Thursday, February 23, 2012

Drunk in the Fire Station?

I was asked by a reader if I was ever drunk at work. That is a difficult question to simply answer with a yes or no. In the early days before my alcoholism had fully bloomed, I did show up to work hung-over frequently.

By the standards now in place in the modern world, I’m sure I showed up under the influence. Nobody can drink all night long on a Friday, from 8-9 o’clock until 2:00 am and show up to work at 7:00 and be sober. It’s impossible.

Following my first divorce and my second for that matter, I crawled in the bottle for comfort, for an anesthetic, for relief. I wouldn’t recommend my treatment plan to anyone.

As a quick sidebar I would like to take a moment and address any firefighting brothers or sisters that read this. If you are having a problem with alcohol or another substance (those pain killers you got for back injury?) and it is causing trouble in your life, guess what you have a real and deadly issue in your life.

Please seek help now! It isn’t being weak, frail, feeble, pathetic, defenseless, exposed, or powerless when you ask for help. Trust me I was real strong right up until I tried to kill myself, and years later when I didn’t have the will to live and simply welcomed death by booze is when I learned what true
powerlessness is.

You are not alone in the struggle and if you don’t feel safe doing this at work or in public, please ask me (719-231-1756). I give my solemn oath as a brother in our strange addiction that I will protect your anonymity and I will tell you my story and you can tell me yours, I’m a good listener.

My first divorce was in 1992, the fire service was beginning to wake up to the alcohol problems in the world in general and in the service specifically. But the old ways were still tolerated, by the powerful.

One morning my best drinking buddy and I had been at it all night and closed down the bars. We had struck out with the ladies and were very drunk. We both worked at station one downtown and rather than drive home and risk a DUI or being late for work, we decided we could just walk to station one and pass out there. Kill two drunks with one fire station.

We came to the next morning conveniently at work. We had lockers there with uniforms, a full bath facility and understanding friends, not a bad gig, who else gets to go to work early so they are there when they wake up?

So I was safe or so I thought. I had the misfortune to share a locker right next to our new fire chief, and he was an early to work kind of executive. As I was getting dressed he came in to change himself. I tried to avoid him but no luck, we exchanged some chit-chat. I was terrified for two reasons, first he was an unknown quantity. He hadn’t come up in our organization, he came from California so I had no idea what his cultural background was, how he treated this kind of situation.

Second, I knew I still reeked of booze, badly, I hadn’t had any coffee or breakfast yet to dampen my odor. I finished up and scooted around him holding my breath. Station one was a very old station and had a layout like a maze, I went and hid. He went to the office and found my two immediate supervisors.

The new chief didn’t have much awareness of me then, but that would change in the years to come. A harbinger for sure. He told my captain and district chief that he felt I was under the influence and wanted me to get help, but first he wanted me tested.

I was called to the office by my bosses. They knew about the divorce and that I was having trouble dealing with it. In true old school form they asked if I was drunk. No I assured them, sure I’d been out drinking last night, but nothing different than any other Friday night.

My district chief didn’t like the new chief, he was an outsider and the last thing that was going to happen on his watch was for Timmy to get jammed up by the new guy. I was one of his boys, I had all of his computer passwords and handled all of his emails and reports for him, we went way back.

So he came up with a plan, first no testing was going to take place, I’d given my word and that was all he needed. My heart jumped I knew I had a BA and would have been dead in the water if tested. Second I was going to write up a statement about my activity of the night before, he would reprimand me and that would be that.

Today I’m still friends with the chief that wanted to help, and my protector died less than a year after retiring, I believe from a broken heart as he was forced by age to retire and the loss of his beloved job killed him.

I look back at that day and I ache, for if the chief had gotten his way, I would have been spared years of drunken agony. But then I wouldn’t be the man I am today and I wouldn’t be here to try and help those still active in their disease. Maybe God still has a plan for me. I may not be saving lives the way I used to, but if I can save them this way, then so be it. Who am I to question God?

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

I Got a Bad Reputation!

How do you get a “reputation” in the fire service? Obviously there are two main types of reps a person can acquire. The good and the bad, but are either of those considered positive or negative?

