that it was our responsibility to put the fire out.
Apparently, they had spent their time arguing about whether or not we were going to let her burn or put her out, so nobody was in charge.
That fire was the beginning of a new age in the department because at the next meeting we set up an officer structure with a chain of command and assigned duties to each officer.
Lieutenants were elected for each apparatus and they were expected to make certain that there apparatus was ready to go whenever needed. Captain positions were created. The fellow that had recently moved back to town went on many years later to be elected Chief and I was elected his Assistant Chief. That team led the department for the next 11 years.
The leaking tank valve in the engine was repaired. The apparatus was upgraded. One of the driving forces for the Chief and me was to create a department where all the members knew their jobs and knew what needed to be done with little hands on supervision.
In a small town volunteer department, you get who you get when the tone goes off. Regardless of their rank or experience level, they need to make decisions, see the bigger picture and work together. I believe we created such a department.