I recently marked my last day on the job as an active firefighter. I have retired after 35 years of service in my fire department in New Jersey and three years on a department where I lived in the firehouse during school out West.
When I first went to school, the fire department held a week-long training session and lit fire to two vacant private dwellings to provide real practice. I responded with 25 other students in the firehouse when an alarm came in. During the day, it was first come, first served. At night, we were assigned to one of three shifts. At the first house fire I responded to, I did a search for the fire and John Norman (retired FDNY deputy assistant chief) had the nozzle behind me. I moved to the headquarters station and responded to a working fire about every 10 days. The last three months I was there, we responded to three fatal fires.
I joined my New Jersey department on my 21st birthday in 1975. The first fire I responded to was a mutual aid call to a fire in a three-story mansion in Englewood. We stood fast outside in the freezing cold for quite awhile. When I made it inside the building, I walked up to the second floor. I observed fire burning around a large hanging chandelier. I notified my chief. The building was evacuated and a few short minutes later, the third floor collapsed into the large entranceway. That was a close call for some.
My second fire was a relocation to the department to the north. Along the way, we were redirected to the fire where that department was operating. I was ordered up into our snorkel basket. The fire had involved a large supermarket with a truss roof. While we were waiting for water in the basket, the fire started to burn through the roof. Eventually, all of the trusses collapsed and the building became fully involved. I spent two hours operating the two manual crank handles for the nozzle — one crank up and down and the other left and right. There was no protective shield on the basket. The plastic warning light melted from the intense radiant heat. I remember being about 70 feet high in the bucket and seeing aerosol cans raining down above us after they exploded in the fire.
I was a firefighter for three years, lieutenant for one, captain for seven, assistant chief for one and then chief for 12 years from 1988 to just before 2000. I remained a firefighter for about three years, lieutenant for another two, captain for two and finally assistant chief again for four years. I responded to plenty of fires, mutual aid calls, traffic accidents and vehicle extrications. It seemed like we would be able to sleep through the night for weeks and then one week every few months we would respond several times after midnight. I can't say I am going to miss all the calls generated by smoke from cooking calls, dust from workers, steam from showers and cobwebs around smoke detectors. Almost every run has been an adventure.
In one two-day period, we responded to 55 calls during a "nor'easter" storm. During a hurricane, we had 113 calls in two days. During blackouts, we responded numerous times to fire alarm problems. We stood by during snowstorms and blizzards, always responding somewhere to help someone with a problem. During one blizzard, I listened to the scanner as the Bronx, NY, fire radio said an entire company of firefighters had jumped out of an upper-floor window. We were standing by for a career department when the first World Trade Center bombing occurred in 1993. Thankfully, none of our firefighters were seriously injured on my watch.
Even though I am finished with active firefighting, I remain here at the magazine and at my department to teach the newest members. For these many years, I have responded to fires in New York and the entire metropolitan area. What I have witnessed, my discussions with all ranks of fire departments about operations all across the country and my own experience have provided a wealth of knowledge over a lifetime. Where did the time go?
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