People outside of the fire business seem to have an insatiable curiosity when it comes to this line of work. When folks find out that you’re a fireman, there is a predictable litany of questions that run the gamut from “What’s it like to face potential threat of death regularly?” to “What is it that you guys actually DO all day?” to one of my all-time favorites “Oh, no, you’re not one of those guys. Are you sleeping with my wife?” After nine years as a career firefighter, I’ve come up with a similarly predictable roll-call of answers, ranging from “You don’t think about death that much unless you’re the coroner” to “You have no idea how much effort it takes to keep the wheels of bureaucracy squeaking along” to “Yes I AM one of those guys, and no I am NOT currently sleeping with your wife. That would be Eddie.”
Like any industry, ours has its share of dirtbags, family men, sleazy political types and salt of the earth folks. People go into the fire service for an equally varied number of reasons: the schedule, the security, the retirement, the chance to behave like adolescents, breaking stuff for a living. There are those who try to sell you the whole “hero” notion, but any fireman worth his or her salt will drop a Bullshit Flag with extreme prejudice at the mere mention of that term. We’re trained to do a job; like any job, the shine fades after several years and you begin to think more about being a cog in the giant wheel of government and less about what it is you do for a living.
I got into the fire service circuitously, like many, and was drawn to the adrenaline rush of racing trucks, running into unknown corridors and working ten days out of the month. And, at a time when I was a (relatively) young, newly single guy with nothing but chaos, I could count on two things: the fact that my worthless dog had probably taken a dump on my porch sometime in the night and that my new-found family at the firehouse would be there for the citizens, and for me, every third day. Unpredictable emergencies became, ironically enough, my anchor. There was no feeling quite like riding backwards as a rookie on old Truck 1. Heading towards the unknown emergency, lighting up downtown in red and white, siren wailing, it always felt as though we were rushing to a party of sorts. The rush was amplified by the fact that the hosts might well be fueled up meth-heads torching a crack den as a form of entertainment. Along the way I’ve had the chance to be a part of situations as diverse as crazy white trash attacking one another with ax handles and weedeaters to helping deliver a baby in a liquor store. I’ve experienced tremendous sorrow at the loss of life of innocent children and the overwhelming joy of shocking an old lady back into this life and the accompanying look on her husbands face when he realized perhaps he wasn’t going to have to say goodbye like this. I’ve become more jaded about those who choose to use 911 as an entitlement taxi service and yet developed a little more empathy towards those whose poor choices were influenced and guided by the crappy choices their own parents made.
Perhaps the cynicism comes with a combination of age and governmental employment. Like any adrenaline or junkie’s rush, it takes more and more these days to get the fix. Any more, I want to hear the dispatcher’s voice ratchet up a notch or two when describing heavy smoke conditions, multiple calls on a house fire and possible persons trapped before I can really feel a true high navigating Ladder Truck 2 through the city’s northside. Usually this seems to occur with greater frequency late at night or very, very early, depending on your own perspective. As we wordlessly gear up and contemplate the unknown ahead, a comforting sense of calm overtakes me. Together with my family of co-workers, our humor gets darker as a coping tool for the macabre, our senses get heightened as I flip on the lights and the old familiar Federal-Q siren begins to wind it’s way up and down, alerting no one in particular to our presence. We’re on our way to make a bad situation a little better for someone. And in the chaotic bath of red and white lights I remember why I love this job.