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Davis, California

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Managing campus fire extinguishers is no easy feat

For Rocky Twitchell, every building at UC Davis has a number.

The Robert and Margrit Mondavi Center is 125, for example. Chemistry Annex? More than 200. Giedt Hall, a particular favorite of Twitchell’s, is a merciful four.

“Meyer has way too many,” he says emphatically driving past the rectangular hall on a busy Friday afternoon.

He’s no mathematician, but there is a common denominator in this numerical puzzle: fire extinguishers.

As the UC Davis Fire Department’s only physical plant mechanic, it is Twitchell’s job to monitor and service the 6,000 extinguishers spread throughout campus, as well as teach students, faculty and staff how to properly use them in his fire prevention classes.

It’s tedious work that he admitted often goes unnoticed by students and staff — but you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone more enthusiastic about those cylindrical red canisters.

“People say, ‘I’m not going to worry about [fire extinguishers]’, and that’s good — get out if there’s a big fire. But by the time we get there, people could be dead,” said Twitchell, a fast-talking guy with seemingly unlimited energy. He takes pride in his work — often referring to the extinguishers as “his.” “People don’t realize [extinguishers] are there for you. They’re the first line of defense.”

For the past six years Twitchell has been the keeper of the extinguishers, so to speak; a job he earned after working for four years as a groundskeeper at the UC Davis Medical Center. He was encouraged to apply for the job by UC Davis Fire Inspector Mark Moreno and worked for a fire extinguisher company before starting in order to gain the proper technical expertise.

Next to his desk in the fire department offices hangs a campus map divided into sections that each correspond to a month. His goal is to inspect every fire extinguisher in every building in a particular group by the end of its month, which averages out to about 500 extinguishers inspected per month.

Before setting out to a building to do an inspection, Twitchell loads up his truck with a box of new extinguishers and puts on a pouch filled with his necessary tools: a stack of green tags used to label the extinguishers, markers, a hole punch, safety seals and zip ties to hold the extinguisher’s pin in-place, and the keys to every door on campus.

“People, I’m ready for combat — I’m doing special work behind the scenes,” Twitchell said.

Next, he heads out to a building and begins making his way to each glass cabinet that houses an extinguisher. He checks to make sure the extinguisher is easily visible, hanging at the correct height and in its proper spot, not on the floor or buried behind a bookcase or lab coats.

Finally, he inspects the extinguisher itself, making sure that the safety seal is not missing from holding the pin in-place, the extinguisher has a green tag on it and the yellow pressure gauge is “in the green”, the shell is not damaged, and that the instructions can be easily read.

If it passes his inspection, Twitchell replaces its green tag, signs the date and scans its barcode with his scanner — which records the date of his visit and sends the data to his computer. If it doesn’t, he replaces the extinguisher immediately with one of the back-ups in his truck. He tries to fix as many of the the damaged extinguishers as he can and sends the rest to his supplier, River City Fire Equipment, for service. The “old generals,” as he calls them, that can’t be fixed are drained and thrown away.

While on his rounds, Twitchell also scans the hallways and mechanical rooms for fire hazards such as piles of cardboard boxes. The amount of time it takes to fully inspect each building depends on its size; Mrak Hall takes him about two hours.

He said a lot of students never see him on campus, since he tries to avoid inspecting classrooms during class time, when professors have viewed him as a disruption. Often, though, students’ curiosity will get the best of them.

“Some will say, ‘What are you doing here? I’ve never seen you before, what do you do?’ So I tell them, and they’ll say, ‘We have someone who does that?’” Twitchell said. “Then sometimes they’ll tell me if I missed [an extinguisher].”

A source of constant frustration is the number of extinguishers that are stolen or even thrown from the top of parking structures — phenomena Twitchell has tried to solve to no avail.

“There are no valuable parts on it. I can’t figure it out,” Twitchell said. “One time I wrote ‘GPS unit inside’ on it, to make them think it was being tracked. But no one ever fell for it.”

In his fire prevention classes, which he leads at the fire department and on the Quad during Fire Prevention Week, Twitchell and a student firefighter assistant use propane to set up a flame and give the class an opportunity to put it out.

Twitchell teaches his students to operate an extinguisher using the acronym PASS: Pull, Aim, Squeeze and Sweep. Grab the base of the canister, pull out the pin, aim the hose, squeeze the nozzle and sweep the spray back and forth.

“When people are in a fire, they don’t remember how to use an extinguisher. That’s why I hold the class,” Twitchell said. “One girl in the class couldn’t pull out the pin — she said, ‘I’m too weak.’ But I said, ‘You’re not trying hard enough. Just twist it.’ ‘Oh.’”

Campus Fire Marshal Morgana Yahnke said that Twitchell’s passion for safety made him a great advocate for fire prevention.

“Everyone has been receptive to his training and one of our goals is to make [his class] more widely available,” Yahnke said.

Fire Prevention Assistant Kimberly Stephens described Twitchell as dedicated and said his good old-fashioned work ethic is what enables him to take on the challenge of managing 6,000 fire extinguishers a year.

“It’s a demanding job, but he’s got a schedule and sticks to it,” Stephens said. “Every day he has a smile and a story.”

Despite recent cuts to the fire department’s budget that Twitchell said have led some administrators to discuss whether his job is necessary for the university, as well as the intense workload he often struggles to keep up with, he is adamant about his contributions to the campus.

“I’m making sure [students] are being kept safe. If you use an extinguisher, you just saved all kinds of property damage, and maybe even yourself,” Twitchell said. “[The university] needs me. I’m the only one who does my job.”

ERIN MIGDOL can be reached at features@theaggie.org.



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