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 not Tom did not change any of the names, as he felt none of his friends mentioned in these pieces are “innocent.”
There were always lessons surrounding us whenever we were working. I was always in the busiest of companies in the Fire Department of New York, so I can’t answer for the lifestyle of more than three-quarters of the “job” I worked and loved. I only knew that during my span, the busier you were, the more fun you seemed to have, the more professional you became, and the more time you had to learn lessons and reinforce old ones.
Day 1. The first day, my first day, I had to report to the captain, I was told by the firefighter on watch, who seemed to look right through my new uniform as I stood there with my manila envelope of data for the past 11 weeks of training that actually said nothing about what I knew or didn’t know.
A captain was the highest rank that addressed us during our training in a broken-down collection of hospital buildings on an island in the middle of New York City. The buildings and the land were so old that operations-if they were done at all-were on the top floor of the grey, stone building under the only light then available-sun through the skylights.
“Top of the stairs, kid. The captain is waiting for you.” The firefighter assigned the house watch duty appeared to barely even notice me.
“Morning, captain,” I said after a weak kind of knock on a peeling, wood door-framing of a small office on the top of the staircase.
“Get your clothes on the rig, Tom. Bob will tell you where to ride and what to do at alarms. I want you to stick with me like glue. Wherever I go, you go. That will be good for now, OK? We will have more time together later today.”
I mumbled something and turned and went down the long flight of stairs again. My fire clothing, turnouts, was still in a pile at the watch desk.
The phone jumped off the desk, as did the uniformed firefighter performing house-watch duty. Ring, Ring, Ring. The phone rattled in rapid succession. Everyone but me knew that the dispatcher would follow with loud and hurried directions and an address of an alarm of fire that he had just received from an excited caller at his telephone. Everyone in the building knew we were absolutely going to race out the door on my first alarm but me.
My first alarm. After being told, I kind of stumbled and dropped stuff as I got into boots that were familiar after 10 hours per day at probationary school and a canvas coat that had begun to get soft finally, and the helmet that had the hideous orange patch denoting that you were new, not expected to know anything, and to direct me to senior members of my company if I were messing up or appeared lost.
“Kneel in the bucket behind the captain, kid; ring the bell, and hold on!”
I never realized that I saw the others get on the rig until we had turned into the busy one-way street and headed south to the location of the alarm.
“Geez, there is smoke on the second floor of that building,” I thought. I stood and turned to make my way back to the steps off the truck as soon as it came to an “almost” stop and alighted to the ground outboard of the fire building. (That would be the last time I was ever that slow, but who knew?) I was assigned to bring the water extinguisher and the hook into the fire building. I turned clumsily around the front of the apparatus just as the chauffeur put a portable ladder to the base of the window out of which leaned a young mother holding a small child. There were two floors of such apartments over a first-floor store that was somehow on fire; companies arriving before us were entering to do what they do. Bob, our chauffeur, screamed at me, “Drop that stuff, kid, and get up there with those people!”
Man oh man-first fire and people trapped and wood burning and smoke and .… At the top of the ladder, I didn’t have any time to think. The woman stuck a two-year-old child in my arms and started out of the window into my face after her. Back down I went, one slow 14-inch step after another. Firefighters waited below to help. I thought they were really waiting for me and the child and the mother to unblock the ladder and get out of the way so they could use the ladder to get to their objective.
On the sidewalk, someone came up to me and asked for the child. I gave it over to the awaiting arms. I needed to find the captain, I remembered.
“Anyone see the captain from this company?” I sounded like a waif in an Oliver Twist den of orphans.
“He went in the door and up the stairs, kid,” everyone, no one in particular, said. Into the smoke and up the stairs I went. (Second set of stairs to the captain in less than 10 minutes, my mind quipped.) At the top of the stairs, the smoke was clearing, and I could make out the white rubber bottoms of a set of boots.
Looking closer, I could see for sure it was my captain lying on the landing facing toward the apartment door opening waiting for something, I thought.
“Do exactly what I do, and go where I go,” was his last order to me. “Captain, I am here,” I said as I obediently lay down next to him on the landing and waited for him to recognize me so I could tell him about the mother and baby and he would tell me what to do next.
Something snatched at me in the wispy smoke. Two big hands had hold of my ankles and were pulling me, making me slide backward down the flight of stairs I had just climbed. My elbows and then my face hit the top step and began to bounce on all the steps as I was virtually flung down the stairs, followed by the gentle movement of the captain (it seemed like it, anyway).
