Let me begin this month’s column by issuing a long-overdue tip of the helmet to you, the reader of my bi-monthly trip to the top of my favorite soapbox. Every other month, Firehouse® Magazine grants me the privilege of sharing a little bit of my life with you. A great many of you have apparently been reading my bi-monthly columns for the better part of a decade.
Recently, I was blessed with the opportunity to meet with many of you in Wisconsin, Indiana and New York State. During a series of speaking engagements, a number of you came up to me and thanked me for my efforts. You spoke of the impact my writings have had on your lives and careers. Frankly, I was astounded by many of the things you had to say.
I was truly humbled by your comments – particularly those of Battalion Chief Jeff Buenger of Caledonia, WI. He spoke of how he kept one particular column of mine taped to a wall near his desk. He said he uses the column to help him think, and he spoke of how he considers me as a sort of long-distance mentor. That’s some pretty heavy stuff. But I countered with the fact that I keep a picture of Alan Brunacini in my office, for motivational purposes.
I thought about it for the better part of a week, then it came to me as I was sitting in a hotel room. I have to share the gifts which others have shared with me; that’s why I do a great deal of what I do. For you see, the best way to repay a gift is to keep on giving.
It now seems like this would be the opportune time to share some of the reasons for my love of writing with you, the object of my labors. A great many of them stem from my earliest efforts at ascending the ladder toward the uppermost levels in my chosen fire department. They allow me to share what I have learned with others.
Many years ago, I made up my mind to become a fire officer. As I plotted the stages of my journey, one of the things that became obvious was the fact that this trip would involve a great deal of reading. Another fact then came to the fore – people would have to be chosen as role models, and they would have to be chosen carefully.
My readings in the fire service literature go back to the mid-1960s, when I served with the U.S. Air Force as a fire protection specialist. Many of the people who shaped my earliest thoughts are no longer with us. At the time, their thoughts and recommendations were what we today refer to as “state of the art.” These would include Dave Gratz, Martin Grimes, Lloyd Layman, Bill Clark and many others. They were smart enough to know that there was a better way and brave enough to challenge the existing establishment. These were the people who helped shape my early years. They made it clear that the fire service was where I wanted to spend my life.
Just before I got married in 1972, I joined the Adelphia Fire Company in New Jersey as a volunteer firefighter. I was fortunate enough to begin a career in firefighting with the City of Rahway a few months later. What a great life for a young guy from the suburbs who liked going to fires.
I am what I am today because of the people I have worked with, and for. One of my earliest role models was Deputy Chief Maurice Moran of the Rahway Fire Department. He knew the business of firefighting, but more important, he cared about his men. A quirk of fate allowed me to see the good side of this fine man very soon after joining his shift.
About a month after I was hired in Rahway, my wife and her college roommate went away on a trip to the Bahamas. Actually, it was supposed to be our honeymoon, but as a new firefighter I had no vacation to draw on, so they flew out of Newark Airport using the non-refundable tickets we had purchased. It just so happened that I had to work a night shift a couple of hours after dropping them off at the airport. I must have been one dejected-looking young firefighter, sitting in front of the TV, trying to forget that I wasn’t on my honeymoon.
That evening, my captain saw that all was not well with his newest rookie. After a little while, I was more than willing to share my sad story with him. He didn’t say much. He just sat there puffing his pipe, deep in thought. About an hour later, I was sitting at the watch desk when the deputy’s car rolled up to the front of the station. It seems that the captain had called the deputy to tell him of my tale of woe.
The deputy sat down with me at the watch desk and engaged me in a man-to-man talk about my state of marital depression. The gist our conversation was that he remembered how it was as a newlywed, how much he loved his wife, and how hard is was to work an 84-hour shift and fan the flames of romance. He left saying that he would see what he could do.
Somehow, he talked the fire chief into letting me use vacation time that I would not earn for months into the future. First thing in the morning, I called the hotel in the Bahamas, Eastern Airlines, the guy my wife’s college roommate was seeing and my Dad for a ride to the airport. By 4 P.M. the next day, I was in the Bahamas with my wife. And the rest, as they say, is blissful history.
Chief Moran and my captain did not have to do what they did for me, but they were kind and thoughtful men. They were people for whom you really wanted to work. They did not break the regulations for me; however, I am sure that a bit of a bend was made in the department’s vacation policy.
This is one of the many life experiences that have shaped me and made me what I am today. There have also been many occasions when I have been able to repay that gift of human kindness given to me early in my career. A similar story comes from the years when I pursued my bachelor’s degree in fire safety at Jersey City State College.
I was a firefighter at Engine Company 11. As a member of the First Battalion, I worked under the command of Battalion Chief Richard Hettinger. He was a good chief, from the old school: he was strict, but fair and one of the best fireground chiefs I ever met.
I was having trouble trying to keep up with my studies at Jersey City State and my duties at Engine Company 11. Chief Hettinger let me take my personal days off in hours, rather than days and nights – and I have a hunch that he slipped me an extra hour now and then. Thanks to his concern for me, I was able to complete my bachelor of science degree on time and on target. Once again, an act of kindness came my way. As I said, the best way to repay a gift is to keep on giving. This is how I have tried to live my life as a captain, and as a chief.
I have been blessed to work with some outstanding people over the years. My job is to share with you what they have taught me. Thanks to the fine folks at Firehouse® Magazine, I have the privilege of sharing the events that have shaped my career. Sometimes they are happy, sometimes they are sad, sometimes they are smart, and sometimes they are stupid. But they have all had an impact. And they have all had a part in shaping me as a fire officer. I just hope that they will continue to help you face the problems which come your way. That’s the reason for this column – this public soapbox.
Harry R. Carter, Ph.D., MIFireE, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a municipal fire protection consultant based in Adelphia, NJ. He is also an associate professor at Mercer County Community College and a past chief and active life member of the Adelphia Fire Company. Dr. Carter retired from the Newark Fire Department in 1999 as a battalion commander. He also served as chief of training and commander of the Hazardous Materials Response Team. Dr. Carter is a Member of the Institution of Fire Engineers of Great Britain (MIFireE). He may be contacted through his website at Dr.Carter@HarryCarter.com.