I can only speak from my personal experience and base it on direct feedback I received from mostly supervisors. I had a chance in the last week to sit down and have a cup of Joe with a fire chief I used to work for.

My book has caused a lot of commotion within the department I used to work for. A lot of firefighters feel I have been telling stories out of school and are offended by what I have done. I continued to hear through the informal communication system of firefighters that the chief was in fact very upset.

After hearing this repeatedly I figured I should email him and see if he wanted to get together and talk. He agreed to meet with me at a local coffee shop and chat. No small thing for a busy executive of a large city to take time out of his work day to talk to me.

I was flattered he would give me his time. We started with pleasant catch-up conversation about what I’m doing and what he was doing, kids, family, and friends. There was no rush to cover the book, but we did finally arrive at the topic. I hadn’t considered or viewed my tome from his perspective as the head of a city department that consumes a quarter of the city’s budget.

He felt my stories could be seen by his bosses as an excuse to change his budget. If the firefighters were that big a bunch of screw offs why were they getting paid so much? Now I don’t think half of his bosses are literate enough to comprehend my work, but that is just my opinion.

We settled on disagreeing, he didn’t like what I had done and I felt no one would really notice. Here is where my reputation came into play. The chief shared with me that he had numerous firefighters stop by his office outraged by my book. One he said was red-faced and spitting with each word he uttered.

To my amazement the chief told me how he had allowed most to get it out of their system and then added his point of view. Which was that I hadn’t lied, that the things I recount actually happened, that as an organization we had participated in this kind of conduct, and the vast majority of it happened more than 25 years ago.

Then he added that some of the complainers had never done the things I had done in my career. He told me that what he remembered of my time on the job was that I was one of the best he had ever worked with.

He remembered the two of us being in a fire one time, a hell of a fire. We were surrounded by flames deep in the building and I was pulling ceiling with a hook. He said I was just covered head to toe in debris and working my ass off trying to find the seat of the fire.

He recounted how he had thought it was time for us to get out, but because of what I was doing he knew we could stay and be alright. He felt that if he had to go into a nasty fire he wanted me with him.

He also shared how if his own mother had ever gotten sick or injured I was the paramedic he wanted there to take care of her or his family. How whenever we had a critical patient that I was always pushing past others to get in there and take some one’s life in my hands without hesitating. My reputation for doing the job was one of the best, but he reminded me that if all it depended on was ability to do the job I would have been fine.

As an executive he had to consider all the other aspects of Tim Casey. I was unpredictable, disrespectful, and insubordinate on the job. I challenged authority at every turn, and that many officers wouldn’t take me on their crews because of my attitude.

What he said was fair and the truth, I did struggle with authority especially from some twenty five year old kid with a bugle on his collar. I was a left over from a past generation and hadn’t transitioned well into the new customer service oriented fire service.

Off work I had relapsed on alcohol and gotten myself in some serious trouble. He could have terminated me after my last drunken adventure; instead the administration had decided to carry me to my 25th anniversary date and allow me to retire with full benefits and honors.

He felt that some of my detractors had never done the job I did and never would. That they preferred to work in a less busy firehouse, and had probably never been in the shit and never would be.

But I was a quirky bastard and my skills didn’t outweigh my liabilities and that as an executive in the modern fire service firefighters like me couldn’t be kept. The job had changed like all jobs change, it had become politically correct, and diversified which was fine with me I know how the world works.

I asked him if remembered all the different chiefs we had worked for over the years, he said sure he remembered them all. Then I asked him if he knew where any of them were and what they were doing now.

He had to think for a moment, and then confessed he really didn’t know what any of them were doing. So just like me and those other men, he would retire soon as well, and quickly fade into the past.

Because once you are out of the club, you are forgotten and that is the truth. The next recruit will take your place and the job will roll on just as it always has.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Firefighting addiction!

If you are fortunate enough to catch a multi alarm fire, then you hear it as soon as you open the door of the truck, and it doesn’t sound like a camp fire.

There really is a roar; a guttural noise is produced as the monster inhales deeply. It needs the air and it fights for it. It claws and chews through combustibles like a, well like a hungry fireman. And if it’s starving be careful when you open the cage door because it’s gonna take a big bite.

