One Person Can Make a Difference: Happy Birthday, Firehouse Magazine

Aug. 1, 2006

This issue marks the 30th anniversary of Firehouse® Magazine. It only seems appropriate that we go back in time and find out how the Emergency Vehicle Operations column got started and why it has withstood the test of time. You may want to stop reading or turn the page, but wait, there are life lessons to be learned. Not that I want to grandstand or be self promoting, but rather to share these important lessons.

I was born and raised in Otisville, NY, a very small town at the base of the Catskill Mountains 77 miles northwest of New York City. When I was 18 years old, my dad ordered me to join the volunteer fire company. I had just graduated from high school and my dad made it perfectly clear that if I still wanted to live at home, becoming a volunteer firefighter was not optional. My dad was a past chief of the Otisville Volunteer Fire Department, so he felt it was in my best interest to join.

At the time, I can honestly say, I did not think much of this idea; however, given my financial status, I could not afford a place of my own, so I joined. I had a terrible time in high school, graduating by the skin of my teeth. I hated high school and saw no reason to continue the pain in college.

The second condition of keeping my happy home was to get a job. The year was 1974; inflation was out of control and jobs were difficult to come by. However, I was fortunate to get a job making industrial batteries at C and D Batteries. I am not sure what hell is like, but this place seemed to me to be hell on earth. The bell dinged at 8 A.M., you were working; the bell dinged at 10 A.M., you had 15 minutes for coffee before the bell dinged again. I received acid burns, was hit by shrapnel from exploding batteries and got lead poisoning. This place was no fun. But I had the volunteer firehouse.

I started to go to company drills and get trained, going to my first class, called “Essentials of Firemanship.†Then I went to a few fires and I was hooked. I finally figured out what I wanted to do with my life. Unlike many of you who wanted to be firefighters from an early age, it took me the better part of 18 years to figure it out. I remember the night when a man came to the firehouse and wanted young guys to sign up for a “Fire Protection Technology†degree program being offered by the local community college. I had never given much thought about going to college, but then never had a subject been offered that I really liked, until now.

I worked all the overtime I could at the battery factory to make enough money to pay for college. A number of firefighters from the FDNY were going to college on the G.I. Bill, having just returned from Vietnam. We called them “scholars for dollarsâ€; they were great guys. The students in the fire science program were older than me, with the exception of four other volunteer firefighters who were around my age. One night, during a coffee break, one of the “city guys,†as we referred to them, asked whether we liked firefighting and would like to do it as a career. We all agreed that this is what we wanted to do and we eventually all got on the job and became New York City firefighters.

The year was 1976, the year of the first issue of Firehouse® Magazine. If you have every issue of Firehouse®, as I do, you know that in 1976 it started as a publication that came out every other month. As part of going to fire college and just wanting to be a good firefighter, I subscribed to all the trade magazines. I even joined the NFPA to get its journal. Of course, I subscribed to that new kid on the block, Firehouse® Magazine.

As I read all the magazines, two facts became clear to me. First, a high percentage of firefighter fatalities occurred while operating emergency vehicles; and second, no one was doing anything about it. Nobody wrote about it to any great degree, nobody talked about it and there were few pictures, if any, of apparatus accidents. The only time that any information about emergency vehicle fatalities was published occurred during the summer when the NFPA would release the previous year’s line-of-duty death statistics.

I was appointed to the New York City Fire Department on July 11, 1981, just five years after Firehouse® Magazine hit the fire service. About 10 years later, I became a fire instructor for Orange County. I was asked by officials at the county fire training center to put together an emergency vehicle operators course. I finally was given an opportunity to have a positive impact on the emergency vehicle driving problem, although in only a small portion of the country. I was really excited about this opportunity. Later, I was appointed and certified to be a New York State Fire Instructor. At this level, I was able to impact the whole state, being invited to give state certification in emergency vehicle driving to other state fire instructors. I enjoyed this challenge as well.

It was 1993, and still no one was writing or talking about emergency vehicle operations. I had an idea for a monthly magazine column on the topic to heighten awareness and help prevent line-of-duty deaths. I submitted a proposal to a fire service magazine, but my idea was politely refused. I was devastated. I thought I had a terrific idea that would save a lot of firefighters’ lives. I would raise firefighter and public awareness on this very important safety issue. How could anyone stand in the way of such a noble idea? I went to work at my city firehouse in a funk. I was really disappointed.

