Why Do We Do It?

Sometimes, we as individuals and groups need to take stock of just who we are, what it is that we do and, perhaps most importantly, why we do it. That time for me seems to be now. After 25 years of service to the Newark, NJ, Fire Department, I am...

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What was I like back then? Why did I choose to come to Newark? That is particularly thought-provoking when you consider that I already had a job as a career firefighter in a small central New Jersey suburb. My career there was under way, but something seemed to be missing.

The decision to move to Newark was quite simple, in retrospect. Newark was the big league. In Newark I went to fires. In the suburbs I cut the grass and cleaned the windows. And, of course, there would be more opportunities to advance. I guess those thoughts summed up why I struck out for the bright lights of the big city:

  • A chance to be a real big-city fire guy.
  • More room to climb the ladder.
  • The tough-guy camaraderie of Newark.
  • The beat-up leather helmet of an engine company nozzleman.

After this first picture began to fade, a series of memories came dancing past my mind's eye. There was the time that a citizen came up to me at a major fire as I was changing tanks on my SCBA for the third time. He shouted that his house was on fire. I told him that I knew his house was on fire - which one of the six was it? And he said, no man, my house is across the street. I looked up to see that radiant heat had started two homes on the opposite side of the street to burn while we were focused on the task in front of us.

On another occasion, it was my turn to cook supper at old Engine 11. What a bad experience. I was berated for buying the steaks at the wrong market. What kind of a red-ass (Newark term for a rookie) was I that I couldn't follow simple instructions? After placing the steaks on the grill, I went into the kitchen to tell the guys that supper was almost ready. Suddenly, one of the guys started screaming that there was a fire in the backyard. That fire was our supper. Needless to say, that was the last time that I was ever asked to cook. The time was summer 1975.

Who could ever forget those two nights in 1993, when on back-to-back night tours I served as incident commander for a chemical plant laboratory explosion and a major warehouse fire. The picture of me calling for the fourth alarm is still crystal clear in my mind. I can still recall the walls collapsing less than 10 minutes after ordering a full evacuation of the area around the building.

And then there was the windy morning in 1994, when I called several thousand fire personnel to attention out in front of the cathedral where a buddy's funeral was underway. The skirl of the pipes and the throbbing of the drums came back in vivid detail. We stood tall that day as we said farewell to Mike.

There were many more memories, too numerous to list here. Some were happy, others sad. And still others were painful. But they were all there for me to review. As the reading of the list of names continued on, other names were read and fresh memories coursed through my mind.

The last two names were particularly tough to take. They were from my generation. One was Al, who spent his entire 32 years at Engine Company 9. The other was Captain Ray from Truck Company 8. They were both veterans of the busy years. They were both cut down in their prime. Cancer took one and a heart attack the other.

To this day, I suspect that Al was the author of an anonymous letter to me in 1995, in which I was taken to task because a company other than Al's was used to cover the landing zone when Pope John Paul II came to Newark. The letter was truly in jest, but I took it as a tremendous compliment that Al and the guys at Engine Company 9 thought enough of me to bust my chops. I shall take that happy thought with me wherever I go.

And I can still remember my last interaction with Ray. We were in the kitchen of the fire academy discussing the future and our plans for retirement. Ray was 50 when he left us. I shall miss our "spirited" discussions.

As the last tones of the bell died out, my thoughts drifted back to the present. As I looked out over the sea of blue uniforms it came to me why I do what I do. I couldn't leave the fire department, at least not yet. I knew each and everyone of these guys. I love them, and I love what they stand for:

  • Service
  • Loyalty
  • Dedication
  • Honor