On May 5th, 2015, the City of Springfield Fire Department was dispatched to its five thousand one hundred and twenty eighth call for the year. For run #5128, Engine Company #1, C-shift was toned out for a “fire in a house” call at approximately 7:50am. The house in question was on Commercial Street in an area known for having working house fires somewhat regularly, so while nothing is certainly certain, there was a chance that this could be a worker.
For the crew of Engine Company #1, it was a routine start to a routine day, with only one glaring exception: there was a brand new officer riding in the right hand seat. To wear the badge and bugle is one thing. To be given a red helmet is one thing. To be told what your new job is, is one thing. But for all of these separate factors to coalesce into the responsibility that snaps into focus when the fire engine clears the station bay doors is quite another.
The call turned out a dud, a small cooking fire handled by the first due company, and that was that, a good thing, really. You never wish for tragedy, for anyone. As the call to return units to service came over the radio, the wailing Federal Q siren winding down and headsets off of ears, that old friend, the adrenaline dump, made its presence known. I’ve ridden in the Captain’s seat plenty of times as an engineer, when the captain was gone, but now there’s a difference. Expectations are higher. Responsibilities are greater. Now there are three other people to whom I owe my very best, three men who’s families are relying on us to all get home safely to their arms as fathers and husbands. I’m not going to get the chance to drive a fire rig again unless something tragic happens or it’s a case of training. I’m no longer going to get the chance to open the nozzle and put out a fire; now my role is to be back inside the burning house with my people, coaching, guiding, watching their backs and surveying the chaos for dangerous potential.
This role is new, fresh and intimidating. After fifteen years with the department, I feel ready to pass along some of the intricacies of the job to the younger, newer folks. I’m learning to truly view my engineer as my right-hand guy, the unofficial leader of the crew, the guy getting us there safely and keeping us slathered in water and foam on demand. I’m learning that the firefighters riding in back are watching me constantly, making up their own minds as to whether I’m a leader to be trusted, or a hack in a red helmet. They will make their own judgements, and I owe them my very best. The Heavy Rescue goons I’m stationed with will, successfully, bust the chops of the new guy, officer or not, in an attempt to crack past the shell of your veneer to see what you’re made of; years ago, this would have unhinged me, because self-doubt is a trait that has no place in an emergency situation. I know my weaknesses, and I know how to address them. But I also know that I’m ready for this chapter, as ready as I could hope to be. Every day I learn another little kernel of life as a lieutenant, and to say it’s overwhelming is an underwhelming statement.
Now I sleep alone, downstairs, no longer welcome in the firefighters’ quarters upstairs. No more sliding the pole in the middle of the night. While the boys crack fantastic around the kitchen table, when I force myself to spend the time out there, I’m staring into my coffee cup, knowing that the office computer and the endless reports are beckoning to me with the bureaucratic song with no end. Meals are a respite from the mental gymnastics and to listen to the banter makes me feel human, like a fireman, for a moment in time. And before I know it, the guys are spread out into the night, grabbing some shuteye or a movie for the evening before the inevitable tones begin to call to us out into the dark of night and early morning, emergencies and non-emergencies keeping sleep to a minimum.
And I sit in the Lieutenant’s quarters for a moment, quietly staring into my last cup of coffee for the night and marvel at where I’ve landed. I’m a new kid in this game, again. It’s a lonely place to be on a lonely journey, when the buck stops with you and you’re up alone at 1am hoping your guys are getting enough rest. I have a new family to care for, on a new shift for the first time in 15 years. I’ll stumble as I did when I was a rookie sliding the pole here at this very station 15 years ago. I’ll wonder, like I did 10 years ago as a brand new engineer, if I’m ready for what’s expected.
Call #5128 will go down in history as being particularly unremarkable to all but one. 5128 is the beginning of a new chapter in my story. I’m not sure how it will play out, only that there will be many a long night ahead, many an endless cup of coffee and more than a few gray hairs grown out. This is as it should be. My people are depending on my very best.
I owe them no less.