“What’s it like to be inside a burning house?” After more than a decade in the fire service, I’ve found that this is one of the top three questions people have when they find out what I do for a living. Structure fires are a part of the job, and I suppose it’s a fair question; it just really doesn’t cross my mind much anymore. I guess the reason I like posting up about firehouse life more than life in a house fire is that it’s always funnier to BE a fireman than it is to be fighting fire. Plus, it’s damn well impossible to write about with any consistency since every fire is different. One has to be really careful in descriptions about situation “mitigation” because, as firefighters, one of our primary jobs is to drop the Bullshit Flag on our peers anytime their stories use words like “brave” or, the very worst of ALL descriptors we can use – “HERO”. In fact if ANY one of our co-workers uses this word in ANY way to describe him/herself, we are morally obligated to punch the offender right in the mouth, and refer to that person as a “delusional asshole” for the rest of their career.
So, to answer the question without seeming flippant or full of crap, I tell them the best description I’ve come up with: put a black garbage bag over your head, fill it with smoke and crank up the heat and you’ll get the basic idea. What Top Gun did for portraying all fighter pilots as short, ill-tempered young Scientologists, movies like Backdraft and Ladder 49 have done little to temper the fantasy of fighting fire with any sort of reality. A more accurate description could be found in Star Wars, where the protagonists are sloshing about in the trash compactor of a spaceship. Add some acrid smoke and a little more chaos and you’re pretty close. All the training in the world can’t prepare you for the dismal fact of crawling around blind, looking for a distant glow, or worse, a person. Much like CPR has been described by some medics as “the ritual flogging of the dead”, on the rare occasion that a person is pulled from a fire and survives, we’re as relieved and surprised as anyone.
That’s probably why we’ve developed such a macabre sense of humor; it’s a screwy coping mechanism for dealing with the improbable scenarios we encounter, and it can come across to outsiders as insular behavior. As much as I can try and understand what it was like for my brothers and friends who’ve gone and fought in Afghanistan and Iraq, the truth is that I’m only imagining the horror, the fear, the boredom. And that’s why those vets understand one another better than anyone else does, and I can appreciate that fact. In the same fashion, there’s something about bumbling through some meth freaks domicile on a snowy Christmas Eve, tripping over hose and dragging through trash and filth that allows us to bond with one another. You’re not thinking about the danger, you’re wondering what in the hell possesses these people to live like this. And, if you happen to be crawling towards the fire and encounter some bizarre sex toy, you’re expected to pass it back to the guy behind you and ask if he lost something out of his coat. That sort of behavior would make my mother die of a shame-induced aneurysm, but in our world, it’s unofficial standard operating procedure.
The fact remains that for whatever reason we got into this line of work, we like to claim that we stay for the schedule, the benefits, the job security that comes with a never-ending list of people who get themselves into trouble, whatever. But the truth is that when the tones go off and we strap the black garbage bags over our heads, there’s nothing that beats the feeling of heading into chaos with people we can call our friends. At the very least, we’re looking for some piece of discarded trash to abuse one another with; if we’re lucky, we’ll get to do our jobs right and someones bad day is made just a little better.