Fire Life

The Buffs Across the Street

By Michael Morse

“Who are those guys?” I asked one of the firefighters who was standing with me on the ramp at the Atwell’s Avenue fire station. “The Big Apple,” also known as Ladder Co. 6, was my assignment for the night; it was an overtime shift and my first night in one of the busiest fire stations in the Northeast.

“Dings,” was the answer, as if I knew what that meant.

“What’s a Ding?” I asked.

“Those guys,” somebody said, and pointed across the street where six cars were parked and about a dozen guys stood around them, shooting the breeze, much like we were doing on our side of the street.

Turns out the “Dings” were the local fire buffs. I had no idea that people actually loved the fire service so much that they would wait outside the busy fire stations; listen to their scanners; and respond to the same fire scenes as we did, only with cameras instead of axes and poles.

“Why don’t we invite them over?” I asked. The other firefighters either laughed or walked away. I couldn’t figure their response out then, and I still can’t figure it out. The way I saw it, those people across the street were our supporters. For whatever reason, they weren’t able to respond to the fires with us, but I’m sure they would have loved every second of it if they could. Maybe they were on a list somewhere, waiting for their chance. Maybe they had an injury or disability that prohibited them from doing the job that we took for granted. Maybe they were simply happy to be part of our world in whatever capacity they could. Whatever the reason, I thought that they were part of us; in some way. I still do.

Buffs, Dings, Uncured Hams–whatever people call them, I always liked having them around. At the risk of sounding condescending toward them, I thought it the ultimate compliment to us–the paid firefighters–to actually have what could be considered a fan club. As the years of my career went on, I got to know many of the people who “buffed fires” and learned that they were passionate about the fire service and advocates for it, and many of them knew more about the history, workings, politics, and characters that make up a fire department than we did.

Good thing I always respected them. Karma works, always. Being retired gives me ample opportunity to “ding.” If I had a dollar for every fire truck I followed, I’d have a lot of bucks. When at home, my ears instantly tune in to sirens in the distance, and sometimes it’s all I can do to not get into my personal vehicle (the one with the fire department stickers) and find out what’s going on. I am the ultimate television Ding. Nary is a fire or other emergency displayed across my screen that I don’t have some criticism, advice, or commentary for.

“That ain’t what it’s like!” I roar to the empty room as flames and no smoke fills the TV screen.

I’ll keep it going until the TV fire is out.

“Ya can’t see nuthin! Where’s his pack! Ya call that proper apparatus placement? CPR my ass, they never start breathing!”

What can I say? I was born a Ding. Then I became a firefighter. But once the boots came off, and the turnout gear was displayed in the garage, back to my roots I went. I have yet to sit across the street from a busy firehouse, but don’t be surprised if some day you see a tall, gray, and devilishly handsome old man outside your firehouse, watching and waiting, with his scanner tuned to your frequency.

And if you happen to see that guy, don’t be afraid to invite him across the street to join you. He might have something interesting to say.

Michael Morse is a former captain with the Providence (RI) Fire Department (PFD), an author, and a popular columnist. He served on PFD’s Engine Co. 2., Engine Co. 9, and Ladder Co. 4 for 10 years prior to becoming an EMT-C on Rescue Co 1 and Captain of Rescue Co. 5.