Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Breakfast for An Aging Band of Brothers

For many years since my retirement from the Fire Department in 1996, I've been fortunate to be part of a large group of retired firefighters that gather each quarter for breakfast in Des Plaines, IL.  It's a family style serving, in a separate meeting room in a local restaurant, with seating arranged in a large square accommodating approximately 30 or so retired firefighters. One of the former Fire Chief's took it upon himself to launch the now regularly scheduled meeting, and continues to make arrangements with the restaurant and collect a ten spot from each of us each meeting.

The ages predictably range from the newly retired in their early 50's in some cases, to older retirees now in their 80's, and even though individual exteriors may have fattened and grayed in most cases, the old pecking orders remain firmly in place. The old timers still display a penchant for zeroing in on an individuals' most vulnerable shortcomings as a source for ridicule and taunting but now -- years removed from the familiar gatherings around the firehouse kitchen table -- each jab and poke is accepted.  But now they are not just tolerated but relished and valued as a warm reminder of earlier days and as a gift from the past.

Dozens of old men, now seasoned even more in either retirement or second careers, with cellphones full of photos of grandchildren and even great grandchildren, at times fall into a normal exchange of conversations sharing sources of senior discounts and comparing surgical scars as would any similarly aged retired group. For this group, however, there's a magical element of time travel that underlies the gathering.

Even after decades of lives spent apart from the firehouse, with personalities that have evolved and seasoned with age and life’s experiences, the banter and positioning often clicks retroactively back to another time. Back to where any weakness or personal behavior pattern is fair game for fun and where stories and situations known only to those who shared them at times become the focal point of laughter and the occasional joking dog-pile on one or more individual targets. Nicknames buried years ago, sometimes to the chagrin of the target, resurface instinctively as if only a day or two had passed, instead of 15 or 20 years.

The stories, jokes and zingers are sometimes punctuated by news of another retiree who had passed on, or details on upcoming funeral and wake arrangements. Someone would read an email they received from a wife or relative of a former fellow firefighter now suffering from a debilitating disease or who would enjoy a call or card from those with which he formerly served. Once in awhile, a somber moment of silence would punctuate the loud banter as former comrades shared stories with those nearby or shouted across the room.  Reality was allowed a small part of the agenda, but not for long.

The restaurant staff had learned that patience with this group was necessary, and were prepared for the onslaught of "Hey, we need another plate of pancakes over here!" and "We could use some more coffee!" as many of those who normally were now quiet and polite gentlemen everywhere else, quickly degenerated into the firehouse-like verbal chaos.  As one aging retiree would curtly demand a refill on his coffee from a passing busboy, another would wink at the server and balance the exchange by explaining, well within earshot, "Don't take him seriously,” and adding with a wink. “He's just an asshole."  A well timed retort, but curiously taken in the context of an almost affectionate firehouse jab.

Each quarter I look forward to these breakfasts. For at least a couple of hours, I can catch up with some old comrades, share jabs with former antagonists, and sometimes just sit back and soak in the momentary transport back through time to younger days, when we would sit around the firehouse table or huddle after a fire response.  Each time I'd drink in the warm glow of being part of a special group unlike any other in the world among those who, whether friendly or adversarial, I respected over all others.

And sometimes I could even get a second helping of pancakes.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

"The Superman Suit" Excerpt from "10-24: A Firefighter Looks Back"

Just before entering a burning building, we’d usually crouch down by the chosen entry point in our full firefighting gear. With thick black smoke belching out of the opening we would pull the air mask over our heads, don the helmet, strap it under our chin, and move in on hands and knees to seek out either the seat of the fire or search for occupants.  Once we were past the early years where air packs were considered "just for wimps" it was simple. No Superman suit, no entry.

   A fully equipped firefighter, dressed for entry into a fire, is a striking image. Coupled with the Darth Vader breathing sounds, the image can be downright startling. So much so that a few of us actually appeared on Chicago's Bozo the Clown Show in a segment showing kids the gear and how a firefighter looked and sounded at a fire. The hope was that the kids would see us as helpful friends and not scary monsters and not hide from us as we searched their home.

   There was one time, however, when one woman acted as if all the gear was totally invisible.

   Working out of our south side Station #2, we responded with an engine to a trouble alarm at a restaurant about 7 blocks down the street.  SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) was that responders wear full firefighting gear until investigating the cause of the alarm. We drove the 7 blocks, lights and siren, donning our coats, air tanks and helmets along the way.

   After pulling up in front of the restaurant, and seeing no sign of smoke or problems, the engine officer and I went in the front door to investigate -- each of us in full gear, with air tanks on our backs and helmets on our heads.  Inside the door and about 20 feet down the entry way, we approached the hostess podium, manned by a middle aged woman who, seeing us approach, grabbed two menus and asked, 

   “Will that be two for lunch?”

(Excerpted from "10-24: A Firefighter Looks Back")

Friday, September 6, 2013

Hug a Fire Inspector!

