Thursday, July 9, 2009


I know I have the fire service on the brain lately. It’s mainly because I’m at the “easy” part of the learning curve, in which you know so little that every gain — even if you’re taking only baby steps — seems huge. I think I’ll go elsewhere for inspiration next time, but I had one more fire-company story to share first.

Last week marked another “first” for me — the first time I participated in the Independence Day parade with my company.

You’ve got to understand, this is an iconic thing for me. As a tad I would line up to watch my grandfather and his brothers-in-law march down the street — I can’t remember whether South Hackensack had its own parade, or it was part of a larger procession in Hackensack, but in that, um, slimmer era firefighters marched as well as drove their trucks. South Hackensack Company Number Two being an informal (by the standards of the day, which seem fairly formal these days) production, the chieftaincy rotated; but I know my grandfather, Salvatore Gulino, served as chief for at least one term.

One of my earliest memories is of spending the night at my grandparents’, and of waking when the town horn went off — a Morse-code-like pattern told the firefighters where the fire was in that pre-scanner era. Outside my room, I could hear rustling as my grandfather got dressed and went out to help somebody who was in trouble.

The man was twenty feet tall.

So as you can imagine, marching with the company carried a huge amount of baggage — in the best possible sense of the word — for me. Last year I didn’t do it because, mere days into my membership, it didn’t seem right. Now I’ve responded to some calls, gotten some training, have some history with these guys. So this year, I knew I’d participate.

I had a welcome surprise coming; Neil, our assistant chief, took me aside and told me, “I want you to drive the squad.” Now, being assigned to drive was an unmitigated honor; but in all honesty, the “squad” — a van that carries odd roadside tools and which the guys at our substation chiefly use to get to incident scenes when the tanker isn’t needed — is a pretty lame vehicle.

As if I needed to be reminded of this, they had to pull one of the junior members off an engine — actually, it was my partner from Fire School — so we’d have more than one person in the vehicle. There weren’t going to be any volunteers, you see.

“How am I going to impress the chicks now?” he asked me.

In my best avuncular mode, I suggested, “You could always tell them it’s the pussy wagon.”

He brightened slightly: “Hey, that could work.”

“No, it won’t,” I laughed.

Anyhow, we lined up — I believe the brush truck came first, then the rescue truck, us, and then the engines, starting with “23” [1], and finally the tanker.

The parade was, of course, a low-velocity follow-the-leader thing down Main Street, plodding like ducks in a row; the squad having an automatic transmission, I was riding my brakes all the way. I didn’t see Heather and my Cleveland relations — we’d imported a houseful of them for the holiday — partly because I was so intent on monitoring my peripheral vision for any kids who might dash into the street. Between that, and the obligation to wave back as we drove by, my attention was surprisingly filled for what I think was a half-hour drive.

Anyhow, my point being, when your navigation consists of putting your nose into the next guy’s butt, it isn’t much of a challenge. Which brings us to our current entry, a fascinating video study of wayfinding by rats (note that this journal has a limited-time one-day free subscription, so if you hurry you can view this for free).

Primarily a brain-function study rather than a scent study, it consisted of having rats follow a scent trail to a food reward, and then — and it’s this second step that’s important — seeing what they did next, as the normal behavior would be to rush straight back to their hole to cache the goodies.

In some of the animals, the researchers had surgically damaged the ability of the hippocampus, a memory- and spatial-sense-associated part of the brain, to move information. This removed the animals’ ability to dead reckon — basically, get to where you want to go by remembering how you got where you are, without either following a guide or other external navigation method. They used dark conditions and little hoodies for some of the rats to make sure they weren’t navigating by sight.

Both the animals who received this surgery and those who received sham surgery — meant to rule out any effect from anesthesia or non-hippocampal-effects of the surgery — were able to follow the scent trails pretty well. Some individual variation, but I don’t believe any significant difference.

Again, though, it was that return trip that posed the problem: the hippocampal-operated rats just couldn’t do the quick, effortless dash back to the hole. They took longer; they made a lot of mistakes, sometimes going to the wrong hole; one enterprising individual even back-trailed on the scent trail. But their ability to simply remember the direct path back to their hole was no longer there.

I don’t have much to add to this one, except to point out how powerful the simple video is; and how amazing it is that web technology allows this kind of work, and this kind of journal, to exist.

Would it be cheesy to call it pathbreaking?

[1] Interesting fact here: soon after I joined, I learned that, of our three engines, 23, 23-2, and 23-3, 23 never rolls. I assumed at the time, and from the numbering, that 23 was the oldest engine and so the chief liked to employ it as a reserve instead of in daily use. Oh no, I come to learn: 23 is the replacement for the old 23, and is in fact the newest of the three. It doesn’t roll because the chief doesn’t want us to get it dirty. That taught me something about fire chiefs; I kid, but you know, the more I think about it, the more I think that mind-frame is a good thing in a chief.

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