Firehouse Slang

By John Gilstrap

I might have mentioned a few dozen times in this space that I spent 15 years in the fire and rescue service, at a volunteer department that ran over 14,000 calls per year. My name is on thousands of those reports. I’ve been burned, shot at, and threatened by one very large knife. I ran two plane crashes, uncountable car crashes, delivered two babies and performed CPR hundreds of times. In the end, I saved more lives than I lost, and I never got paid a dime for any of it. That’s a point of pride to me.

Every line of work has its own vocabulary–rhetorical shortcuts that relay information that others might not understand, but mean very specific things to insiders. I thought I’d take you inside the firehouse for a peek at our peculiar dictionary. (Warning: Some of what follows is . . . insensitive. If you’ve never been an emergency responder, it might be hard to understand, but trust me when I say it is entirely possible to be compassionate and insensitive at the same time. Sometimes, the humor is the only good part of a really crappy day.)

Now, in no particular order . . .

FNG: The full pronunciation of effing new guy, aka rookie. Also known as a red hat, because in my jurisdiction, FNGs wore red helmets on the fireground. I wanted them to wear cowbells, but they refused. We also called them wheel chocks, even though real wheel chocks always knew what they were supposed to do, and they never did stupid stuff.

Blue flares: There is no such thing as a blue flare, but FNGs didn’t know that. It was always entertaining to send them over to the farthest-away fire station with orders to bring back a box of blue flares. Of course, when they arrived at the target station, those folks would have just given them away to another station, miles away of course. That fun could go on for hours. It was like a cat chasing a laser pointer. Smoke shifters (either left-handed or right-handed) could be used in lieu of blue flares.

Box o’ Rocks: The intellectual assessment of someone who, say, didn’t catch on to the blue flares gambit after two or three stations.

Ticks: The name paid firefighters used for volunteers, purportedly because we were annoying and always hanging around. The fact that said volunteers built the firehouse and purchased all of the rolling stock they rode on and furniture they sat in often went unacknowledged.

Squirrel: This one had at least two meanings. One was another derogatory term for volunteers, but another dealt with enthusiasm. To “squirrel a call” meant either to drive to the scene in your POV (privately owned vehicle) or to respond from the firehouse with a spare piece of fire apparatus.

Paid maids: In the early days, this was the volunteers’ term for paid personnel. Among their daily tasks was to clean the kitchen and the bathrooms. (No, the two sides of the house did not always get along.)

Big eye: Have you ever encountered a challenge that was so huge and so out of the ordinary that you kind of vapor locked and didn’t know what to do first? That’s the big eye. When the world is on fire or people are screaming for assistance, it’s a bad thing to get. FNGs get the big eye a LOT.

Fireground: The general term for the scene of any emergency involving fire and rescue apparatus. In my jurisdiction, the senior OIC (officer in charge) of the First due (see below) wagon (see below) was in overall charge of the fireground, while the senior aide (see below) on the ambulance was in charge of patient care.

OIC: Translates to officer in charge, but is not necessarily tied to rank. In my jurisdiction, the OIC of any piece of apparatus was the person in the shotgun seat (right-hand front seat). If, for example, a captain was driving, but a sergeant was in the seat, the sergeant would be in charge of the fireground. It was a great way to train up-and-coming officers.

Fireground Commander: For larger incidents, command would be passed to a chief officer. Chiefs were the senior officer of their respective fire departments, but they rarely commanded individual pieces of apparatus. Chiefs had their own buggies but rarely wrested command from the first due OIC. It was, however, customary for the OIC to offer command to the chief, who then decided whether or not to take it. To be relieved without first offering would be a slap in the face.

Bugles: Fire officer rank insignia. Lieutenants wear one bugle on their collar points. Captains wear two . . . chiefs of departments wear five.

Wagon: This has changed in many jurisdictions, but where I ran, every fire station housed two pumpers (what you think of when you think “firetruck”). The first one out the door on a call was the wagon, and the second was the engine. Together, both the wagon and engine were called an engine company. Thus, Wagon 14 or Engine 14 were individual vehicles. Engine Company 14 was two vehicles, and when they were on the road, it was time for the fire to be very scared.

Aide: The OIC of the ambulance.

First due: The area to which a department or a specialty vehicle (ladder truck, hazmat truck, etc.) is dispatched first. The next closest is second due, and so forth. In my jurisdiction, for a commercial alarm, the dispatch would sound something like this: “Box 1404 for the structure fire. Engine companies 14,13 and 2, Trucks 14 and 13, Squad 2, Ambulance 14.” The first number of the box number (in this case 14) indicates who’s first due, the second part is a rough idea of how far the call is from the station. (Fire station 14 sits in the center of box 1400. Ditto every other fire station.)

