BY TOM BRENNAN
Editor’s note: Tom Brennan, our revered technical editor and former editor, passed away in April 2006. Tom shared monthly here his wisdom and knowledge of the tactical aspects of our industry, but he also wrote about the social side of the fire service as only Tom could. We are very pleased that Tom wrote down some of these interesting, funny, insightful, and colorful stories. We are very proud to have the chance to continue to provide for you the random thoughts of our dear friend and brother. Please note Tom did not change any of the names, as he felt none of his friends mentioned in these pieces are “innocent.”
Personnel, people working on-shift, could not be unbalanced within the neighborhood (battalion) in which you were assigned. “Assigned” here may be an overplayed word to some who wish they read “worked in.” But, the assignment to a battalion was mostly for administrative responsibility and chain-of-command stuff. As a matter of fact, we were one of the busiest ladder trucks in the city and did very little fire duty with our assigned battalion. Actually, it depended on which direction of six we went in geographically for the response. Our fire response lay within the response borders of six different battalions. It just worked out that way in the center of downtown Brooklyn.
Most of the people working in Ladder 105 had some kind of “weight” or reputation or recommendation or a direct link genetically to a past member. In short, to get there, you were usually “taken care of.” The result was that favor on favor created an overloaded truck at the butt end of a battalion boundary. Because of this overload, there was always a detail to another unit for the tour of duty you were assigned. Members were assigned to work duties in this unit by the group number you were assigned in the chart and how they formatted for that cycle day-never mind figuring it out for now.
The “not-so-fun” part was that the units assigned to the administrative battalion were in the direction we saw very seldom-compared with the working directions we went in to the other battalions. We didn’t know too many of the members in the units we would be detailed to, and that made for a long tour of duty.
Worse than this was the extended 30-day detail. We had so many personnel assigned that we had a constant “30-day man” out in one of the other companies all the time. Tradition had it that the next man to go would be the next firefighter to walk in the door on transfer orders. That seemed fair-get it over with before your training starts, tradition begins, or friendships get made.
Walshie. Walshie zipped in and out of the door to quarters so fast that only a handful of members even met him. He was gone to the butt end of the battalion for 30 days within hours of arrival. He was unhappy for sure.
Everyone was interested in anyone who had a comment about Walshie. We were family and wanted to know first impressions of our newest member. Not only was that a void, but we never saw him because none of our work was ever toward or with the unit he was sitting in for his 30 days.
We found out that Walshie would be assigned to us on his return-to the Rat Pack. Everyone was awaiting his first actions and demeanor. In this business, nothing you can do will outlive or change the impression people get when you are “first out of the chute,” whether that is in the kitchen or in maintenance work or in your first response or fire (fire being the weakest of the reputation builders, at least early on).
He looked tough, he looked Irish, and he sounded like a firefighter. He was quiet and appropriate and on his feet if anyone else was, which was good. Three out of four runs into the tour, and all was well. Polite: “How ya doins” were met by equally polite, “Good, how YOU doin?”
Our favorite false alarm box came in about the beginning of dark, shortly after the streets were emptying of the commuting public and local stores were closing and stoops of side streets were filling with philosophers of the night.
No apparent cause for alarm on our arrival at the intersection would get a routine dispatch of individual members of the unit in four directions to look-’n-sniff and make sure that there was no alarm. We all knew it smelled false, but we needed to take care of conscience-ours. Actually, I never remember finding a “job” on one of these searches that appeared to be a false alarm. We had so many-half of all our responses, in fact, were a felony committed by someone who had nothing else to do that moment. There was a young man sitting in the corner entrance to a closed and locked store under two additional stories of apartments. He sat there hitting a stick on a pole that rose from the entrance corner to the corner of the extending building above him.
“Did you see anyone pull that box?” asked our new guy Walshie. It was his direction. A look and a shake were all the answer the gentleman gave; he continued to sit there working his stick on “street rhythms” on the pole.
No sooner were we back into quarters, about a mile away, when the same set of bells denoting that same location clattered at the house watch. Out we went again.
