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 faced with the notion of organizational mortality. Should I stay with the gang in the firehouse or move out into the great faceless throng of retired fire people? What a major-league dilemma.

Like any good organizational theorist, I have been spending a great deal of time and energy reviewing my options over the past several weeks. A large number of Newark fire people will have retired by the time you read this. Two of these people joined the department in the same recruit class as me. Suddenly, it dawned on me that I am really one of the old timers now. Oh no, what should I do?

Something then happened that help me to clear up my mind. Let me share it with you. For you see, no one, not even the illustrious Dr. Carter, is unique. Perhaps my ruminations can help you understand your place in life.

A short time ago, I attended the 75th Anniversary Memorial Communion Service of the Newark Fire Department's Holy Name Society. This is an ancient and honorable tradition in our department. My brother and I, though not of the Catholic faith, are loyal members of the Holy Name. As such, we consider it a duty to attend. Being among the on-duty chiefs (Bob is in Battalion Four and I am in Battalion One), we were located in the back of the cathedral, so that we could duck out if any alarms were transmitted.

I always get a little teary-eyed at these events, for I just cannot shut off my mind. As the service went on, I began to wax introspective. I am at a critical juncture in my life. I am over 50, my buddies are starting to retire and I seem to be surrounded by a whole new generation of the Newark Fire Department.

Should I retire? Should I stay? This question had been running around in my brain for months, particularly as a staff member, subject to the daily grind of the office environment. Until you personally face this decision, you will not understand the enormity of it. Retirement forces you to think, to move in new directions and leave the comfortable halls of your old haunts.

The questions which have gone through my mind are many:

  • Am I still contributing to the life of the department?
  • Can I still do the job?
  • Am I a hindrance to anyone or anything?
  • Do I still get a thrill out of coming to work?
  • Is the fun at work worth the commute?

On it went. Perhaps I tend to over-think things, but that is just my way. The memories and the questions began to blur.

Back to the Annual Memorial Communion Mass. The purpose of this annual service is to pause for a moment and remember those who have gone before us all in the great blue-uniformed lineage of the Newark Fire Department. A truly moving moment comes when the names of those who have passed on since last year's memorial service are read. At this time, the names are read from the pulpit, a firefighter responds solemnly with the word "absent" and a fire bell is sounded. Trust me when I say that many tears are shed at this time. This seemed like the perfect moment for me to take stock of who I am and why I am a firefighter.

As the names were read, they came to my first captain at Engine Company 11. As Pete's name was read, and the memorial bell sounded, my thoughts drifted back more than 25 years to my arrival at the fire station as a probationary firefighter reporting in for my first day of duty. Pete was a real nice guy who took pains to welcome me aboard. Of course, it didn't hurt that I had been an auxiliary firefighter with that station for a couple of years prior to actually joining the department. What did I know? I was just a kid with four years' experience as an Air Force firefighter and a two-year college degree.

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

My thoughts rank from the simple to the complex. On one level, I still get a kick out of what I do. There is something deeply rewarding about confronting the challenge of controlling a blazing inferno. You arrive and things are chaotic. You leave, and some form of order has been restored. And it occurs because of your direct actions. You have changed something.

On a more complex plane, there is the thought that I am truly my brother's keeper. I create an environment where my troops are trained, nurtured and supported. Were I to leave, would the members of my battalion receive the same care, concern and treatment? No one is irreplaceable, but I would like to think that I bring a certain pizazz to what I do. They are my guys, I am their servant.

On a very personal level, and in a rare position on the face of God's Green Earth, I actually am my brother's keeper - I serve as the safety officer for my brother at working fires, and he covers my back. He is my second-alarm chief; I respond in kind. How many brothers can share this type of affection and affinity? How can I ever replace this?

As we marched out of the church behind the pipers into the bright light of a beautiful fall day, it became obvious why I should stay with the department:

  • I still love the men.
  • I can still do the job.
  • I still have something to contribute.
  • I still get a kick out of being a fireman (yes, I am that old that I still think of myself in that quaint term from a bygone era).

It is my hope that this column has given you cause to ponder why you do this thing we do. Maybe you will go to work with a new sense of purpose. Maybe you will hang in for the gang. In any case, it has allowed me to focus my thoughts. I just reached over for the phone and made the call to headquarters to pull my retirement papers.

Dr. Harry R. Carter, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a battalion commander with the Newark, NJ, Fire Depart-ment. He is also a past chief and active life member of the Adelphia, NJ, Fire Company.