Smells and bells: I can’t begin to imagine the number of dispatches that started with “odor of smoke” or “fire alarm sounding.” These calls got the full boat (full alarm assignment–see below), rousted a bunch of people out of bed, and left the beleaguered first due engine company officer with a complex report to fill out.

Working fire (or a worker): A real fire with real flames. The opposite of smells and bells.

Second alarm (or third . . .): Different types of structures have different alarm assignments. In my jurisdiction, a single family house fire had an alarm assignment of two engine companies, a truck (ladder truck), a heavy squad (think rolling tool box with lots of cool toys) and an ambulance. At the top of the heap, the hospital had an alarm assignment of four engine companies, two trucks, two squads and (I think) three ambulances. When the fireground commander strikes a second alarm on a fire, he’s ordering up a duplication of the first alarm. Remember this when you hear about a four-alarm fire.

Special alarm: Say the fireground commander only wants one more engine company or one more truck. That would be a special alarm, not to be confused with an additional alarm (see above).

Scratch: I think this one’s unique to volunteer departments. A piece of apparatus scratches when it fails to mark responding within three minutes after dispatch. When a house scratches, the next due piece of apparatus will be dispatched in its place. There is no greater humiliation.

Second (or third, or fourth) call: These happen quite a lot during weather events, when everyone is running their wheels off. Let’s say Wagon and Ambulance 14 are already running a call, when the station gets hit again for an incident. Dispatch knows that Engine 14 and Ambulance 14-2 are in the station, but they have no way of knowing if they are manned. So the dispatch would sound like, “Box 1425 for the auto accident. Engine Company 14 (your second call), Ambulance 14 (your second call), Engine Company 2, Ambulance 2.” Whoever got out first got the call.

To cut numbers: Occasionally, someone would walk into the station with an injury or illness, or we would wander up on something while in service (see below). In this case, because the dispatcher has no idea that there’s an incident, we’d radio in and ask them to “cut numbers” on a new incident, and we’d give them the address. This would make the incident official and take the appropriate vehicle out of service.

In service/out of service. This is counter-intuitive to a lot of people. A piece of apparatus is in service when it is available for a call. When on a call (not available for another call) it is out of service. It was common, when we were assisting an ambulance with a medical call, for the dispatcher to ask us if we could “go in service for a call.” If we were, then there no second calls would be needed.

Bidding a call: Say that Ambulance 14 is just clearing the hospital (which is in Station 13’s first due) after dropping off a patient when a call comes in for, say, an auto accident in Box 1313. If Ambulance 14’s OIC thinks he’s closer, he can bid the call. It would sound something like, “Ambulance 14, Dispatch. We’re closer. Put Ambulance 13 in service.” It’s kind of humiliating for Station 13. In the old days, on rare occasions, there were bidding wars, where neither vehicle agreed to go in service, so there’d be a race to the scene. Whoever got there first, got the call.

Tapped (or tapped out): To be dispatched. “We got tapped last night for a wreck on Walker Road.” “They tapped us out for worker at the Bates Motel.”

Putting a good stop: When a crew extinguishes a fire quickly and with minimum damage, they’ve put a good stop on the fire.

Cellar saver: Exactly the opposite of a good stop. When the roof ends up in the basement (i.e., the structure is a total loss), the fireground commander is credited with saving the cellar. That’s . . . bad.

Snot-slinger: A big fire. Aka, the big one.

Teeth-hair-and-eyeball: The kind of incident where the most useful pieces of equipment are body bags and tweezers.

DRT: Dead right there. (A play on DOA.)

Federal Q: That wonderful siren on the front bumper that sounds like an air raid siren on speed. Melting the Q meant to have it spun up really high. Combined with the air horn in rush hour, melting the Q created lanes out of stopped traffic where cars had nowhere to go. I had a driver for years who would melt the Q at oh-dark-early, shouting his mantra out the window: “If I gotta be up, you gotta be up, too!”

I’m sure there are many I’ve forgotten, but this is a good start. So, what about you, TKZers? Y’all come from interesting backgrounds. Give us a peek into your secret dictionary.

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One last thing. If you’re a teacher or if you’re with a book club, and you’d like me to Zoom with you, drop me an email at john@johngilstrap.com

 

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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in Fairfax, VA.

