Saturday, January 14, 2012

Preface to Dangers, Toils, and Snares: Confessions of a Firefighter.

“Every hero becomes a bore at last. “
Ralph Waldo Emerson

I do not think of myself as a hero, I am just a blue-collar guy doing his job. Now that we have that out of the way, I will continue.
I am going to take you behind the red brick walls of a firehouse and share the behind the scenes tales of my personnel adventures in firefighting for more than thirty years. Not the things some consider heroic, like putting the wet stuff on the red stuff, or carrying a child out of a burning building. I am going to take you inside the strange world of the firehouse itself, and it is strange. There is no other workplace that comes anywhere near our world.
Name another job where you can spend the entire workday planning and then executing a single elaborate practical joke. No work is being done at all because no calls for help have come in. Think of a job where the employees would have a penis-measuring contest, complete with judges and prizes while at work. Imagine a work place where everyone takes an hour-long nap after lunch and then changes into sweats so that they can be more comfortable for the rest of the day.
Some stuff I hope will be funny, some will be heart breaking, some will be terrifying, and some will be truly unbelievable. I will tell you what we talk about in the cab of the truck when you won’t get out of our way. What we say about you when we get back to the fire station. 
Oh, and we do talk about you all the time. We question your intelligence, your character, your mental status, and how hot you are. We laugh at you and with you. Because we are just as human as you are, we have no special powers that make us different from our customers. When we watch you die, powerless to help you, it hurts. When we deliver your babies, we rejoice just as you do. When we are bored, anything goes.
Our environment, our world inside the firehouse is a state of constant readiness. Always waiting, always prepared. That situation of constantly anticipating the “Big Call” the “Big Job” to come in, puts in motion, mischief. Sounds crazy I know. Pent up energy has to be expressed in some way, so we work out, we train, we prepare, but that isn’t enough some days, and the over flow of energy just blows-up on occasion. That over flow can be in the form of humor, or craziness, or outright dangerous behaviors.
When you have, a job that you only get to do when someone else is in crisis it has an odd effect on a person. A mundane existence of doing nothing can cause madness. The normal world for most people of going to work doing their job and carrying out the task of the day would illicit suicidal thoughts in a firefighter. Data entry, conference calls, meetings, presentations. Not for us.
The activity, whatever it is has to have some “Pop” to it. It has to have enough energy to meet the energy it will consume, or the event will not have the desired effect of releasing the stress. Therefore, plans must be made carefully; another person’s humiliation cannot be left to chance. Taking a firefighter down, busting their balls, scaring them or embarrassing them takes work, sometimes it takes days.
Most firefighters have a nickname of some sort, if you don’t have a nickname, chances are you either have an already cool name or you are an idiot of some kind. Nicknames are bestowed in many ritual ways. The methods come from circumstance a lot of the time. If you are an idiot, you might get the name “Village Idiot”, but you can’t call a guy Village Idiot to his face so it is shortened to “VI.” You can call a guy VI to his face when it has been explained that VI is the Roman numeral that stands for the number six and since he works on engine six, it’s a cool nickname.
If your name is Winters, you get a moniker like “Chilly." Throughout most of my career, I was known as TimO, to my face at least. My name is Tim and my middle initial is “O” hence TimO. In an effort to conceal and protect my friends in the brother and sisterhood of the fire service, I will be using nicknames, some real because I want to, some made up because I want to live.
I started my career as a firefighter in the seventies, there were no cell phones, 911 was relatively new, most homes did not have smoke alarms, and the culture in the fire service was decidedly male. Fires in those days were most commonly found when the front windows of a home blew out and flames consumed the structure.
One curious tradition of those old days does persist even to today. It is the phenomena of what we like to call “wavers and pointers.” These are the helpful bystanders that stand in the street in front of a roaring house fire, I mean an ass kicking fire, and wave at the fire truck and point at the fire. Very helpful people, please keep up the good work, we are after all just a bunch of good ole firefighters. Hell, we might drive right by without your guidance.
Therefore, I hope you will enjoy my tales. For some, I was a direct participant, others a casual observer and some are legend. I am not going to tell you about the big fires or big calls; I’ll tell you about a profession that can drive a man to alcoholism, drug abuse and even up to the edge of suicide. Because, I am that man.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Oral Board continues.