If the thing has been waiting to be feed for awhile, hang on. When you hit that door or window and give it a chance to eat, you don’t guess if it’s ready. A flaming tongue can lick you right in the face getting its first taste of you. And oh does its breath smell. Based on what the beasts has been eating prior to your arrival at the dance you may want to avoid the snack table.

Fortunately you have brought a big breath mint with you and it comes out of a hose at around a hundred and fifty gallons a minute. So start rinsing out that stinking pie hole as fast as you can. But not with your eyes closed, you have to find the source of the odor, the seat of the fire we call it.

The beast has rules too. He will grow and double in size every minute. He will always try for the kill. This may sound unfair, but it isn’t, it is the nature of all beasts to do what they know. The beast has no feeling about us, like we do for him.

The beast has been waiting, is always waiting, that’s what it does. But he must play by the rules. First if we put enough water on him, he has to go away, pretty simple. Put the wet stuff on the red stuff and you win. Sometimes it is that simple, that’s not fun, but it does happen.
Next the beast is allowed to play hide and seek. He can stay quiet and give the appearance of victory. Oh I hate that, that is not fun firefighting. Salvage and overhaul is what hide and seek is known to us in the business.

And the bad news for us is that there is no Olli-Olli-ox-in-free. We have to hunt for the bastard, and man does he know how to hide.

Do you remember that kid in your neighborhood that could just vanish? Ghost kid like a spirit. You could look for hours, days and never find that kid. Well fire has that kid beat by somewhere around 100%.

If we give up, there will be hell to pay. So out come the axes, pike poles and now days the thermal cameras. People always want to know why we tear the walls and ceilings apart. Well it’s because we couldn’t find the beast. But our addiction won’t let it go that easily. We search all the hiding places, but eventually your body first and then your mind will tell you the dance is over. Time to go home.

The natural instinct after the high of the fire has worn off is to crash for awhile. You tell yourself you got it. But you don’t trust yourself, so a fire watch is put on. A fire watch is the lowest man on the pole, sitting in a pick-up truck all night long by himself watching to see if the beast tries to sneak out.

Because as I remember, every time a fire watch wasn’t needed and we didn’t do it; it was needed. It was like the beast knew, like somewhere deep in the structure there was one small red eye glowing, keeping its own watch.

All that was needed was a little breeze coming at the right speed from the right direction. Like those trick birthday candles that seem to go out, they smolder and spark and then erupt back in to flame. That’s what happens at big fires too.

All fire abides by the rules, big or small, that’s the good news. The bad news, firefighting isn’t football, many times if you get behind, you stay behind. There is no catching up, we do have Hail Mary plays, and their success rate is dubious at best.

Surround and drowned it’s called. Firefighting, like all professions has its own language and own unique sayings. Like for a big fire where we are losing the battle, we need big water. So when the “sticks go up the building comes down.” In other words we are losing the structure, so the sticks, the big ladder trucks, get extended and rain water down on the fire.

This tactic always amazed me, because in most cases the beast just hid under the roof and the roof did its job. It keep the water out.

Once again unlike a sport, firefighting had other consequences, like killing people. So as much as my mind and body were screaming get in there and go hand to hand with the beast I couldn’t. Another trick of the fire troll. Put people in danger and the fireman has to try and save them and leave it alone.

Our motto is save lives first, the fire can wait. The motto, I’m guessing here, of fire is more. Just more, more fuel and everything other than dirt is fuel for the monster. We call it saving the mineral rights. Nothing to be proud of.

Saving lives is the number one goal here. Property can be rebuilt and recovered. Now this is where confusion comes in for the non-addicted. The normal folks who watch us and man do you guys watch us; don’t understand what we are doing. But that doesn’t stop you from kibitzing.

“Hey what about that?” you say.

Always with an extended hand and a pointy little finger you give direction.

“Over there man! What are you doing can’t you see that?”

I just want to say “Thanks for your help and now shut up!” I won’t say that, but I want to and more.

Would you follow a heroin junkie into a bathroom and give step by step directions on how to shoot up?

