“I Am a Firefighter Because…”

The following article is my submission to the first edition of the First Due Blog Carnival. You can catch up on what this is over here. The edition’s subject is ‘I Am a Firefighter because…”, or in my case “I Was a Firefighter because…” since I had stopped after many years.

I literally grew up around a firehouse, in Salisbury, Maryland at an early age. My grandfather and father were both firefighters and some of my earliest childhood memories involve trips with one of them to the station to play while they talked with their friends. To explain the reasons why I joined, I have to start at that age of life. Salisbury still is a small crossroads city, when compared to the Washington, D.C. area, where everyone knows everyone. When I was little the city had two fire stations, Headquarters downtown and Station 2, on the north side of town. It’s a combination department that still works with an odd schedule and staffing. Headquarters, where my dad and grandfather belonged, was the ‘big house’. Inside everything, except Rescue 1 (an old International) was American LaFrance and solid red. No white canopy or stripes of chevrons; just plain ‘natural’ fire engines. A career staff worked the station 24/7. There were no structured alarm assignments, such as I recall. Small incidents were managed by the career members, and if help was needed, then the alarm room operator ‘blew the horns’ to call for the volunteers. A working structure fire received whatever could be staffed and driven to the scene.

20090904_46As a small kid in a small town a fire was a big deal. It nearly always made the news and paper, and if you were fortunate, you usually got to go to the scene and watch with the rest of the community. I can easily recall being at some of the biggest fires in town as a kid, after my mom drove me to the scene so we could watch. I suppose it right that this ‘indoctrination’ was the catalyst for me joining later on. I had seen my dad and his friends venting the roof atop the Pocahontas building fire, watched him climb Ladder 104’s aerial to get to the roof of the Feldman’s furniture store fire, and missed by minutes witnessing him and others get blown through a display window because of a backdraft at the Benjamin’s fire. These and other smaller fires I took in much like my peers watched Fruitland Little League on the weekends. There was no strife between career and volunteer members, such as there is today, and so I saw everyone that was a member as more of a fraternal body, a well respected part of the community. People might not have known all the details at every city council meeting, but they could certainly tell you who belonged to the fire department. Many of them were naturally friends of my parents, so I also saw them at other things outside the fire department, usually during hunting season.

20090904_94As I got older, I got to know people better and my ‘hang around time’ grew. If I was at the firehouse when a call went out, I was asked to ride along in the cab (yeah, just like the movie) sitting next to the officer. Sometimes I was able to sleep over with Chief Sullivan’s shift. He was big man, a former World War II Marine, but with a gentle heart. He would have me put my sleeping bag up in the back of Rescue 1, since there was no bunkroom (career guys slept on roll-aways or up in the hosebeds) and would tell me that if we got anything be quick, and if it was for the Rescue, then just scoot up to the front. What is probably most important as to why I became a fireman was that I saw many others ahead of me going through the process. On Chief Sullivan’s shift, Firefighter David See eventually rose to the rank of Fire Chief during his time. Firefighter Tim Keenan, always a quiet person, became Deputy Chief. I used to hang out on Assistant Chief Donald Record’s shift with his younger son, Steve, near my age.

20090904_13Today Steve is one of the volunteer Assistant Chiefs. Steve’s older brother Bryan is a career Assistant Chief. I grew up seeing people from a huge age spectrum being active participants in an organization that was well respected. As time went by, I would go with my dad to training classes he taught with the University of Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute, or with the Salisbury Fire Department. He and other instructors would take me through the SCBA trailer or through the house burning, and I’d be given time on the nozzle. You should understand that this is the late 1970’s early 1980’s and the culture, or attitude, towards safety was very different than it is now. I wasn’t ‘playing fireman’, but was being taught, informally, by these older men. The same education applied when I was at the fire house. If I was able to get to the fire scene, someone would see me and wave me over, cross the police line, and then have me put on a coat and helmet belonging to a driver, and when the fire was done and out, they’d take me in, show me about how the fire traveled, where to open up, how the house was constructed. I still think of those times and am grateful for them. They were fun, in an odd way, taking pleasure in someone else’s misfortunes.

20090904_142By 1986 I knew I was hooked and begin looking at joining Salisbury. The only obstacle was my age. You had to be 19 to join. So, at age 18, my best friend and I joined the volunteer department in his neighborhood. They took us in knowing full well that we’d be gone in a year, to ‘go uptown.’ Salisbury was the big time, running almost 700 calls a year (yeah, imagine my shock after my first time in Prince George’s County) compared to the near dozen in Allen. Once we turned 19, we were in. I like to think that I am fortunate to have joined just before all of the ‘advances’ or transitions. My first set of gear was a (real) leather helmet, long coat and ¾ boots. Bunker gear was issued when I joined Salisbury, and you could still ride the backstep. Masks were kept in the jump seats and the rear compartments, and there were no such things as due assignments, divisions, sectors and crew resource management. It was simple; go to fire, put fire out, go back to firehouse. Training was basic, electives were your own choice and the only subject overly technical was hazardous materials. I encountered the same simplicity, albeit better organization, when I moved to Prince George’s County. A box alarm was three engine companies, two trucks and fighting fires was just as fun and enjoyable.

20090904_141That has to be why I did it. I’d like to say that I became a firefighter for some noble cause, to help others in their time of need or serve my community, but it would be a lie. I joined up because it looked like fun and the men around me showed how much fun it truly was. I’ve been fortunate to have been at a few notable fires, and have a few ‘grabs’ here and there, but none of that really hit the mark like the enjoyment did. I wasn’t haughty about being a fireman, but the notion and proof that ‘I can do this’ and do it right, was the biggest reward. Firefighting was natural, and fun, and that is why I was a firefighter.

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