Saturday, July 6, 2013

Why Have a Retirement Party?

Yesterday I went to the retirement party/celebration for a one of a kind fireman. What a great and unique man, he is a former Marine that has and had more interests than a single human being should have.

Many people would think and they would be right, that just being a fireman would be exciting enough to satisfy any thrill seeker. But not this man, here are just a few of his other interests, bull riding and all of the Cowboy arts, boxing at a world class event, and playing goalie for the fire department hockey team.

A man that you never had to guess what his opinion was on anything and I mean anything, all you had to do was ask. He was one hell of a fireman, knew his job on all levels, and was a willing and generous mentor to not only the new recruit but to many a firefighter and even more officers.

He is the kind of guy that I am pretty sure wanted nothing to do with a party that singled him out for recognition, but he did it anyway. Because he is a team player and having a retirement party isn’t about the guy going, it is about the ones left behind and the ones that came before.

So congratulations Gator and welcome to the club. I'm sure you feel about it much the way Groucho Marks did.

"I wouldn't be a member of any club, that would have me as a member." 

The decision to have a retirement party is totally up to the individual fireman it is never forced on them. I remember as I was leaving the job I felt no desire to have a party. After all, I hadn’t gone out the way I wanted, I had been shown the door as I had reported to work hung-over and still had a testable blood alcohol level.

Why would I ever have a party? To celebrate being a drunk that was kicked off the job? To give all the haters a chance to say I told you what a loser he was? These were the thoughts I had, it felt better to just slink away like the disgrace I felt I was and leave all that in the past.

I spoke about how I felt in an AA meeting and about my plan to quietly retire. After the meeting a man I very much admire, a former Army Ranger pulled me aside.
“Got a minute Tim?” he asked.
“Sure.” I said.
“I heard what you were saying about not having a party for your retirement and I just wanted to give you my take on that. It’s not about you, you dumbshit, it’s about the other firemen. It’s about giving them a chance to wish you well, to thank you for your service, and to recognize your contribution to the job.
You weren’t a drunk your whole career and even if you were that doesn’t define you. Did you help others? Did you try to give back? Did you mentor other guys? Did you make a difference? Because I’m betting you did, and you know what there are some that want to tell you that, that want to show their respect.”
“So put on your big boy panties and have a fucking party, because it ain’t about you.” He patted me on the shoulder, went and jumped on his Harley and drove away. I will always thank him for that and I do.

Being a narcissist what he said had never crossed my mind. What did he mean it wasn’t about me everything is about me damn it? I thought about what the Ranger had told me and I asked other friends and family what they thought about it. All the feedback I got was to have the party, so I did.

I faced my fears and for me it really was freighting. I knew what I thought of myself and therefore felt that had to be how everyone else felt about me. I was a loser, a disgrace to myself and the job I loved, a drunk, I remembered nothing but all the bad I had done.

I just knew nobody would show up and that was probably the biggest fear, to be left with that final insult and 3 gallons of punch and 2 uneaten sheet cakes, although I knew out of depression and empathy my crew would do their best to hide that evidence.

So just before the appointed start time I sat in the kitchen at the Hero House, 7s and awaited my fate. My crew God bless them had really done a nice job with the concession stand; there was enough cake for the whole job and gallons of punch. I think some of them were as nervous as I was.

The kitchen door swung open and in walked my first lieutenant from station 4 where I was a “Donkey” I hadn’t seen the man in probably 20 years as he had retired not long after I came on the job. I looked at him and for the life of me had no idea why he was there.
“Bob what are you doing here?” I asked. He looked around the kitchen for a moment.
“Aren’t you retiring today?” he asked.
“Well yeah,” I answered.
“Well I’m here for that.” he stuck out his hand and shook mine.
“Congratulations on making it, because there were days I doubted you would. I knew either one of the guys would kill you or you’d kill yourself the way you went at Tim. You were one hell of a fireman.” and off he went.

I sat there stunned I couldn’t for the life of me understand why this man from my past who I had only worked for for three short months had shown up. Why make the effort for me?

And then I found out. These retirement parties are the only place all the old dudes get to see each other, have some cake, a cup of Joe and talk about the good old days. It had nothing to do me and I was glad to have given them a venue to catch up on each other, because that is what I do know, because I am one of the old dudes and proud of it.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Is it True That a Firefighter Could Die at Work on any day?

In light of the events in Arizona I thought I'd repost this one.

