Last alarm

Fire Station 1 losing chiefs who started and will end 32-year careers together

The Times-Union
He stood in the firehouse bay, bunker gear and radio at the ready, catfish filets sizzling in the deep fryers.

On any other night, Battalion Chief John Bunn might be pumping iron or puffing a cigarette in the same part of Fire Station 1, waiting to see if a bell would send his firefighters back onto Jacksonville's downtown streets before dinner.

A favorite firehouse pranks: When a "sick" horse appeared in the back of a rescue unit

Why he picked firefighting: After serving in Vietnam, a fire department job came up first after he took that test and the Highway Patrol test.

On handling trauma: "We just learned through the years to just put it out of our mind. ... I've been from childbirth to death. I've seen the good along with the bad."

What he'll miss most: "It's a brotherhood. ... We look out for each other and that's what makes this job so good."

Wisdom to pass on to fellow firefighters: "These guys come before any building. I've only had one goal in this career and that's to have all these guys come home."

A favorite firehouse prank: When a firefighter's car showed up on Fire Station 18's roof.

Why he picked firefighting: "I wanted a challenge. I don't think I've ever learned my job good enough. You can't learn everything you need to learn on that job. So the challenge is always before you."

On handling trauma: "As soon as an incident is over, try to put it out of your mind. ... You still got to catch a balance. You can't be too hard. We're human beings witnessing tragedies to other human beings. You learn to deal with it."

What he'll miss most: "It's like attaching yourself to another family. That's what makes it the toughest to walk away from it. I didn't really understand the gravity of it until this week."

Wisdom to pass on to fellow firefighters: "Work hard. Study hard. Don't take your family or fellow firefighters for granted or your blessings for granted."

But Thursday night was different.

His last alarm already had come and gone.

Surrounded by his family, the chief shook hands with colleagues who arrived by truck, by engine and by rescue rig, savoring the last few hours of a job that always was so much more than that.

Nearby was Battalion Chief Marvin Johnson, whose retirement a shift later would mark a combined loss of six decades of firefighting experience for Jacksonville.

Starting in the same recruit class in February 1973, Bunn and Johnson battled their first blaze together while still in training two months later. The fire ripped through a Golfair Boulevard pharmacy, taking more than 60 firefighters two hours to squelch it. It was a baptism of flames for two rookies whose thirsts for advancement propelled them through the department's ranks until both earned slots as chiefs of Fire Station 1 on different shifts.

Johnson would take command of Fire Station 1 for the last time at 8 a.m. Friday, riding to his last alarm before 8 a.m. today, when his retirement will make him the 27th chief to leave the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department since January 2004, according to fire union records.

With hours to go in their firefighting careers, both chiefs spent Thursday thinking back to the old days, the days when they said you knew when to back out of a fire because your ears started blistering. While that changed with the protection of better firefighting equipment, many things about the job have stayed the same in the last three decades, including the need for leaders who aren't afraid to push their firefighters in some situations and pull them back in others.

Jacksonville Fire & Rescue Battalion Chiefs Marvin Johnson (third row, left) and John Bunn (third row, third from left) appear in a picture of their 1973 fire academy graduating class.
Provided by Jacksonville Fire & Rescue

Both chiefs developed reputations for being calm, decisive leaders.

"They have totally different personalities," Engine One Fire Capt. Jimmy Fulford said. "But in running fires, they're exactly the same."

Running fires was something both chiefs said took some getting used to after years of going into blazes as firefighters. But no matter what their ranks, the incidents that stick with them the most are those where they saw human tragedy up close.

Bunn, 56, a firefighter since age 24, said he'll never forget being one of the first rescuers to arrive at the GMAC building shooting in 1990 that left 10 dead after a man distressed about a car repossession opened fire with a .30-caliber rifle. He'll also never forget the twin brothers who died in a head-on collision with a truck, and arriving at the scene to find "every bone in their bodies was broken."

And then there was the baby -- the one he found after a Westside trailer fire -- the one firefighters desperately searched for while battling back flames.

"All I found was the rib cage," he said.

Johnson, 55, a firefighter since he was 23, said he'll remember battling two industrial plant fires along with an incident at Adams Street and Myrtle Avenue in the 1990s, when he sent two engine companies inside a warehouse to douse a routine fire, not knowing they'd run out of hose and backed out before the roof caved in.

"There was nothing about this fire that really alarmed me," the chief said. "All of a sudden that building came down."

But the chiefs said they won't just remember the grief. Most of all, they'll remember the people who stood with them in the firehouse bay waiting for the bell to ring -- the same firefighters who will fill their boots now that they're gone.

"The job," Bunn said Thursday night, "won't miss a beat.", (904) 359-4161