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Questions for a Former Firefighter
By Michael J. Legeros
On Valentine's Day After 1989, at age 23 and a year out of college (B.S., high school math ed), I started at the Raleigh Fire Depart- ment's newest New Recruit Academy. At 8 a.m., myself and seventeen other strapping young schleps reported to the Keeter Training Center at 105 West Hoke Street, a glum-looking brick complex off South Wil- mington Street just south of downtown. Set behind barbed wire and on a rather small lot, the modern-ish facility featured (and still features) a five-story "drill tower," a smoke house-turned-storage shed, an administrative building slash classroom building slash dual apparatus-sized garage, and a railroad tank car on a track in the back, Jack. Plus, of course, a couple tarp-covered old fire trucks. And one housing project, conveniently located directly across the street. (We'd been there before, months earlier, for the physical aptitude test and, later, a personal interview conducted by a panel of stone-faced fire captains.) The salary was $18,392, practically a king's ransom to a radio guy supplementing his $6.50/hour traffic-reporting gig with part-time play, er, work at a copy center and one Sunday afternoon a week at an oldies station. (Alas, only as a "board op.") Thus, with the enthusiasm of a newly salaried employee-- plus the bounding excite- ment of a kid who always wanted to be a fireman-- I began learning about hoses and ladders and nozzles, oh my. And the behavior of fire, which tends to be bad. And how to handle injuries, 'cause we were each trained (and soon State-certified) as Emergency Medical Technicians. (The EMT stuff was taught first. Those who passed progressed to fireground training. Which everyone did.) We even learned what the heck the meanings were of those diamond-shaped, hazardous-materials placards seen on the sides of trucks. (Most translate to "in case of fire, oh shit.") For fourteen wonderfully miserable weeks, Yours Inactive also en- dured daily calisthenics (ugh) and near-daily "formation running" (double ugh). And with cadence calls and a carried flag, no less! We ran for blocks, then miles, then *several* miles. We even com- peted in a Something K road race, an equally unpleasant experience, though this time with spectators. (I must say, I developed *great* breathing control for my voice. Others shouted, but I *sang* such ditties as "I WANT TO BE A FIRE INSTRUCTOR! I WANT TO CUT OFF ALL OF MY HAIR!") And, as most of the recruits were in their twenties, we also enjoyed the many perks of Young Male Bonding Hell. Such as good-natured insults, affectionate physical violence, and, in cele- bration of graduation, being thrown into the shower with your dress uniform on. Ah, the joys of testosterone... the bastards. My resulting "career" included assignments to "Nineteen," "Nine," "Fifteen," "Five," and "Sixteen." Plus the occasional "fill in" at some other station, for a half-day, whole-day, or whole shift. (I ended up at "Twelve" and "Seven" quite a bit.) Those stories have been documented elsewhere. (See www.legeros.com for True Fire Tales and about a thousand related photos.) Three years and change after finishing the Fire Academy, I left the department and took a short- lived position with the City/County Emergency Communications Center. As a 911 operator and dispatcher. Not too many months later, I quit "the profession" altogether. Now and nearly a decade since, I still answer questions about being a fireman. At parties or when catching up with friends and family members. The conversations go something like this... WHY IS A FIRE TRUCK SENT WHEN SOMEONE'S SICK? Fire departments often function as "first responders," meaning they're dispatched along with an ambulance to life-threatening medical emergencies. First-responding firefighters tend to be trained as EMT's or higher. Such as EMT-D's, who can perform defibrillation. Or paramedics, who can administer medication. The rationale for first responders is simple-- most places have more fire stations than ambulance stations. Thus, "help" arrives that much faster. DO FIREMEN REALLY SLEEP AT THE FIRE STATION? Yup. Your average "city" fire station accommodates as many as eight or ten firefighters. That's the number that typically staffs two or three fire units. Rural stations that rely on volunteers may have smaller sleeping quarters. In addition to beds, most fire stations are also equipped with a kitchen, a pantry, a "day room," one or more study rooms, a weight room, an office, and maybe even a library. WHY ARE DALMATIANS FIRE DOGS? In days of old, when knights were bold, and gas engines hadn't been invented, fire engines had horses. "Steamers" they were called, giant, gleaming, gallop-drawn boilers, clearing the way with clanging bells and a barking mascot that raced ahead. Needless to say, the horses lived at the fire house. And of the many breeds of fire dogs they encountered, the horses got along best with Dalmatians. That's it. DO FIREMEN REALLY SIT AROUND AND PLAY CHECKERS ALL DAY? Hardly. Some of what's done between fire calls: checking the fire truck, washing the fire truck, mowing the lawn, trimming the hedges, mopping floors, cleaning bathrooms, painting walls, washing windows, hose testing, hose washing, hydrant testing, hydrant painting, "pre-planning," pump tests, equip- ment checks, fire drills, station tours, street studying, re- fresher training, building inspections, and the day's most im- portant task, going to the grocery story. WHY DO SOME FIRE TRUCKS HAVE STEERING WHEELS IN THE BACK? Very basically, there are two types of fire trucks: those that pump water and those that raise ladders. "Ladder trucks" (or "aerial ladders" or "truck companies") are sometimes tractor- drawn and, if so, usually have a second steering (or "tiller") wheel in the back. For tighter turns and more narrow streets. Such trucks also called "hook and ladders" because they carry pole-mounted hooks. As they did in the 1700's, when the term was coined and the tool was used for pulling straw from burn- ing roofs. DO FIREMEN REALLY WEAR RED SUSPENDERS? Yes. But there are other colors. DID YOU EVER RESCUE A CAT FROM A TREE? No. But I once used a "master stream" to knock the *leaves* out of a tree, so we could rake them. WHY DON'T CARS GET OUT OF THE WAY? Asshole Factor (AF) aside, it's because cars are darned near soundproof. Try this: park about a block from a fire station. Preferably during rush hour, or when there's a lot of traffic noise. Wait for a fire call. When the truck begins pulling away from the station, start your car and turn on the stereo. Roll up the windows, too. And look in a different direction. Chances are you won't hear the siren until its right beside you. WHAT'S IT REALLY LIKE TO BE INSIDE A BURNING BUILDING? Find a pair of snow pants. And a parka. Then add rubber bo- ots, snow gloves, and a ski mask. Leave your face exposed, though. Put on a diver's mask, preferably one that covers your entire face. Like you see in the movies. Add a hardhat. With a tight chin-strap. Then take a knapsack with 40 pounds of added weight and strap it tightly to your back. Have some- one stretch black electrical tape across the entire mask, lea- ving just enough of an opening to show a faint glow of light. Get on your hands and knees with six lengths of garden hose strapped together and try dragging same through your living room. Or, sans hose, try finding a child-sized doll hidden in a corner. WHAT HAPPENS IF NO ANSWERS THE VOLUNTEER FIRE SIGNAL? The next-nearest fire department is dispatched, if the first one doesn't respond in so many minutes. This is called "mu- tual aid." Many volunteer departments, however, hire paid personnel to work weekdays. Or even entire 24 hours shifts. Also utilized are assigned "duty crews," where the "vollies" take turn spending nights and weekends at the station. HOW CAN I HELP MY FIRE DEPARTMENT HELP ME? Practice exit drills at home. Make sure your house numbers can be seen from the street. Learn how to use a fire extin- guisher. Keep matches away from children. Check smoke de- tector batteries twice a year. Have a phone by your bed that works when the power goes out. Memorize the location of the fire exit on the floor of your hotel. And never leave fires unattended and that includes candles. Smokey would not ap- prove. Copyright 2000 by Michael J. Legeros
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