Fire Prevention Week is approaching and is a time when fire departments open their doors a bit wider than usual. They host open houses, pancake breakfasts, conduct fire station tours, and encourage the local press to publish home safety tips. Each year we all hear about Home Escape Plans, the value of smoke detectors in the home, and plenty of healthy doses of "Stop, Drop and Roll".  All good things to be sure, which continue to remind us all to be safe.
Often overlooked each year during this week, ironically, are the men and women who spend the rest of the year also saving lives by preventing fires and serious burn injuries as their full-time job.  These are the Fire Prevention Officers and Fire Inspectors ­– including full-time, part-time and volunteer ­­– that become the watchdogs of safe practices and construction as well as identifying potential fire hazards at home and at work.
   Business owners may sometimes cringe at the image of the white hat and clipboard walking through the plant or office making checkmarks here and there, but never realize that for decades that they've already been the beneficiary of their labors. Now well into the 21st century, most commercial buildings are either protected by sprinklers or built under guidelines that significantly reduce the spread of a fire from one business to another by protecting the careful tenants from the careless tenants. By enforcing a national Life Safety Code, occupants know where to go to escape a fire, where to find an extinguisher, or are assured that there are enough exits to handle everybody. Storage of volatile materials is restricted and exposure to others safely limited or prevented through the enforcement of established fire codes.
    Many school districts, rather than merely accommodating what used to be an intrusive invasion into lesson plans once a year, now incorporate fire and burn prevention lessons and activities into the curriculum for the year, partnering especially during this week with local Fire Departments.
   Fire inspectors seek out and identify hazards to people and property, and by occasionally issuing those irritating notices of items that need to be corrected such as exposed wiring, openings that can allow fire to travel to other parts of the building, or merely blocked emergency exits, have saved countless civilian and firefighter lives by making sure most fires don't happen in the first place.
   They're overlooked most of the time during Fire Prevention Week as visitors tour the fire stations ringing the engine bell and watching demonstrations, all of which are both fun and educational of course, but rarely are acknowledged as the life savers they really are.
   Next time you see a Fire Inspector doing his or her job, give them a hug, or even just a big smile, and say thanks.
   They deserve it throughout the entire year.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Are You a Fire Education Partner, or Just Another Commercial?

When your department wants to reach out to youngsters concerning fire and burn prevention messages, do you partner with local schools or merely ask for a small time slot?

Each year fire departments across the nation reach out to local schools for an opportunity to accomplish some of their public education goals. Often this effort involves visits by shift personnel and equipment, or school classroom visits by firefighters with messages on fire safety.

“Stop, Drop and Roll” is an old standby and along with other common and equally important and valuable messages, bur often are offered through a slot of time opened up by the school.  Though important, these visits are sometimes even an interruption of previously planned curriculum and schedules already strained by days missed due to weather or other unforeseen scheduling challenges. Once you leave the school, sometimes the message goes with you.

Many years ago, assigned the responsibility of public education in my department, I was tasked with scheduling some of these visits to schools. Instead of merely looking for potential openings or educators willing to adjust schedules to “fit us in”, I chose to meet with the curriculum committee first. At that first meeting, I explained our messaging priorities – specifically for grades K through 3rd  -- and asked them as professional educators what would be the best ways to share these messages with their students. The response was both enthusiastic and impressive.

Partnering with those actually planning the curriculum for the following year resulted in not only in more time with students than I had expected, but several teachers had taken the NFPA recommended public education themes and suggestions and built fun and hands on lesson plans and projects that each grade could embrace and absorb. Fire Prevention Week in October became much more than a week of school fire drills and school kids outside the school ringing the bell on a fire engine.

Plan your annual fire and burn prevention education priorities a year ahead of time, and with the help and advice of your local educators.  NFPA continues to provide excellent resources and Safety Information for Public Educators along with an outstanding overview of the Impact of Safety Messages on Children. The latter offers both a detailed report and a shorter executive summary in PDF form.

Be a partner in fire and burn prevention education, instead of just an occasional commercial.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

In memory of Prescott Firefighters

In the memory of Prescott Firefighters, these were among the toughest of the tough:

Andrew Ashcraft, 29, Kevin Woyjeck,, 21
Anthony Rose, 23, Eric Marsh, 43
Christoph MacKenzie, 30, Robert Caldwell, 23
Clayton Whitted, 28, Scott Norris, 28
Dustin Deford, 24, Sean Misner, 26
Garret Zuppiger, 27 Travis Carter, 31
Grant McKee, 21, Travis Turbyfil, 27
Jesse Steed, 36, Wade Parker, 22
Joe Thurston, 32, William Warnecke, 25
John Percin, 24

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Point at something so they think you're in charge

For many of us, getting your photo in a newspaper is when you buy up a handful of papers and then harvest your photo for personal albums, share with a friend or two and – most important -- send to Mom.  Since fires and other emergencies are magnets for photographers, it follows that many firefighters find themselves within a newspaper photo, whether or not their names appear in the caption. It’s fun when it happens, so long as it’s not an embarrassing moment.

