The Fire Yenta: Memorable Calls

By Diane Feldman

Celebrity Steam Leak

From Deputy Chief Tom Dunne, Fire Department of New York: A number of years ago I was working as a firefighter in Manhattan. At the time, Midtown was plagued by a collection of vagrants, prostitutes, and an assortment of other unsavory characters who kept us busy at night. An alarm came in around 4 a.m. during an especially busy tour. When we arrived at the building, there was no sign of smoke or fire, and a woman was calmly waiting for us on the front steps. Great, I thought, another lowlife bothering us for no reason. She said there was a steam leak in her apartment. Somewhat bleary eyed, we walked upstairs to discover that the relief valve had come off her radiator. It took all of 10 seconds to shut the radiator and stop the leak. The woman thanked us profusely and explained that, being from California, she was not familiar with steam heat and was always taught to call the fire department for help. I remember noting how friendly and well spoken she was. When we left the building, our officer excitedly told us that the woman was Whoopi Goldberg. Unimpressed, I responded, “Who’s Whoopi Goldberg? And how can she not know how to shut off a radiator valve?” (This must have been before she made it really big, or maybe I just wasn’t watching a lot of comedy acts at the time.) I walked away learning two things: (1) Whoopi was a nice person, and (2) we do have to watch the assumptions we make about the people we service.

That’s a Lot of Bull

From Chief Bart Hadley Jr., Lawton (OK) Fire Department: My fire department would probably be considered an average size, and my community is about 100,000. To set the stage, even though I’m from an Oklahoma fire department, it’s probably important to note that it is a metro fire department, mostly urban and industrial, and does not cover agricultural areas. So when I was the officer on an unusual fire call years back, I had to have the dispatcher repeat the nature of the emergency call three times. It seemed we were responding to a “bull fire”! And yes, I did hear him right. As it turned out, that was an accurate description. We had a small stockyard on the south side of town, and during a recent sell, a large bull had died. They came in the next day to get him out, but it rained heavily the night before, and it was too muddy to get any vehicles back in that area to get to him. Unfortunately, it rained off and on for days. When the carcass began to swell, the managers decided it would be best to douse him with diesel and to try to burn the carcass. We could see the smoke from quite some distance away. That was definitely an unusual call. To this day, that remains the only “bull fire” I have ever been dispatched to!

Message from Beyond

From Lieutenant Tom Kiurski, Livonia (MI) Fire and Rescue: My wife’s relative was a widower who came to America from Italy with his family. When his wife passed away, every time he went in the kitchen to cook, he stopped the big clock in the kitchen at the exact minute she died. One day he did this and was cooking his breakfast when he heard a chirping sound. He thought it was the clock and his dearly departed wife was trying to communicate with him from beyond. The next day, while he was making dinner, the same thing happened. He heard a chirping sound and thought it was his wife sending him a message from beyond through the clock. His son came over the third day to investigate. The two men sat near the clock sipping their sodas, but alas, no chirping sound! Finally, on the fourth day, the widower went over to the clock, stopped it at the exact time his wife died, and proceeded to cook. There was that chirping sound! He realized it was coming not from the clock but from the smoke alarm each time he cooked!

Where’s Your Emergency?

From William Oldham, Fire Inspector/Civilian Employee, Department of Defense, Maxwell Air Force Base Fire Department, Montgomery, AL: When I was superintendent of dispatch, I received a 911 call from a four-year-old girl. She was crying, and I asked what her emergency was. She relayed that she was out of peanut butter and couldn’t make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The little girl told me that she was instructed at school to call 911 in an emergency. She was devastated to be out of peanut butter and, by gosh, she had an emergency on her hands! Her mother picked up the phone, and the department took a jar of peanut butter to her residence.

Your First Call Sticks with You

From Chief Bart Hadley Jr, Lawton (OK) Fire Department: This one wasn’t necessarily unusual, but it was cute, and since it also happened to be the very first call I ever responded to as the ‘Officer’ in charge, it was also certainly memorable for me as well. A small boy, (age 6) had had an accident on his bicycle. Although there were no serious injuries, his small leg was wedged between the bicycle frame and the parallel portion of the pedal. When we arrived, I wiped away his tears and assessed the situation. I sent my firefighter back to get a pry bar, and the boy, trying to be as brave as he could, looked up at me and said, “Are you gonna have to cut my leg off?” I fought back the urge to smile and assured him that I was confident we would be able to save his leg.

The Yenta wants to know, do you have a memorable first call of your career? If so, e-mail me at

Diane Feldman is a 19-year veteran of Fire Engineering; she is executive editor and FDIC conference director. She has a B.A. in English/communications. Previously, she was an editor at the American Management Association in New York City.

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