Over the course of my career and post retirement I have had more people than I can name ask me or imply that yes firefighting is a dangerous job, but you were never really at risk of death or that the idea a firefighter can die any day they go to work is kind of bull shit.

A part of me wants to agree with them. I know I only had a handful of times where I was in a close call. I had a hand gun shoved under my chin; I had a double barrel shotgun shoved in my guts by a drunk and crazed man in his underwear. I fell through a floor one time and was only saved by my airpack catching on a floor joist and a fellow firefighter that pulled me out of the hole.

My closest call was when a 15 foot tall stucco chimney fell over and crashed through the ceiling of a room I was working in. I had just enough time to push a junior firefighter out of the room and then was knocked unconscious by the falling debris.

I came to sitting on the tailboard of the ladder truck I was assigned to. I had no idea how I got there, but the driver informed me that I had emerged from the fire and he had talked me down a three story stair case. Three other brothers were also injured and we all got off pretty well intact.

I had my face piece knocked off by the impact and was unconscious for an unknown amount of time in the fire. I took a load of smoke and suffer from COPD today as a result (my smoking doesn’t help either).

So was I at risk every day? The simple answer is hell yes we are at risk every single time the bell goes off. So far this year 56 firefighters have died in the line of duty (LODD) and 83 died last year in the line of duty. I bet not one of them went to work on the day of their death thinking “Well today is the day I die”. They went to work just like every other day, probably loving that they got to go be a firefighter and thinking more about the fun they were going to have and hoping they were going to a good “Worker” that day.

Nothing better than a good working fire, a multiple alarm fire with all kinds of challenges and rescues, it doesn’t get better than that for us. I know it is sick that we call a fire “A good fire” when in fact there is no good fire for the people affected. But for us it is a good fire because we get to do “It”, we get to do what we train endlessly for, we get to fight fire.

The 56 deaths this year are varied in the many ways we die;  firefighters in Houston were burned to death in a collapse, 4 in West Texas blown up in an explosion and 2 more in Bryan Texas from collapse. The most recent to be added to this list are the 19 Hotshots from Prescott Arizona that died in the line of duty June 30, 2013.

Firefighters have died from heart attacks while at work and the victims of this type of death range in age from 26 to 71. They have died in motor vehicle accidents, been hit by vehicles, and some just found dead in their beds from unknown causes. They range in age and experience from.

Below is a list of the brave firefighters who died in Arizona yesterday . There is no doubt this list will grow not only for the rest of this year, but for as long as firefighters answer the bell.

 The names:

Ashcraft, Andrew - Age: 29
Caldwell, Robert - Age: 23
Carter, Travis - Age: 31
Deford, Dustin - Age: 24
MacKenzie, Christopher - Age: 30
Marsh, Eric - Age: 43
McKee, Grant - Age: 21
Misner, Sean - Age: 26
Norris, Scott - Age: 28
Parker, Wade - Age: 22
Percin, John - Age: 24
Rose, Anthony - Age: 23
Steed, Jesse - Age: 36
Thurston, Joe - Age: 32
Turbyfill, Travis - Age: 27
Warneke, William - Age: 25
Whitted, Clayton - Age: 28
Woyjeck, Kevin - Age: 21
Zuppiger, Garret - Age: 27

God bless them all and thanks.

To date, 56 firefighter fatalities have been reported to USFA in 2013 as a result of incidents that occurred so far in 2013.

18 #Firefighters Working the #YarnellHillFire Confirmed Dead.