“No man you’re holding the needle wrong, and the way you have your arm tied off is all wrong.” I don’t think so. So when we’re doing what we do. Stay in the bleachers and let us work. We never give up okay.

This is how our strange addiction works, we hate fire, but we need fire. For us to go weeks without a fire is awful, you can’t always feel the tension as it builds around the station. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t building.

It creeps through us that desire for a fix. That craving. The evidence comes when the fix is at hand.

Envision a casual day around the firehouse. You’ve had a few calls, a medical here a car crash there. The station has been cleaned, the smell of lunch seeps out of the kitchen. All the gear has been gone over, some training on a random piece of equipment filled the morning.

A good officer keeps you busy, they know. They know the cravings are running high in their crew. So to help release some tension and burn some energy they’ll run simulations, drills, practice.

It keeps the skills sharp, but it’s dancing in a studio with other guys, it’s not a ballroom and there are defiantly no dates to be had. We practice the steps; we do the mambo, the salsa, the tango, but no waltz.

It seems a good practice, to practice. But for me it only made me more desirous of the real thing, it created frustration. Like being a bartender and not being allowed to drink. It sucks.

And then the horn would go off, and that is when you knew how bad the cravings were in your coworkers. The rush for just a moment was expressed by a complete absence of sanity.

Giddy is what comes to mind. Christmas morning maybe. It was like a huge bomb had gone off and was followed by controlled chaos.

Think about it, we can’t go as we are; we have to get dressed for the ball. All our stuff is laid out and waiting. Every fireman stores his gear almost in the same way. But we all have our own little improvements, twists in the way we do it.

Me, my bunkers (that’s the big boots, pants and coat) were always beside my door on the truck. My boots, with the pants pulled down over them waited. The suspenders I had arranged laid out behind the pants.

There was nothing worse than pulling up your pants and finding a suspender trapped in between your legs. That one is learned only in the hard way.

The hard way is when everyone else is Jonesing to get going and there you are undressing while the driver honks the air horn. There you are holding up the whole damn thing because you got it wrong.

As if there wasn’t enough pressure on you to get to the fire, now, as you scramble to get that damn suspender out of your crotch, all the other junkies are yelling at you to get your shit together.

See other companies are going with you to that fire. And being second in on a fire can suck. If another sister company beats you to a fire in your own district, hang on because later there will be grief given and shame spread think as peanut butter by a four year old.

As well as second in companies, for the most part, get assigned tasks like securing a water supply, hooking up hoses, stretching lines. When you come right down to it, it’s doing really unglamorous work.

No firefighting, no saving lives, and most awful, you tend to be that much closer to the wavers and pointers. It’s like being too close to the fans at a Raiders game in the fourth quarter. Not a happy place.

So get your shit straight when the horn goes off.

My coat was always hung on the left rear door of the BRT. This may sound simple, but it is possible in the excitement to get the pants pulled up and the coat on and have the suspenders still hanging out from under the coat. Back to square one.

So you got the pants and suspenders right, cool, now the coat, cool again. The gloves go last, they are huge cumbersome and don’t lend themselves to anything that requires dexterity like hooking up your air pack.

What else is left? The hood, the hood is like an over sized ski mask, it’s made of a fire resistance material and basically keeps your ears and exposed face skin from cooking.

If you ever run into some old retired fireman someday look closely at the sides of their face where the side burns are. You most likely will see little white patches of skin that look like he shaved off his sideburns after days in the sun.

He didn’t, that is what happened before hoods. The gap between your air mask and the helmet allowed exposed skin to burn. It was also the way you knew you were in too deep. When your ears began to burn you got out. Now those little clues are gone, ultimately it’s easier to get into trouble faster today.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Firefighting as an addiction.

1This is an excerpt from my next book, love some feedback.

    We admitted we were powerless over fire and that fire was unmanageable:

How can something so terrifying be so attractive? I’m not talking marriage, I mean firefighting. You have all heard the expression “We run into burning buildings while everyone else is running away.”

We really would run, but from the start of a firefighting career to the conclusion, it is beat in to us not to run. It’s so hard. We want to get in there so bad and go to work, and that is the essence of our addiction to fire.