Same dance of the four firefighters, same results, same guy sitting at the same location with the same stick and asked the same question by Walshie. Same answer.
As we backed in, we didn’t really need to count the remaining round of four numbers to know that we were off to the same location. This time, only three firefighters went off in different locations. Walshie, the new guy, marched to his new “friend” with the stick and picked him up so fast that his feet left the ground. He was screaming some loudness into the face of the surprised civilian as his right fist planted itself at the end of a roundhouse pattern and sent him in a crumply lump in the same spot where the now-dropped drumstick rested.
Not a word was said.
“False alarm for this box” was transmitted by the now jittery lieutenant. And we started back for home.
Finally (after no one would ask, but all wanted to), I said, “Hey Walshie, what was that about?”
“I think we have his attention, and next time he will see who pulls that alarm box!”
Walshie was no longer the new guy! Smiles abounded on the sides of the truck and behind the steering wheel and in the back where the tillerman steered the rest of the truck some 30 feet from the motor. Even the lieutenant, hoping still that no one got the number, had a smile (smirk) on this face.
Mike. Mike was on the lieutenant’s list and came to us from the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. He knew his work in engine companies after many years but wanted to gain some truck experience before becoming a formal leader and going out in the world making decisions with relative strangers. Mike lived on Staten Island and had an additional career as a teacher of English in a community college. The only thing in his way was Mike’s Brooklyn accent that pronounced English as “Ing-gah-lish.” Mike loved to smoke a pipe and sit smartly back in any chair and await chances to make a “dent” in any conversation. In short, he loved to listen.
Joe. Joe was called “Misery”-first because it was a botched-up pronunciation of his name (no, that was second)-first, because Joe was only happy when he was complaining. About what? Anything! In fact, most of us would try to get him started in a rumor just so that we would have peace for the first half of the shift. Everyone loved Joe.
That night Joe fit into the “spare” position in the chart of rotations that was assigned to be on duty that night shift. As spare, you were assigned any extraordinary duty that came up that tour. You had the detail: You went to the store for anyone asking, and you went on other errands in the district or city at the direction of the department. One of those “directions” was a phone complaint to our Fire Prevention Bureau. No matter when or from where they received the complaint, it was investigated and reported on immediately by the unit assigned the location the irate caller indicated. Supper time that night, we got the word from the lieutenant together with the address and complaint number. Out the door went complaining Joey.
On his return and appearance in the kitchen/sitting room doorway behind the parked apparatus, he naturally wanted to know if we had eaten dinner yet or whether everything was delayed.
Joe had that way of talking, too. In fractured words, he said, “Hey JEEET?” Mike was half laughing and half upset. His pet English was so violated.
“JEEET, jeeet! What the heck does that mean?”
He was on his feet, and the pipe of emphasis twined between his three fingers.
“Did ya EAT. Have you had supper yet? Get it *%$*&?,” quipped the injured Joey.
After more words, Mike just sat back down and pondered.
The next night, most of the same players came back into work for round two (second night shift of two). At roll call, Mike announced that he owed Joey and all of us an apology.
It seems he was home between night tours of duty and entered the kitchen to say good bye to his two teenage daughters and lovely wife. Joey on his mind as well as dedication to his second craft, he had tried an experiment on the spur of the moment.
“Hey girls, JEEEET?” he questioned with his head down, fully expecting to tell the story of the night before. He would leave them with a Joey story before leaving for work.
“No daddy, JU?”
Mike said that he laughed, cried, and shook his head all the way over the bridges and highways to his assignment that night.
TOM BRENNAN had more than 35 years of fire service experience. His career spanned more than 20 years with the Fire Department of New York as well as five years as chief of the Waterbury (CT) Fire Department. He was the editor of Fire Engineering for eight years and was a technical editor. He was co-editor of The Fire Chief’s Handbook, Fifth Edition (Fire Engineering Books, 1995). He was the recipient of the 1998 Fire Engineering Lifetime Achievement Award. Brennan was featured in the video Brennan and Bruno Unplugged (Fire Engineering/FDIC, 1999). He was a regular contributor to Firenuggets.com.