27 thoughts on “Firehouse Slang

  1. In my varied (semi-)professional career there have been a few terms that stand out…
    In the theme park world we called your FNG’s “Banana Tags” as their name tags were bright yellow… and it’s term that has “mysteriously” migrated to my current day-job for vendors who are differentiated from the rest of us by the same color stripe underneath their name…
    In the airline maintenance world we’d send newbies all over the hangar and eventually the airfield for prop wash and bin-stretchers…
    And in the architectural design world, impossible structures are supported by sky-hooks on sixteen foot centers… twenty four if really extreme… and, in the same way as with the airline, requests for additional space in a project are met with, “Sorry, but room stretchers are on back-order…”

    For an interesting – if profane – take on insider lingo, Google up “falcon codes” – Navy aviators’ radio shorthand from the ’60’s for things you can’t broadcast on the open airways… very heavy on the “sailor-speak…” – so much so that most pages come with the following warning:

    WARNING ! Be advised that this article deals with the subject of profane and transgressive language as used in a military context. Thus the material is presented here in a complete and unbowdlerised format. If you are easily offended then please do not proceed to read this article, because you will be!

    ‘Nuff (or too much?) said…?

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  2. Great post, Mr. Gilstrap.
    .
    I’ll share a few from my days on the USS Saratoga.
    .
    1. Field-Day: A verb meaning to clean a space thoroughly from top to bottom, followed by stripping and waxing the deck.
    .
    2. FUBAR: Fu**** Up Beyond All Recognition. A terrible situation or broken piece of equipment beyond repair. This is an adjective.
    .
    3. Deck Apes: The guys working on the flight deck.
    .
    4. Wreck-in-Waiting: A situation where a pilot, usually but not always a newer one, is having trouble getting his plane on the deck. If the pilot missed two attempts to land and catch the cable with his hook, we called him a ‘wreck in waiting’. (In the air-traffic control center we also gave this guy top priority and every assistance possible to get him and his plane down safely).
    .
    5. Gasper: An aircraft returning to the ship with a low fuel situation. If this guy misses the first try to land, there’s a good chance the Operations Officer would send this guy to land at the nearest Air Force field, if one was close. If not, the catch-nets go up (and this pilot would never live it down).
    .
    There are hundreds more, but I have to get to work. Thank you.

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  3. Thanks for the smiles, John. A welcome break. This is a two cup of coffee post, and I’ll be back to finish reading it–and the comments–when I need a break.

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  4. Fun post. Thank you for your service to your community. Volunteer firefighters play a vital role, especially in small communities without the funds for fully paid companies. People forget the immense sacrifice that volunteers make.

    Two members of my critique group are retired navy (one retired as an admiral, the other was equally as far up the enlisted food chain). Both served mainly on carriers and it’s a hoot to listen to them talk about the navy, even if I can’t follow a word of it. Professional lingo is as much a foreign language as any actual foreign language. My wife is a COTA and some nights at dinner I just nod politely because I really didn’t follow anything she said—don’t anyone dare tell her that!

    I, however, spend my days wrangling tax forms and navigating the intricacies of the IRS. While we have plenty of code or shortcuts, it’s all such mundane stuff. But, in the spirit of the post, here are a couple: OIC=Offer in Compromise (a negotiated settlement of tax debt), CNC=Currently Not Collectible (currently too little income to pay against their tax debt).

    On a side note, many years ago when I worked the grocery stores, we used to send newbies to the basement to bring up the auto-facer. They’d sometimes spend hours just trying to find the basement.

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  5. John, both hilarious and fascinating. Literally snorted coffee at “real wheel chocks always knew what they were supposed to do.”

    Now I have to go change clothes. Thanks a bunch, John.

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  6. Highly entertaining, Mr. Gilstrap. Going into my TKZ file for future reference.

    I’m familiar with some of this from another lifetime ago in LE. Much of it was new, though.

    I remember one from my dispatch days. Dispatcher has to check in periodically with all the guys and gals out in cars on a shift. (In my case, swing…the busiest shift in any jurisdiction I’d guess.)

    Goes like this: Dispatcher says, “18. Status.” LO (line officer) answers. “18. Out on …”. Dot dot dot could be lunch, traffic stop, domestic, etc. The answer I liked the best was, “18. ‘Trollin'”. Meaning driving the back roads of the county, waiting for something to happen. Meaning maybe we’d get through a shift with nobody hurt or dead.

    Those were the days… 🙂

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  7. Great post, John! As an art-director-turned-author, I have a couple of additions from the good old days of design and printing:

    FPO: For Position Only. From the days when a designer had to slap down a photo print or just draw a box on a paste-up board to indicate where the real image would go (for the “strippers” to strip into the negative).

    TK: To Come (spelled wrong). When all the pieces aren’t quite ready, you just write (or say): “TK”.

    NOTE that I still use these terms to this day; usually met with a quizzical response, except from my wife, who knows the drill. Like in the garden when deciding where to put the plant pots: “These are just FPO; whatcha think?” To which she responds, “I’ll get back to you on that. TK.”

