By Anne Gagliano
The firefighter. Not just for fighting fires. Today’s firefighters are the solution to what ails us. All of what ails us. The answer on the other end of 911. Who ya gonna call? Ghostbusters? No, Call the fire department!
Firefighters see it all. The tragic, end-of-life, catastrophic, sad runs that seem destined to dishearten. But, fortunately for them, there exist intermittent runs of another sort. Ones that humor, surprise—even delight. These calls for help aren’t necessarily inspirational to the tax-payer, the critic, the press. They are not the stuff of heroic legend that cause a firefighter to walk a little taller that day. But they do, however, serve another role: They lighten the heavy load and keep the firefighter in good humor. With a shake of the head, a chuckle, and a suppressed remark of derision, firefighters respond to these runs with professional courtesy and a silent prayer of gratitude for the ridiculous—ridiculous but true stories as experienced by my firefighter and others.
We’ve got a cat in a tree. Call the fire department. They will come with their ladders, their strength, and their kind hearts. To rescue the cat out of the tree, the cat who climbed so high he can’t get down without help. The ever-present tree that inexplicably traps so many. The cat. The person. The parachutist. The “bird” (yes, the bird who can fly back down but won’t—the thousand-dollar pet parrot and a cockatoo). The bicyclist. The car. And, of course, the moose.
I’m stuck. My family and friends can’t handle this. Call the fire department. Come pry me out, somehow. I’m stuck in a step ladder. A recliner. The spokes of a bicycle tire. A railing, a toilet, the mud. Rescue my dog, too; he’s stuck under his doghouse. In the hole of a tree, in a plastic container. A sewer drain, a well. And the cat doesn’t just get stuck in a tree—sometimes she gets trapped in ductwork deep inside the house. We get stuck and so do our pets—the firefighter comes, gets the stuck unstuck, and does so while somehow suppressing laughter.
Our party has gone awry. We partied too hard and now someone has dropped out. Our celebrations need help; we can’t have fun without somehow mucking it up. Call the fire department. They’ll come rescue the college party, the wedding, the family barbecue. The Christmas tree mishap. The turkey fire. And the 4th of July explosion. The New Year’s flying paper lantern that set the neighbor’s roof on fire. The sex party … the sex party? Yes, even the sex party, complete with a 60-year-old grandmother dressed in a Santa suit. Don’t ask.
The children–they do get into trouble. Our child did something crazy and we don’t know what to do. Call the fire department. Dispatch reports that a little girl was hit by a truck. Ready to do battle with the forces of death, the firefighters race to the scene. The little girl was hit by her brother’s toy truck, which he threw at her. Child in peril; serious injury—race to the scene. Big brother dangled a fish hook over little brother’s face just to taunt and to tickle but managed somehow to hook his eyelid instead. “911, what is your emergency?” Giggles. Click. Drive to the location—shocked children hide behind the furnace when the fire department shows up anyway. Reports that a little boy can’t breathe. Sirens, flashing lights rush to the location with all haste. The child can’t breathe through his nose because his sister has shoved a small rubber ball up his nostril. But it’s all good; these are the runs that keep firefighters sane.
The mistakes. The bizarre. The surreal. The dummy presumed to be human. And the prosthetic leg. The firefighter chased through the brush by wild hogs. The fire alarm triggered by burglars who are then caught by the fire department. The thief who fell and broke his arm while running with stolen goods calls 911, ensuring his very own capture. The anxious officer who leaps off the fire truck, only to be snapped back by the headphones he still wears. And the hose team knocked down not once but twice, in one fire, by the deck gun.
And let’s not forget the fires. The U.S. Fire Administration’s report for 2015 stated that the majority of structure fires for the year were residential, numbering 380,900. Of those, only 6.4 percent were unavoidable, as in “no one’s fault,” because of bad wiring undetected in the walls. The rest? Human error. Mostly cooking mishaps; 50.8 percent of all house fires are started this way. The other causes? Improper and or inappropriate heating choices, neglected candles, cigarettes. And overall carelessness, recklessness, craziness. We light our own houses on fire, a lot. Call the fire department. They’ll fix it.
Who ya gonna call? Who does actually call? Residents with house fires and aid runs and floods. The homeless with no houses, but they do have cell phones. The jail, the cops, even the hospitals! Seems everyone knows that firefighters have all the answers to what ails them. Night or day, day or night, in the house, outside the house—up a tree. And when they come, they must laugh at the myriad of human foibles they witness and, most especially, at themselves. They make jokes that inspire and humor and delight, jokes with a ring of truth:
“A girl says, ‘Whisper three sexy words in my ear,’ and I answer, ‘I’m a fireman.’”
“Hey, kid, I’ve been on more roofs than Santa Claus.”
Birth announcement on the firehouse sign: “It’s a Girl! 54,000 lbs., 37ft. 6 in.”
– A new truck.
And how do the citizens respond to these gallant, humorous heroes with all the answers to what ails them? They respond in various ways. Most appropriate, some inappropriate. Firefighters get “hit on” (propositioned) by street people, rich people, drunk people, high people. People in jail, people in asylums, pregnant women in shopping malls. And told, with all seriousness and genuine warmth, “I haven’t been carried like this since my wedding day.”
Thank you, firefighters, for saving us on our dark days, our careless days, and our holidays. For bearing with grim determination our messes, our attractions, our pets. But most of all, thank you for protecting us from ourselves. Laugh with us and at us, and please forgive—we know not what we do. And take this little hint from a longtime firefighter spouse: Don’t forget to tell us the funny stuff—we need a good laugh once in a while, too!
Anne Gagliano has been married to Captain Mike Gagliano of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department for 32 years. She and her husband lecture together on building and maintaining a strong marriage.