Johnston-Grimes (IA)– Kicking Off A Long Week-End

WAKE-UP CALL. At around 12:30am on a Friday morning in July, the Johnston-Grimes (J-G) Metropolitan Fire Department, in suburban Des Moines, Iowa, kicked off the day with a multi-agency residential alarm. First arriving J-G Engine 381 was greeted by a rapidly spreading fire blowing out of the A/D corner, Division 1, of a two-story Colonial. The fire had already extended vertically to involve most of the 2nd Division. E381 quickly gained control of the fire on the lower level while Ladder 395 established multiple access points to the upper story and assumed general support duties.

TAKING ALONG THE “FAMILY.” This paved the way for 2nd due Engine 371 to make a successful push up the heavily involved stairs and, working from room-to-room, knock down fire in the sleeping areas and prevent extension into the attic. Earlier, Engine 371’s dash cam caught the company’s Lieutenant, Ty Wheeler, as the crew headed off for their assignment. If you look closely, you get a coarse-grained glimpse of his unusual tool set. It’s a surprisingly compact and manageable combination of a Hawk Tool, one of our “Classic” pattern Halligans, and a 3 pound hand sledge. A verbal description doesn’t suffice; fortunately there’s a more recent photo of this rig posted on Facebook, assembled as it would be carried– its included below, as is a sort of parts list for the project. For more background, you might also take a look at our blog on what we call the “Smith-It.”

J-G units were assisted by Urbandale, Polk City, Saylor Township, and Dallas Center units.

Iowa-American “Chauffeur’s” Pike Axe, Hampden Township (PA)

SEAGRAVE RESCUE WITH A PRIZE INSIDE. One of the interesting things about fire tool cultural anthropology is that you never know what you’re going to stumble across or where. When looking at an exhibition of new fire apparatus, you get lulled into thinking that all the tools and equipment on board will be new, too. Not so. I found a case in point at a Lancaster Fire Expo, a couple of years ago. As I was browsing in their massive exhibit area, I noticed a nice Seagrave-based heavy rescue being displayed by the Hampden Township Fire Company 30, Mechanicsburg, PA. I was actually on my way to see another unit so, after a quick inspection, I turned around and walked back by the open rear door of the squad body and continued on. But, suddenly it dawned on me that I’d almost missed a real gem, mounted unobtrusively inside the back door.


ABOUT AS ICONIC AS YOU CAN GET (WHILE BEING ALMOST TOTALLY UNIQUE). There, on the left sidewall, within reach from outside the back door, was a well-cared-for example of the [by then defunct] Iowa-American Firefighting Equipment Company’s unique 8-pound “pike” axe (as they consistently referred to it). Other than using them and dragging them along to classes, I hadn’t had a thing to do with these axes during the time that I worked with Iowa-American (IA-AM), but the pick-heads were still among my very favorite tools. How could you avoid it; its appearance says “pure firefighting classic.” And, in its catalog description, IA-AM stated that it “continued their innovative tradition by reintroducing the old-style 8-pound Pike Axe, the traditional tool of [FDNY] truck company chauffeurs.” Lovely. But, the axe was hardly a typical fire service pick-head.

This one is an almost total departure from other axes of its era. Most standard FD axes have a rapidly tapering blade that terminates in a fairly thin, sharp lower cutting edge. By contrast, the IA-AM pick-head shared the blade of its older-model, flat-head sister by employing a broad, deep blade. That flat-head had a slowly narrowing blade that terminated somewhat abruptly in a rather blunt, deep-bellied edge. This was more of a “bashing” edge than a typical cutting edge. In some respects, it seemed to anticipate the breaking (versus cutting) approach to design and usage employed by (in order of blunt severity) various modern offerings such as the Fire Mauls, Iron Fox axes, and Pig/Piglet tools.

Product description of Iowa-American’s 8-pound “Pike” Axe from their 5th catalog, 1995/1996. It clearly shows the pick-head’s evolution from the flat-head version which preceded it by several years.

By far, though, this axe’s most distinctive characteristic was the shape of its pick. In profile it had a vertical front edge that curved backward toward the top to intersect with a perfectly vertical back edge. However, the IA-AM’s was more vertical in front and its rearward curve was unusually abrupt. The pick itself was rather short in proportion to the overall height of the axe. And, then there was its shape– while the pick on virtually every other pick-head fire axe is rectangular or square in cross-section, this one’s was triangular. It tapered uniformly from front to back leaving a fairly sharp rear-facing edge. So, all-in-all, the weight, huge, broad blade, cast stainless steel (in most cases) material, and unique pick came together to form a perfect symbol of truck work, even though it wasn’t much at all like the vast majority of axes actually in use. That happens.