18 firefighters working the Yarnell Hill Fire confirmed dead. Under these circumstances most people will say “I can’t imagine what that must be like to die that way.” You know what you would be right. You can’t imagine what that must have been like, but I can so I’ll try and take you through what their day might have been like.
Fighting the blaze were 19 firefighters with the Granite Mountain Hotshots, based out of Prescott. The group became the first city-based hotshot crew in the nation back in 2008.
Their day would have started early. A good breakfast in camp and then a briefing with command. They would have listened intently especially to what the weather forecast was going to be. They would have checked all their gear, water, tools, snacks, spare gloves, maybe socks, and they would have shared a smile with each other as they prepared to leave. The smile communicates to each and everyone a single thought, we get paid for doing this.
We get paid to have this much fun. See the normal person doesn’t get that we love this stuff; we can’t wait to get at it. We love the weight of our pack, the weight of our equipment belt and the way we have everything set up just so. Shake and bake on your hip next to the canteen maybe, we all have our own setup; the way we like our stuff, it’s very personal.
They then got on some kind of transport to the jumping off point, the starting point of the day. There they would have had another meeting, a crew meeting. The crew boss would lay out the plan for the day, where they were going and what their goal was for the day and point out safe zones and anchor points that could be identified beforehand.
Then the walk in, a nice straight line one after the other. The air would be heavy with smoke and the morning heat would only be showing a small amount of what was to come. The first trickle of sweat would have already run down your back. The line is quite a lot of the time, just the sounds of breathing and rocks crushing under your well worn Danners or Thorogoods as you walk.
You wonder what the day will hold, you know a small town nearby has been evacuated and that your main goal is going to be putting some line between that town and the fire. Try and save the homes of strangers so that they will have something to return to. Then you reach your first anchor point, an anchor point is a safe place to start and a safe place for retreat if needed.
The Crew Boss gives the first commands and direction of attack and you go to work. He may break the team up into squads of 4 or 5 firefighters working hand tools, combined with a few Sawyers and Swampers. The Boss will also set up Lookouts for every squad and a Squad Boss. The Lookout is generally an experienced firefighter and they have one job, Safety, they watch the weather and the fire at all times. They hold the lives of the others in their hands.
If you are on a hand tool you will walk along at a steady pace and take one swing or swipe at the ground with either your shovel, Pulaski or McCloud as you go. Your goal is to clear the ground of all flammable material down to mineral soil. By now you don’t really get sore anymore your muscles have become accustomed to the work, you just walk along taking your bite out of the ground as you go.
You move as a team and act as a team, safety is always paramount on every ones minds. As you work along the line if you are lucky and the resources exist you will have air support slurry tankers and helicopters with bambi buckets dropping for you, they are also another set of eyes to watch the fire.
So what happened today? I can only guess based on experience and what is in the news. The weather had to have played a huge roll as well as terrain and maybe communications. What I have heard is that the firefighters deployed their survival shelters or as we know them our shake and bakes.
These are a small pup tent device that is covered in reflective aluminum. These are an absolute last form of defense where no other choice exists. Depending on the amount of time they had to deploy them, they would have quickly tried to clear the ground under their feet down to soil if possible. Then pulled their shelters, it is folded up in a very compact and tight package and a bit hard to work with especially with gloves on and your heart racing.
If you are pulling this thing out, your life hangs in the balance and time is critical. First, you have to rip it from its container, and then flap it like a trash bag to fill it with air. All the while the heat is exploding around you, the air is being pulled away from you and in to the fire. The noise and sounds would be incredible at this point, the fire roars like a combination of wild beast and freight train. It becomes hard to communicate each other and smoke can obscure your vision to the point you can’t even see other. You are in a race by yourself against the beast. You have to get your feet jammed into the lower corners and make sure that a little elastic strap is over your boot. Then reach up with your hands get them under the straps and get a good hold, now you fall face first to the ground. You want your feet pointed at the fire as they can take more heat than your gloved hands.
You want to trap as much air under the tent as possible for two reasons, one, the more the tent is puffed up with air the farther it is away from touching you. Second, it may be holding your only air supply for the next few minutes.
Then you wait, you may try calling to your friends, but you wait for what may be the last moments of your life. As the fire reaches you, the temperature inside your tent becomes unbearable it skyrockets it begins to steal your air you can’t breath. The heat is so incredible that the thought comes to you, “I can’t hold on.” The fire now rips at your tent trying to suck it off you; it pulls away as if a couple of hungry bears are tearing at it.
Your eyes burn and your lungs refuse to take in any of the superheated air swirling around you now. Your own sweat begins to vaporize and burn your skin as it turns to steam. You begin to suffocate and then panic. No matter how much training you have had, no matter how many times you have run through this drill in practice your fear may over come you, but more than likely what happens is finally your hands are burning so badly you let go or simply can’t feel them anymore and the tent is sucked away. Then you are exposed to heat in the range of 1200 degrees, the end comes quickly but not pain free, you burn to death in an instance.
How terrible for the firefighters I am sure God has already welcomed them home. However, the living are left behind, the families, the friends, and the citizens are left to make sense of what has happened. Know this the firefighters did this willingly, they knew the odds and they still took them, because that is what we do, we take informed chances every day. Sometimes you win and get to go home and sometimes you don’t. God bless them.