I was surfing the internet a few weeks back while at the firehouse when I came across a question posed by a reader of The Fire Critic. To make a long story short, the reader, apparently new to the fire service, was having trouble getting used to wearing an SCBA mask, and their question was whether or not this issue was normal for new firefighters, or was the underlying problem that they were just not cut out to be a firefighter. This got me thinking as to how I would answer the same question if it were presented to me for a response.
Hmmm…………what exactly does it take to do the job of a firefighter and how does someone know if they have what it takes to join our ranks? How do you begin to explain to someone that is unaware of just what it is we do in the performance of our jobs, and no it doesn’t make a difference whether you get paid to do this as your chosen profession or just helping out your neighbors and communities for no compensation what so ever. Fire is still fire, the job is still the job. For the purpose of this article, I’m going to give insight based on my little part of the world of being a “jake”. The 56 hour a week, paid, slayer of the dragon.
Where to start? I could go into things like…you gotta get along with your fellow firefighters, have a good sense of humor, good work ethic, understand that you are going to miss out on things in your family’s lives, that your not going to get rich at this profession, you’ll still do better than lots of other people, but you wouldn’t be eating lobster on a nightly basis either. We always like to go into how we work in some of the most inhospitable environments that you could ever imagine. The hottest of hots, and the coldest of cold. Oh yeah… I almost forgot the most important bullet, the understanding that no matter how perfect an incident goes, there is always that chance that you won’t be coming home.
But, although those are all good ways that begin to describe what it takes to be a firefighter, it really doesn’t do justice at describing what we do when we “earn our keep” as the saying goes. I mean how do you begin to try and make someone understand what it’s like to be awaken from sleep in the middle of a cold winters night, climb onto your rig to head out to a report of a home on fire with children trapped inside, and to have your worst fears confirmed when you pull up in front of that home with fire rolling out of the front windows, all the while an inconsolable mother is screaming that her kids are still inside. What words do you use to describe blackness, the most black that black can get, even telling someone to close theirs eyes really doesn’t do it justice, but we that’s been there know that’s what it’s like to mask up and cross over a buildings threshold and into hell. How do you tell someone that every bone in your body is going to be screaming at you to go the other way. This feeling is explained perfectly in the movie Lone Survivor, as Navy Seal teams location is discovered by the Taliban, Lt Mike Murphy says to his team, “I just want to go home, climb in bed, and watch anchorman”. Yeah, it’s that kind of feeling. But you’ve got to push those feeling aside, and do the job that your required to do.
Maybe try and explain that feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when you pull up to a home after receiving a call of an infant not breathing, and as you arrive you see the mother running down the sidewalk carrying the lifeless body of a baby who’ll never see it’s first birthday. Ask them what words they would say to an 8 year old girl who is trapped in the mangled steel of what used to be her family’s car, that was taking her and her family home from a family vacation, while your cutting her free and trying not to cause anymore damage to the body seated next to her. Oh yeah, that body was that of her older sister who is now crammed into a space no bigger than that of a plastic tote. Maybe you remind them that even though you signed up to be a firefighter you’ll still be sent to crime scenes, not unlike those that are portrayed in movies and television shows. Yeah, you’ll experience those first hand with the only difference being that those bodies aren’t going to be getting up after the pictures are taken and take off their makeup. They’re real people…or were. Say that you’ll bare witness to the destructive force that fire can have on nature, on man made things like homes, and to human bodies. That you’ll know when there is a body, burnt beyond recognition, somewhere in the rumble just by the odor it puts off. You’ll never forget it.
So I guess I’d start there, I’d watch their reactions, and if they hadn’t turned three shades of green, hadn’t put their head in their hands, and could respond to those situations with a willingness to help their fellow man, even to the point of ultimate sacrifice, then I’d welcome them aboard, for they truly may have what it takes to do the best job in the world.
“Just Livin’ the Dream”
Cpt. Tim Kron