We Let Homes Burn Sometimes: 6 Realities As A Firefighter
When I was 20 years old, I decided that I wanted a career that utilized my skills learned from a lifetime of watching muscular men in burnt T-shirts save the world. But since I couldn't get a job throwing Hans Gruber off a roof, I decided to join the fire department. It turns out that there are some very surprising things which all the firefighting movies in the world (basically Backdraft and that's it, right?) hadn't prepared me for ...
Sometimes, You're Forced To Let Things Burn
In training, they made us memorize our own version of the Lord's Prayer: "We risk a lot to save a lot, we risk a little to save a little, and we risk nothing to save what is already lost." Now try to remember that as you roll up on a massive fire and someone is screaming "My baby's in there!" because someone is always screaming "My baby's in there!" The thing is that the baby in question can be anything from an actual baby to a cat or dog to a collection of Sanford And Son on VHS.
Look, all we ever want to do is run into a burning building. Firefighters will knock each other over to get to the hose nozzle and be the first one on the scene. But sometimes, the possibility of death is so great that you have to fight all of your instincts and stand down. Left unchecked, it's often a losing battle. When your buddy goes down, you're going to try to save him, and when you go down, someone's going to try to save you, and so on and so on until you have a dog pile of downed firefighters. Firefighters might worry about dying, but we never have to worry about dying alone.
"Time to go out in a literal blaze of glory."
That's why there's someone whose entire job it is to monitor working structure fires and make sure that we fight the raging inferno in a safe and secure way. They're called safety officers, and every fire department has one. The worst thing they can do is declare that a structure or situation is deemed unsafe to go into. At that point, all that can be done is what's known as a "surround and drown," which entails sitting around a building pouring water on the fire as best we can. It doesn't matter if people are trapped in there. It doesn't matter if your brothers are trapped in there.
That's the stuff that really haunts you. Not the times you fucked up -- the times when you couldn't do anything.
"So uh, anybody see the game last night?"
And fuckups do happen ...
We Make So Many Mistakes
We screw up all the time, and usually no one notices because they are so happy to see us. The best mistakes make for funny stories around the dinner table, like the many times a crew has accidentally unloaded 2,000 feet of hose down the interstate while driving to a fire. Or the time a fire engine crashed into another fire engine on the way to the same alarm call. I went to rookie school in a trailer because, in the most ironic turn of events since actual iron, someone burned down the academy.
As for me personally, I once hit the emergency "Firefighter Down" button on my radio by accident. The captain took my radio apart, gave me some of the pieces back, and told me, "When you learn to use it properly, we'll give you the rest of it."
"Once you figure that out, you can have the oxygen tank back."
But the worst mistakes aren't quite as funny. I was a rookie when nine Charleston firefighters died in a massive furniture store fire because of making multiple mistakes. The size of the hose they used, going into such a large fire without backup, breaking out windows, and even entering the building at all -- it was a perfect storm of wrong decisions. But no one is going to blame the charred remains of a firefighter for their own death. It's simply bad press.
We Can Never Fully Relax
At any moment, you'll go from watching Cops to running into a raging inferno (we've watched a lot of Cops, which makes me wonder if cops watch a lot of Rescue Me.) That's always in the back of your mind, and it makes certain activities a nightmare. Yes, I'm talking about pooping.
You see, if you happen to be mid-constitutional when someone knocks over a candle, you don't get to finish -- you're lucky if you get to wipe once that alarm sounds. One strategy for the horrifically desperate, as a captain told me, is to make a bird's nest out of toilet paper, stuff it in where you left off, and get the hell on the engine. I worked with a guy who was known as "the mad shitter" because he had IBS and would use the toilet of any house he was called to, even in the middle of a raging inferno.
"Wait, what did you wipe with?"
And God help you if you slept through a fire call. You could be punished in a variety of ways -- including having your bed set up next to the fire truck, complete with perfectly made-up sheets, a bedside table and lamp, and a mint on the pillow. Firefighters are nothing if not big on those little touches that make shaming someone an art form.
How you sleep if it happens again.
I once had hot sauce poured in my mouth while I was sleeping -- not because I missed an alarm call, mind you, but merely because I let my guard down around four other bored firefighters.
And speaking of dumb shit firefighters get into with each other ...
Your Home May Burn Because Of A Petty Territorial Dispute
My first fire didn't come through dispatch. It came to our attention when we looked out the back door and noticed that the sky was ablaze. Of course, we wondered why no one had phoned the fire department and told them that the apocalypse had arrived, and went to investigate. We found a multistory home fully involved, which is code for "all of it was on fire." I went into rookie mode, preparing to save the day, when my captain told me, "Get back in the truck, junior."
See, we hadn't gotten the call because it was out of our area. Instead of being able to pitch in with our better-equipped, better-manned fire truck, we were sent home. Later, we learned that the occupants of the house had enough time to go back in several times to gather pets and belongings and errant family members while waiting for the other fire department to show up. Now they are the proud owners of a slab, because that's all that's left of the house.
Imagine still having to pay property tax for a fire department
when you no longer have property because of said department.
To understand how something horrible like this can happen, imagine fire departments like the kingdoms on Game Of Thrones, all competing for resources and territory. The more territory you have (i.e. the more people you can tax), the more shiny fire trucks you can buy. But you can't send them out to everybody, so you decide to only send them to the people who paid for them. There is a thing known as "mutual aid," where neighboring fire departments agree to help each other man territory and fight fires, but that's easier said than done. It generally only happens during the most extreme disasters, like hurricanes and White Walkers.
"Uh ... All yours."
There are a few reasons a mutual aid agreement might be hard to come to. Part of it is pride -- some fire chiefs would rather watch a house burn to the ground than to give up their command, and you'd be laughed at for calling for help from another department. Another is money. Even the most compassionate chief has to train themselves to look at someone's life blazing up around them and see untold man-hours and gallons of water that they can't get back for the people they've actually pledged to serve. There is also the issue of training standards. As a full-time, first-class department, we spend millions of man-hours on training and certifications. We can't trust just anyone who walks up with an ax and a fire helmet, because they may not be trained to your standards, and they may get you or other people killed. Yeah, that's another thing a lot of people don't realize ...
The Guys Tasked With Saving Your Life And Risking Their Own Are Probably Not Even Getting Paid
You probably knew that some firefighters are volunteers, but did you know it's almost three quarters of them? That's kind of scary, right? I mean, this is an essential, life-saving service we're talking about. Can you imagine if three-quarters of any given police force or hospital staff were volunteers? How long do you think it would take before everything became The Road? But for some reason, local governments hate paying for fire service.
"Eh, what did fire fighters ever do for New York?"
My alma mater is in a massive dispute right now just to get paid what the city agreed to pay them. Chances are they won't get it, and even if they win in court, the city can up and decide not to pay them because firefighters, like police and other essential services, aren't allowed to strike in most states.
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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