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A Fireman--and Entrepreneur--With Time on His Hands

August 11, 1993|JIM WASHBURN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Suppose you're in a burning building. Your firefighter's coat is weighing you down and the breathing apparatus is failing. You've lost contact with the other firemen. Choking smoke is closing in and all you can see through it are flames. The soles of your feet are burning and the floor is about to give way.

With your last bit of wits and strength, you bring your special wristwatch up close to your goggles, pull off one of your gloves and press the metal programming studs on its side. It works: On the digital watch face you are suddenly able to access a calendar of your every scheduled working day--when you might find yourself in similar straits--up through the year 2049.

OK, so it isn't quite as spiffy as Dick Tracy's two-way wrist radio, nor as sexy as an 007 high-explosive timepiece. Nevertheless, Santa Ana Fire Capt. John Simmons thought he had a pretty good idea when he came up with the Platoon Shift Schedule Watch for Firefighters.

According to him, most fire folk are fairly obsessed with calendars, and not the mustachioed-hunk firemen's calendars most people are familiar with. Theirs, rather, are little pocket calendars with the numbers color-coded to show the firefighting teams' work shifts. Most non-volunteer firefighters work cyclical shifts. Some work 48 hours on and then 48 off, others 10 hours on and 14 off, still others an uneven mix of days on and off that may take 27 days to repeat. Since these cycles have no respect for months, weekends or the other ways most of us dole out time, fire personnel rely on the special calendars to plan their lives.

But departments usually don't hand out the pocket calendars until November. "So right now, without the watch, if I wanted to look into next year I'd have no way of doing it without spending several hours with a pencil and paper, hoping I don't make a mistake," Simmons said.

Lately he's had to wonder if he's made a mistake with the watches. He and his 25 Orange County firefighter partners (formed in a corporation called Fire Time) had 5,000 of the $49.95 things made, and after marketing them for 15 months, they still have about 4,200 left unsold.

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Sitting in the office of his El Toro home last Thursday, Simmons speculated on why his timepieces haven't exactly caught on like a house afire.

"One of the problems I see is that people who wear a watch are not going to go out and buy a new one until theirs breaks. Then I think our biggest problem is we're having trouble reaching the mass of firemen. There's approximately 1.2 million paid firefighters across the United States," Simmons noted, but rather than hear from them, "we're constantly getting contacted by people who want us to advertise in their magazines for $1,000 a month. We'd have to sell a lot of watches to make that back."

He came up with the idea for the watch in 1979 but didn't follow up on it until a few years ago, when he shared his thoughts with a colleague who had a nephew in the import-export business. They got a quote for having the watches made overseas, then checked to see if they could have them made domestically.

"I really wanted them to be made in the U.S.A., but the price was around double. We would have had to sell them for well over $100 apiece. We decided that just wasn't a viable option," he said. Hence, the American-designed watch is made in Hong Kong, assembled in China with a Japanese computer chip.

Though it looks a mite clunky, Simmons said it is a near-replica of the durable Casio G-Force watch favored by many firefighters. Its main distinguishing feature is its ability to take any fire station work cycle of 31 days or less (programmed into the watch via four studs) and be able to tell the wearer when his platoon and others are scheduled to be on duty for decades to come.

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While some people might find it singularly depressing to know what days they're expected to work in 2049 (the year the watch's computer calendar expires), Simmons says it is a real boon to firefighters.

"It's nice to know in advance if you're going to be working on your wedding anniversary next year, so you can plan far enough ahead and get somebody to cover for you."

The manufacturer classed the watch as "water resistant." Since firefighters do get wet from time to time, Simmons wanted to see just how resistant that was.

"When we received our first prototype I put it in the end of a fire hose, capped it, ran the pressure up to 200 pounds and left it in there for 10 minutes, and it still works," he said.

He insists that firefighters don't spend their whole working day doing things like that.

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