With all the hand shaking out of the way my attention now shifted to the chair. So what you might say it’s just a chair. Oh no it isn’t, I mean yes the thing is just a chair, an uncomfortable folding metal piece of industrial shit. It was about the positioning of said chair.
It was intentionally placed in the “wrong spot” the incorrect distance from the table. We covered that yesterday. So now I had to decide on posture, body language, and this has to be on your mind throughout the whole interview.
Crossed arms and legs show a closed or defensive attitude, leaned too far back you might be too casual and not taking this seriously. I had decided ahead of time I would take solid posture. Both feet firmly planted at hip width, hands loosely on my knees. You didn’t want your hands in the “praying” position, held together and moving around.
Shoulders relaxed but square, chin up, eyes forward and moving. You wanted to make eye contact with each interviewer, but only for a few seconds at a time. Gaze too long and you could give the impression you were trying to dominate, stare at the floor or ceiling and you were scared or disinterested.
A glass of water was offered, I took it, but drank in sips, even though I wanted to guzzle it like a cold Budweiser. Okay nice smile and begin. “You ready?” asked the nice guy. “Yes Sir.” I answered.
With all the preparation I had done, all the rehearsals I’d been through I had a good idea of what to expect. This was a test designed to see what you would do in no-win situations. The bulk of the interrogation was not really about the content of your answer, but more or less how did you problem solve under pressure.
There was a get-to-know-me phase, a chance to cover who you were, what you wanted, and the whys of how you came to be there.  A chance to brag a bit and hit on work and life highlights, kind of a verbal resume if you will.
Then came the situational questions, the no way to win questions. I’ll give you an example. One of the examiners would select an index card and read to you from the card. They gave you no indications of what they were thinking, what was on their minds. Hell they could have been going through the lunch menu for all I knew.
So here was one of the questions I got.
“You and another firefighter are performing salvage and overhaul at a residential fire. Salvage and overhaul is done to secure the residence and prevent further destruction from hidden fire. As you are checking the master bedroom you notice the other firefighter slip some valuable property into their pocket. What would you do?”
At this very point you have to commit to a course of action and for me once committed I was going to stay with that decision until I was compelled to change. You see the interrogators, in my opinion wanted to see if you believed in yourself and your ability to make a decision.
I said “I wouldn’t do anything.” “Nothing?” one older man asked without looking at me. “You just watched this guy take some valuable stuff and put it in his pocket, and you wouldn’t do anything about that?” “No I’m sure he was taking it into protective custody to keep it safe.”
“You wouldn’t go to your officer and report him?” asked the friendly guy.  “No, what if I did that and the officer said, yeah I know he gave it to and I have it in my office. Are you accusing him of stealing?” I made sure my back was straight. “That would look bad and potentially cause friction in the work group.”
I tried to use buzz words that would make me appear smart like “work group”.  “So you would just let it go?” “Yes sir.” The third guy looked at me with a slight smile a smart ass smile is what I thought at the time. “Okay so now its a few days later and you learn he hasn’t turned the stuff in, in fact in the locker room you notice he has it in his locker. What would you do then?”
“Nothing, it’s in plain sight he obviously isn’t trying to hide the fact he has it.” “Is that the correct way to handle property?” asked the older guy. “I’m not sure, although I have a passing familiarity with the policy and procedures manual  of the Colorado Springs fire department right now, I must admit I don ‘t know them by heart. This may be acceptable conduct in this particular firehouse.”
Damn I sounded smart I thought.  “Well it isn’t, proper conduct, just so you know.” Said the third guy. “Now what would you do?” he asked. I had to think about this, I had to leave myself wiggle room. If  I jumped right on rat the thieving bastard out, they could add information and put me in a bad situation. That’s what they did, they added information slowly so they could see if given enough information you were capable of adjusting  your action to your predicament .
“I think I would remind him in a soft way that he should get that stuff turned in.” the friendly guy asked how’d  you do that. “I would just say something like, hey man you still got that stuff in your locker, you better give it to the lieutenant before someone starts looking for it.”
“Okay so you do that, the stuff disappears but you find out it didn’t get turned in. Now what?” “I’d remind him again.” “How?” asked the older man. “Something simple like glad you got that stuff turned in.” “But he didn’t turn it in” said friendly guy. “Well he probably would after that.”
“Look he stole the stuff.” Said the third guy, he seemed like he was getting a little frustrated with me. I liked that. “Oh well that would change everything.” I answered.” In what way?”Asked Mr. Friendly.
“I’d have to report his actions to my officer. I believe we as firefighter have a sacred trust with the public. If we have a bad apple he makes us all look bad, and we can’t afford to have one member of this organization tarnishing our reputation.” ”How would you handle the reaction of your co-workers if they didn’t agree?”
“I would remind them of that fact, we have a trust with the public that is granted to no other organization. If they don’t understand that then I guess I have to take the consequences of that decision whatever they were. I can’t let peer pressure effect who I am as a representative of this organization.”
Damn I was giving my shit, I have no idea what they thought of my performance, but I did get the job. More tomorrow.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Oral Board Exam.

Much attention was focused on this all important phase of the hiring process. The oral board was really a make or break component. For me I practiced this skill for days before the real deal. Myself and a group of like minded men got together and rehearsed the interview; we would take turns as interviewer and interviewee.

There are books dedicated to this one step of the hiring process. I don’t know even to this day if I ever fully comprehended its purpose, I do know it was nerve racking and mostly a blur afterwards. I guess some of what was sot was to see how a future firefighter reacted under extreme duress.