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    • Author/mentor Dennis Foley taught me (and many others) about TK. He explained those two letters don’t occur in actual words so he used them as placeholders for info or names “to come.” Enter “TK” in the “Find” command in Word and all TKs quickly and easily appear.

      Right now in my WIP, a character is called “Detective TK” until I decide on his permanent moniker. Same with place names–“TK fire outlook”.

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  8. Great stuff, John. I always advise writers to hunt for group jargon like this. Interview an expert and ask. It lends authenticity to dialogue. Here are a few from my criminal law days:

    “Did a bullet” (a one-year jail sentence)
    “Did a nickel” (a five-year prison sentence)
    “Cuffed and stuffed” (handcuffed and put in the back of a police car)
    “Three hots and a cot” (what you get in jail)
    “Wobbler” (a crime that can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony)

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  9. You, sir, deserve much applause. Your real and volunteer life has been far more interesting and honorable than mine. I once had a sewer overflow up to my ankles when I was doing my volunteer bit at the local theatre during concessions, though. Thankfully, it was only water, food bits, and oil courtesy of a neighboring French restaurant. Oh, and Lancelot was off key during an entire community theater performance of CAMELOT. Hearing “If Ever I Would Leave You” still brings back the trauma after 20 old years. I sold lots of wine that night.

    I’ve taught writers across the popular genres, and jargon, lingo, and made up words are a struggle for many newer writers. Am I using too many or too few? How do I make this real without being confusing?

    Even pro writers deal with this. An extremely well-known and respected writer of science fiction romance started a new series on a human colony, and the first novel was extremely frustrating because she created new names for every bloody thing. Why have a character drink coffee when she could drink caffee? She must have heard the annoying screams of fans because she toned it down to a 1 in her next novel.

    Getting these words right are a balancing act of Goldilock proportions.

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    • Good point Marilynn.
      I try to write to the step or two just above the “lowest common denominator” when it comes to lingo and acronyms and avoid made up words altogether.
      If your intended audience cannot understand what you’re trying to say quickly, they will lose their pace in the story, and therefore eventually stop buying your books. And then your spouse and children will be slowly starving as you eke out a living scraping hazardous waste off the sides of dumpsters recycled form nuclear power plants and fast food restaurants and the shame will never end.
      So keep the writing clear and understandable.

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  10. We’re on the same wavelength, John. I’m not trying to ride your coattails, but my piece for tomorrow is titled How To Speak Cop – Version 1.0. I did it up a couple of days ago but it seems to be a good fit with your firefighter speak. Lots of these terms I didn’t know even though we worked next door to the FFs. And kudos to you for your service!

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  11. I remember the time I got “Big Eyes”, and it wasn’t even when I was a FNG.
    20 years after I left the service my oldest son unexpectedly had a seizure while staying at our house and all of the training and years of rescue long ago flew out the window in a reactionary adrenalated-brain-blitz. The dispatcher quickly talked me down (thank God for level headed dispatchers), and I got my head back together to get him breathing again and mostly conscious by the time paramedics arrived.
    Thankfully he got better and has no memory of my panic.
    But I still felt like an idiot.

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    • As a 20+ year dispatcher, I thank you. One thing I learned early on when things got crazy and were headed for FUBAR, and my guys were getting revved up and louder, was that the more quietly and calmly I talked, the more they had to try and listen for important info. And that was often just the margin they needed to regain some calm themselves. Just having to focus on hearing what I was telling them ratcheted it down a notch.

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      • I was riding along with a fire department in Fauquier County, a very rural county in Virginia, when I heard my favorite radio exchange ever. Out there, people don’t have addresses as we think of them. More like “the green house between mile markers 4 and 5 on Route 604.”
        I was sitting in the day room of the firehouse when I heard a different station get tapped for a structure fire. Over the course of probably 10 minutes, the officer kept calling back into dispatch for directions. The dispatcher showed great patience–until he couldn’t anymore. He finally said, “Turn left on Route [X], then right on Route [Y]. It should be the only building on fire on that road.”

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  12. Terrific, John. Thank you.

    This I am sure will be one of those L’ESPRIT DE L’ESCALIER moments but I’ll try to come up with a couple. Government offices are great for acronyms:

    ALJ — Administrative Law Judge
    HOCALJ — Hearing Office Chief Administrative Law Judge
    WTD — Work to do
    CR — Claims representative
    SR — Service representative

    Not as interesting as your glossary, by any means, but it’s there.

    I also have two sons who at various points in their lives worked as restaurant managers. The phrase I often heard was “in the weeds,” which meant that a half hour or so before closing a party of 20 came in and wanted dinner and drinks.

    FNC is also used in a great number of industries and professions less noble than the fire department.

    Thanks again for your information and your service.

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