We are powerless over fire, just like huge moths dressed in hundreds of dollars of protective gear we are pulled into the flames. I don’t believe a normal person can see fire the way we do. We live for that call. If I could have gone down to a street corner in the middle of the night with a hundred bucks in my pocket and bought a two or three alarm fire and taken it home and used it, I would have been homeless in a few weeks.

I would have pawned shit for it. The progression or tolerance I would have built up for fire would surely rival crack, heroin, and alcohol.

I can see myself, haggard, unshaven, shaking in the cold and dark. Stumbling down the back ally in the worst part of town seeking a fix.

Me. “Hey what do you got?”
Fire Dealer. “I got some good stuff man. I got a three alarm warehouse fire. I got a, apartment fire, on a winter night.”

He checks the inside of his coat while I pace and rub my rough face with a cold hand.
“You know I don’t like it cold man.”
“Okay, just asking. Let’s see what else I got. You look like you hurting man.”
“Just tell me what you got man; I got a hundred to spend.”
He steps back a bit. “A hundred? That ain’t gonna get much.” He reaches in his pants pocket. “How about a garage fire?”
“Come on man, don’t do me like that. I’m a fireman, I’m a pro, a garage fire ain’t shit man. I can’t get a buzz on that. I’ll give you my badge how about that?”
“Your damn badge? What am I gonna do with a badge? Get a free burger and fries? I don’t want your tin man. What else you got?”
Frantic I dig through my pockets. Then I feel it. My Saint Florian medal, my children gave it to me to keep me safe in fires.
“How about this? It’s pure silver. Feel it man it’s like three ounces or more.”
He takes it from me as I look around the alleyway. He bounces it up and down in his palm, then flips it over and reads the inscription. “You will always come home to us Daddy with this. Love your children. That’s kinda sick man; you wanna give this up for some fire?”
“Well? Is it worth something or not?”
He shakes his head. “Man you’re supposed be some kind of hero, how can you do this?”
“You gonna judge me now? You don’t know what this is like man. You’ve never been in there with the beast; you don’t know what its roar sounds like, what its claws feel like on your neck. You never found a child and carried them away from the beast to safety. I need it.”
He stares blankly at me and then reaches in his coat and pulls out a bag.
“Here you go man; it’s an all hands fire. Enjoy.” He turns and strolls away bouncing the medal in his hand.

Some part of me knows I would have done it if I could have. I became a fireman by accident. I don’t remember having any particular fascination with fire suppression as a child. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t have a fascination with fire.

Next is the skin, it tingles at the knowing. The game is at hand. You feel your gear. The weight of the air pack straps on your shoulders. The tightness of your harness around your belly. The bite of the helmet into your forehead. Your gloves are tight and inflexible right now, they aren’t wet yet. Your boots are dry as well; no sweet or leakage has dampened your socks.

At the same time all your pores have begun to leak excess moisture, you sweat because the gear is thick and insulated and because your heart is at full speed. Already your body is at the ready. The air rushing in and out of your lungs feels thicker, it’s hard to force it through your nostrils, so your mouth pops open.

That nagging lower back from this morning or the stiff shoulder from flag football, all disappear. The warm bath of adrenalin has started to pour over all your little aches. That doesn’t mean they are gone, no, it means, depending on the job (that’s what we call it a “job”) not only will the back or shoulder pain return, but it will bring friends with it, a gift from the fire.

Every muscle seems to do a self check. The quads in your legs flex and tighten. The Pecs in your chest announce they’re ready to go with a not so subtle twitch. Teeth test each other in a jaw clinch. The gloves are softening up now from the constant clinching and relaxing. Your back pulls tight and tests the security of your air supply. Then you smell it.

The beast does have a hygiene problem. But each incarnation of the beast gives off different clues. The nose of a veteran fireman is as good as any CSI ever will be.

A burning house smells dissimilar than a warehouse, a trash fire smells unlike that of trash in a fireplace. A fireplace reeks of timber, a car of gasoline and plastic. A light ballast odor is more acrid than an electrical outlet. Food on the stove announces itself blocks away. And flesh, I pray you never know that one.

The other senses have to be patient, you have to get there to hear and taste the nasty thing waiting for you.