My funk soon ended as we went out the door to a good first-due fire. At that fire, I saw my friend Mickey Conboy from Rescue Company 3. After the fire, he came over to say hi and then he said, “I hear you have a great idea for a monthly column on emergency vehicle driving. You should talk to Harvey Eisner, the editor of Firehouse® Magazine.†I replied that I thought that I had a great idea, but I already had been refused by one magazine. But Mickey insisted, “Call Harvey, here’s his number.†As he wrote the telephone number on a piece of paper, I had no intention of calling Harvey, as I did not want to set myself up for further disappointment.

I will never forget the next time I went to work. It was on a Wednesday. About two hours into the tour, I received a telephone call from Harvey. He said that he had heard about my idea and thought it was a good one. He asked whether he could visit me the next time I was working, which was the following weekend. I replied, “Absolutely.†We made plans to meet on Sunday afternoon. Harvey then asked whether I had a resume and ideas for potential columns. I informed Harvey that I had a lot of ideas and he suggested that I type out all my ideas and bring my resume to our informal meeting, which I did.

Sunday could not come fast enough. Perhaps this was the opportunity that I had been waiting for all those years. Sunday was a very hot summer day and, as at any firehouse, we were playing around with water. As Harvey walked up the apparatus apron, someone on the roof threw a bucket of water on him. I was devastated, for I thought there was no way that the now-soaked editor of Firehouse® Magazine was going to give me any credence. I could not have been more wrong. Our meeting was terrific. I started writing the Emergency Vehicle Operations column for Firehouse® in the fall of 1993.

I did well in college, but when it came to English, the best I could do was a B. I probably could have won a vote in my English class as the person least likely to get anything published on a national level. So, it was with great pride that I took an autographed copy of my first column to my English professor’s house. She got a big kick out of the fact that I was published and the fact that I had come to her with a copy of the magazine a full 15 years after I graduated from college. We both had a good laugh.

Harvey Eisner and Firehouse® Magazine took a big chance 13 years ago by giving the Emergency Vehicle Operations column and me a chance. Today, much is written about emergency vehicle operations and more people are talking about it. This year, I believe, was the breakout year for emergency vehicle operations. The recent second annual National Firefighter Safety Stand Down focused on emergency vehicle operations. The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation just completed and mailed to every fire department in the country a video on emergency vehicle operations. The International Association of Fire Fighters, through a grant, has put together an excellent program on the safe operation of emergency vehicles. The keynote speaker at Firehouse Expo 2006 addressed, in part, emergency vehicle operations. At their respective delegate seminars this past spring, the FDNY firefighter and fire officer unions each had a speaker address safe emergency vehicle operations. To my knowledge, these presentations were the first of their kind.

I love the fire service and firefighters almost more than life itself and it causes me a great deal of pain every time a firefighter dies in a vehicle-related accident while responding or returning. At times, I feel like I have failed, but with the safe operation of emergency vehicles now on the fire service radar screen, perhaps now we can drastically reduce vehicle-related fatalities. As a good first step, wear your seatbelt. That would have an immediate impact and would significantly reduce firefighter line-of-duty deaths substantially.

My experience shows that one person can make a difference. One of my finest moments came when I received a letter from one of my emergency vehicle driving students, thanking me for saving his life. You see, he had never worn a seatbelt prior to the class, but started doing so when he took the class. Two weeks after the class, he was involved in a non-fire-related personal vehicle accident in which his seatbelt saved his life.

Never give up on your dreams. I dreamed of one day having an impact on the fire service, which I think I have. The Phoenix Fire Department, certainly looked upon as one of the best-run departments in the country, had some fire officers from truck companies take my ladder class. On the basis of that class, the Phoenix Fire Department has completely rewritten its aerial ladder and tower ladder operations and positioning procedures. That’s what I call having an impact.

If you think you have a good idea, pursue it. I was ready to give up after I was refused by that first magazine. Never doubt yourself. Listen to and follow your heart. Some doors will open, others will not. Do not get discouraged. If you have passion and energy for what you do, ultimately it will work out in your favor. This in turn will benefit everyone.

Although it is rarely done, listen to your parents or perhaps to seasoned firefighters. They probably have a lot to offer. My father certainly helped lead me in the right direction. If he did not forcibly suggest that I join the volunteer fire company, I almost certainly would not be writing this now.

Stealing a line from President John F. Kennedy, with a twist: Ask not what the fire service can do for you; ask what you can do to improve the fire service. One person can make a difference, and that one person may be you. Happy birthday, Firehouse® Magazine. We’ve come a long way, baby!

Michael Wilbur, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a lieutenant in the New York City Fire Department, assigned to Ladder Company 27 in the Bronx, and has served on the FDNY Apparatus Purchasing Committee. He consults on a variety of apparatus-related issues around the country. For further information access his website at

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