Your shot at getting the job hung in the balance and you knew it, a poor performance at this juncture guaranteed low placement on the hiring list and a wait of a couple of years to try again. I had one high school buddy that had taken the exam 18 times and never did get a job. I always thought a guy that wanted the job so badly should have been given a chance just out kindness.

Especially after working with some of the slugs I worked with, totally ungrateful bellyachers that had no respect for themselves or the job. And here’s this guy beating his head against the doors for years. Didn’t make sense to me.

Here’s the setting, a mostly blank room, brightly lit, warm. A table centered against the far wall with three or four fire officers seated behind that table. A single chair across from them. Even the position of the chair was calculated, it was placed a little too far away from the group as to cause separation. I had practiced relocating the chair to a more appropriate distance. Not too close, this would crowd the board and be too intimate.

Not too far away as this gave a sense of fear and low confidence. You weren’t intimidated and you weren’t aggressive. With the chair at the correct distance you had to decide did you want to approach each member and shake hands? How would that be perceived? What if your hands were cold and sweaty, or hot and soft (very unmanly) did you remember to trim your nails, were they clean.

If your nails were dirty would this give the impression that you worked with your hands? Or would indicate that you were in fact a slob with no respect for these men? If I didn’t shake hands would they think I was stuck up, too good to shake their hands?

I had now been in the room for a grand total of 38 seconds and was already in a mental state bordering somewhere between insane and menstruation. I elected to stick out my sweaty paw to the first guy on my left and went down the line from there.

They had warm smiles and kind eyes, they knew how fearful I was, hell they had been at this for three days at this point and had already seen dozens of bedwetters prior to me.

Now I thought how hard do I grip their hands, too hard and they might suspect I was trying to intimidate them, didn’t want that. Too flimsy and I might be thought of as too delicate for the job. Good firm handshake my father had always taught. Get the webbing of your thumb firmly into the corresponding location of their hand. Squeeze just enough, don’t hold it too long you weren’t dating, you were after a job. I tried to say my name and realized the Sahara desert had relocated to my throat. I croaked out a noise that would have scared small children. My pupils dilated, my heart rate doubled, and forehead became moist.

Holly shit I’m failing in under a minute. “Hi Tim.” Said the first guy, I knew him in passing and he was a nice man, I would work for him in the years to come and I always remembered that tiny moment of kindness from him. “Relax buddy, you’re gonna be fine.”
Thank God for that man, I did relax a bit, finished shaking hands and returned to my seat.

More tomorrow.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Not all firefighters are created equal!

You mean you didn't know there is a difference between firefighters? Well there is. These differences can be broken down in to categories like physical traits, mental acuity, and aptitude. For example in the old days (like the late 1970's when I began) firefighters were selected primarily for their physical prowess or at least a lot of weight was given to strength.

A physical agility test was given to every applicant and it was a son of a bitch. Following the competition of my first agility test I almost passed out and vomited for a good half hour after. It took me a couple of days to recover physically from the ordeal. I really wanted the job so I pushed hard, and I was also only 25 years old and had no idea of my mortality.

These tests were grueling and weeded out the small, weak, frail, and the unsuitable applicant of the era. See in those days anyone and I mean anyone with even a casual interest in becoming a firefighter could apply for the job.

We would end up with hundreds and hundreds of people applying for the job on testing days. The first part of the application process was a written exam and it would be scheduled to occur over the course of an entire weekend. A huge facility had to reserved for the two day event. I took my written exam at Pikes Peak community college along with nearly a thousand other wannabees.

We were scheduled in waves of nearly a hundred at a time. You found a seat, got an exam book and answer sheet and waited for instructions to be given. The test had a time limit on it and as a rule of thumb you could assume that nearly half of applicants would be eliminated at this point because they had no business holding a writing utensil, let alone trying to spell their name correctly.

I joke, you had to have already spelled your name correctly to get to that point, it was spelling other things and doing long division that tripped them up. So after a couple of days of testing everyone went home and waited to find out if you made the cut and would be offered the chance to go kill yourself on the physical test.

The physical was broken down into five or six (can't remember for sure it was over 30 years ago) stations. Stations like climbing a full extended (100 feet) ladder truck up and down as quickly as possible, picking up 5 wet rolls of 2 1/2 inch hose (around 50 pounds or so) from the ground one at a time, lifting them up and over the tailgate of a pick-up truck. Then taking them out and stacking them in a free-standing tower, once again as quickly as possible.

You had a few minutes to recuperate in between stations, but it was never enough. This event would go on for days as well. People got hurt, sick, scared, and just flat out quit. The end result was a much smaller number of wannabees would advance to the oral board component.

The oral board was much like being a murder suspect in some ways. You were lead into a bright room, at the front of the room was a table with three fire officers seated facing you. A single chair was positioned in front of them. You were "On" from that moment forward. Everything you did was evaluated, your posture, your wardrobe, haircut, cologne and of course family name. Nepotism was a fact and an unspoken advantage to some lucky people, an advantage I didn't have.

I tell you about this particular form of abuse tomorrow. Thanks for reading.