Twenty-five Years as a Firefighter

Last week marked my twenty-fifth anniversary of becoming a firefighter. It passed much like any other day in the station – a routine assortment of false alarms, medical calls and various other minor incidents mixed in with the regular schedule of training, maintenance and cleaning. I put on a meal for the crew to mark the occasion. As I was getting things ready, I looked back over a quarter century of firefighting.

Young FF 2nd class Kenny hoists a roof ladder. My friend Chuck Muir in the background.

Young FF 2nd class Kenny hoists a roof ladder. My friend Chuck Muir in the background.

As anyone will tell you, twenty-five years is a long time looking ahead, but looking back it’s amazing how quickly it’s gone. Tired as the cliché is, it seems like only a few weeks, or at most a few months ago that I was a wide eyed recruit sitting in the kitchen of my first fire hall. The air was thick as a London fog with cigarette smoke. There were all these old guys, and I mean really old – they were over fifty. They seemed to be having this endless discussion about the pension plan. Who the hell cared? Certainly not me. That was in the impossibly distant future.

My very first day was a grim one. The senior man on my new truck, Gary Kennedy, had been critically injured the day before. He died after several weeks in a coma. It was a harsh reminder that I was entering a dangerous profession. No one was in much of mood to welcome some bright eyed, enthusiastic rookie. I never actually met Gary, though I heard lots of stories about him and I felt a bit as if I were stepping into dead man’s shoes, filling the vacancy he left in the crew. He was always there, something of a ghostly companion – the sort of thing you see out of the corner of your eye and then disappears when you turn to look at it.

Thousands of firefighters gathered to pay Gary Kennedy made his last trip about Pumper 1

Thousands of firefighters gathered to pay their respects as Gary Kennedy made his last trip aboard Pumper 1

I’ve gone to a lot of funerals in twenty-five years. Some died on the fire ground. A lot more died from cancer as a result of years of exposure to the toxic products of combustion. Others succumbed to alcohol and drug abuse as a result of the toxic emotional impact of dealing with the hard edge of human misery year in and year out. But you can only numb those feelings and memories for so long before that form of escape also becomes fatal.

There’s been a lot of joy too. I’ve witnessed the miracle of new life brought into the world. The press always makes a big deal out of us catching babies, but really it’s the

This is type of gear I started with. Contrast it with the bunker gear in the picture at top.

This is type of gear I started with. Contrast it with the bunker gear in the picture at top.

mothers that do all the hard work. Sometime you get someone’s heart to start beating again. Sometimes you pull someone, coughing and choking but alive, from a burning house. Sometimes you get to put a child back in their parents’ arms. And there is nothing, absolutely nothing that feels better than that. That’s what makes it worth it. That’s what get you through the bad times.

There have been a lot of changes in twenty-five years. The bunker gear we now wear gives much better protection that the old knee length canvas coat and thigh high rubber boots we wore when I started my career. I was probably one of the last guys, at least on our department, to drive an open cab LaFrance aerial. Ah there’s nothing like a convertible in winter. The new trucks all have

An open cab American LaFrance Aerial. Nice in the summer. Not so much fun in a snow storm.

An open cab American LaFrance Aerial. Nice in the summer. Not so much fun in a snow storm.

automatic transmissions, electronic pump controls and onboard computers. They’re more reliable for the most part. But they’re also bigger, which is not an advantage when you’re trying to get down side streets that are the same width they were a hundred years ago.

 

Thermal imaging cameras allow firefighters to see through dense smoke.

Thermal imaging cameras allow firefighters to see through dense smoke.

There are things that simply didn’t exist twenty-five years ago, like hand held thermal imaging cameras that can locate victims in blinding smoke and compact electronic sensors that can measure and identify toxic and flammable gases. There are also new threats. No one thought much about terrorism or HIV in 1989.

All in all it’s been an incredible and deeply rewarding twenty-five years. I could go on and on, but if you’ll excuse me I have to go call a friend. There are some things we need to discuss about the pension plan…

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