And that's full-time fire departments. Other departments are saving your stupid cat out of a love of the job or a love of fire. These guys also usually work regular jobs during the day. Even on a paid, full-time department, most of the guys I knew worked second jobs on their days off. It's like being Superman, but without any of the powers and with all of the responsibility. We're getting practically no sleep, the sleep we do get is tainted by the fear that we'll sleep through a call or get hot sauce poured down our throats, and then we wake up and take your life into our hands.
Though it's at this point that I should explain ...
The Leading Cause Of Death Is Not Fire
Despite what you'd assume, the number-one killer of firefighters is not burning to death or ax fights. In fact, it's the same for us as it will be for many of you: good old heart attacks. More than half of firefighters who die in the line of duty do so because of "cardiovascular events," which is a fancy way of saying that your heart took one look at all that smoke and peaced out. The risk doesn't end when your service does, either -- there's a reason we're allowed to retire earlier than most people. Not quite as heroic as trapping yourself on the top floor to throw babies to safety.
You may be wondering how any of those hyper-fit pieces of man meat could succumb to heart failure. Personally, I don't know how you could spend a day in a firehouse and not come to the conclusion that we're walking bypass bombs. Add one part home-cooked firehouse food (which is mostly meat stuffed inside other meat) to two parts career exposure to carcinogens and smoke inhalation, then add 30 years of 3 a.m. alarm calls and disrupted sleep patterns, knead gently, and you've got a recipe for a guy who gets to enjoy less than 10 years of his retirement before checking out. In my rookie year, I kept hearing people speak in hushed tones about guys with names like Dingus and Hash who had only recently retired. I didn't know how they got their nicknames, but I knew how they died.
i.e. Not like this.
A big problem is the culture, where you can be laughed at for using your air bottle or eating your "gay salad and water." When I came on, it was getting better, but there's a reason it developed in the first place. No matter how much the opposite might be true, it's still hard to shake the belief that being a "sissy" could get you -- or your brothers -- killed.
During training, we were all given an assignment to research a case of preventable house fire death to share with the other recruits to demonstrate risk assessment. I chose a story about a fire captain in another state who attempted to demonstrate a skill called a "ladder bailout," which is used (as my chief put it) "when you have to get out of a multistory structure fire and you don't have time to wait for the guy in front of you to hike his skirt up and climb down." It's pretty awesome when you do it right. This particular captain didn't do it right and ended up swan diving out of a third-story window.
Pictured: Not awesome.
When that sort of thing is happening all around you, well, heart attacks seem like a distant worry.
For more insider perspectives, check out 6 Horrifying Things I Learned As A Paramedic, and 5 Insane Things I Learned About Drugs As An Undercover Agent.
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