Dave Wilcot came on shift only six months earlier than me, so in the early 70’s we often found ourselves on the same hose line, heeling a ladder for each other, or assigned as partners on the then pre-paramedic days ambulance. So it happened on occasion that one or both of us would show up in the local weekly newspaper every few months. It was more frequent than you’d expect since we had a lot of fires during those early years, so we turned it into a competitive game when possible by upstaging each other whenever possible when one of us saw a camera being raised in our direction. 

When the opportunity presented itself, each of us would devise a way to either be located in the forefront when photographers were around, or quickly draw attention away from the other. Not that we responded to emergencies and only sought out the responding press corps, but once in awhile an opportunity for this continuing friendly one-upsmanship would arise.

I had some fun one night, as we were on the scene of a large industrial building fire. The building was a large old abandoned 4 story factory and office type, and the large contingency on scene at the time was primarily training master streams from several sides in a “surround and drown” action.  One of the master stream appliances was located in front of the building – “stage front” in this instance – with two firefighters manning the 3 inch line feeding a smooth bore nozzle. Dave was the firefighter sitting astride the appliance helping to keep it stable.

The Captain had just told me and another firefighter to go around to the west side of the building to relieve the crew manning another master stream.  As we moved toward the building, I noticed a couple of photographers positioning themselves for a couple of shots, so I quickly diverted a few yards to stop by Dave at the front master stream.

I approached him from the side, and stopped by his left knee, while bending down and extending my left arm up – pointing to the fire while sweeping it left and right – I told him, “Hi Dave, just wanted to stop by and point around a bit to look like I was in charge so they can get a couple of photos.” 

Dave got revenge soon after. It wasn’t until the next photo appeared in the paper that I noticed that while all of the rest of us had our names and badge numbers stenciled in white paint on our bunker coats, he’d painted his name and number in reflective paint he had obtained from the city’s sign department.

Until all of us eventually received updated bunker gear with reflective strips and lettering, Dave stood out in every photo for some time.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Fathers Day Rush Hour Response

Rush hour had just reached its peak in the downtown area as bumper to bumper traffic inched through intersections.  Compact cars, SUV's, pickup trucks and buses alternately worked their way to a point where the next green light would allow them to quickly proceed through, only to soon line up once again for the next red light.

In each individual vehicular cocoon, drivers sealed themselves off from the noise outside and listened to music, news, or talk radio as they waited to accelerate slightly, only to brake again for another wait. A few drivers alternately glanced up from handheld devices, some displaying text or email messages, and others confirmed on a small screen the very traffic holdup they were experiencing using a map application. 

A few blocks away, the doors of a Fire Station opened as the fire apparatus inside started up. Emergency lights, installed both high and low on every side of each vehicle, lit up and sparkled brightly as the doors rolled up and the daylight poured in. Vent hoses uncoupled from exhaust pipes, and the gas and diesel engines powering an Ambulance, Engine, Ladder Truck and a Shift Commander van quickly revved up and moved out the front bay doors. The van led the way down the long concrete ramp, then made a left turn across two lanes where traffic had stopped in both directions.  Then came the Ambulance, the Engine and even larger Ladder Truck.

The convoy of red vehicles loomed high over the rest of the traffic, plowing through the gridlocked field of painted metal and windshield glass. Some drivers quickly saw the approaching emergency vehicles, pulling to the side and coming to a full stop. Others, ahead of the fire vehicles in the same lane, quickly confirmed that "objects may be larger than they appear", as the sirens and loud air horns -- necessary to compete with modern vehicle insulation and sound systems -- came even closer.

The fire apparatus approached a traffic light controlled intersection and on-board signal devices triggered and changed the red light ahead to green and switched cross traffic signals to red. Cross traffic waited as each fire vehicle lumbered across in front of them.  

As the equipment passed those closest to the oncoming traffic lane, drivers could only see massive black tires going past at eye level. Some craned their necks and looked up to see firefighters inside sliding arms and shoulders into straps of seat-mounted air-packs.

Engine sounds were punctuated by air brakes followed quickly by a loud engine acceleration roar. Electronic sirens and air horns echoed and reverberated off the surrounding buildings increasing the decibel level and bouncing the sounds in every direction. 

Customers and shopkeepers moved to front windows to see what was passing, many of them commenting or speculating on where they might be heading. Pedestrians on the sidewalks stopped to watch the equipment pass by.

One coffee shop patron, as he paid for his non-fat, no foam latte, commented at the cash register, "I wonder where they're going."

The young blond barista, not even looking up as she gave him his change, replied, "Oh, that's just my Dad on his way to work."

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Happy Fathers Day!!

Great Fathers Day gift, or anytime gift: “10-24: A Firefighter Looks Back”  Paperback and Kindle - soon to be available in iBooks.