Out in the street, I got placed on the side running board of a tractor-trailer aerial ladder and was getting my coat loosened by some big people. “We got you guys, you’re OK now! Calm down, and we will get some air into you in no time.”
It seems as though my captain had gotten himself to the top of the stairs before the building began to clear of gases, heat, and smoke (my delayed entry) and was rendered unconscious and reported missing. Enter probationary firefighter, me, who lay down next to what I never knew was a “knocked out” captain awaiting rescue. Oh me!
On the side of the truck, another figure had loosened my coat and was handing me a small bottle of something that smelled like alcohol. Looking up, I could see a priest asking me if I was alright. A priest!
The captain was taken to the hospital. I removed a child from harm’s way and was “rescued” all within one hour of my first minute in my company.
I thought, “What a job! What a job!”
But then, someone asked me if I had removed a small baby girl from the fire window. I puffed out what chest I had left and said, “Yes, it was me, sir.” “Don’t get so proud, kid. Who did you hand the child to-it seems the mother can’t find her!”
From hero to goat in one minute.
Strength lessons. It seems like every “caper” in the fire department starts with a setup that only the patsy can’t get.
• Lesson #1. “I bet you can’t pull yourself up to the second floor on the brass sliding pole in this firehouse” was common, and sure, I fell for it. There is not much choice. Backing down from a challenge in front of senior men you work with was unthinkable.
“Atta boy, Tom. Give it a try; you can do it!” We will tie this roof rope harness on you so if you fall you won’t fall too far,” they chanted. The rope was dropped, and I was tied and began to “shimmy” up the pole, the shiny, slippery brass pole. About eight feet off the ground with my own strength and power, I moved to 12 feet off the ground with their strength and power. The “they” were in the bunk room on the second floor pulling on the rope like an elevator until they could tie me off somewhere in the space between the tin ceiling of the floor on which the apparatus was parked and the rubber “hit” pad at the bottom of the pole. Hidden hoses were stretched from their hiding places behind walls, doors, and fire trucks; pumps started, and water flew. What a dummy! There I hung wet as can be and getting wetter all the time.
• Lesson #2. If is sounds too dumb to do, it probably is.
There were more lessons to come-some salty, but most sweet.
My father had been a member of the Fire Department of New York for more than 35 years and was, at that time, the most decorated with meritorious awards than any other, but we, the family, never knew it. My brothers and I were never in a firehouse in our lives, and my father never talked “the job” anywhere.
It came as a surprise as I sailed the ocean blue in my little World War II submarine that I received an application and a money order for the amount needed to register for the fire department. I never gave it a thought.
“Better fill this one out,” thought I. “Now I have nightmares that I would have passed up the opportunity.“
First night shift. My first time working a night shift was also not without some memories. We were a company in the borough of Brooklyn that was not known for its aggressiveness or its record of alarms. So coming home from my first night did not promise to be too exciting for my father.
That night started out with two structure fires involving entire apartments on upper floors of two separate buildings two hours apart. “Some routine,” I thought. Later an alarm for a fire that was building in the quieter area of Brooklyn in an open lumberyard, miles from us. A second alarm followed by a third and fourth and extra truck companies found us speeding through the streets of Brooklyn to almost the shore line of the Atlantic Ocean. Another three hours or so of outside surround-and-drown the lumberyard, and we were returned to our station. It was 1 a.m., and I still had to clean the wheels and wash down the truck (a ritual for all probies until relieved by the next assigned probationary firefighter).
More noise, and out the door again-to the right, this time. An alarm was building for a huge church on fire in the Bedford Stuyvesant section of the city-up and over the hill to our northern flank. We responded, and the alarm continued to grow to rarely heard levels. They moved companies from other boroughs to cover Brooklyn’s vacant fire stations and also to respond to the fire, for there was no one left. It was known as a Borough Call Alarm.
That night, at the church, the temperature dropped to below freezing as the captain ordered me to stand in one place until he and the others returned.
The truth is that I actually froze into the ground that night waiting for him. I was back at the station. I showered and drove home and confronted my mother in the kitchen with my father sitting at the table appearing uninterested. I had just gone through the busiest night anyone in that area ever had-ever-and didn’t really know it to be any more than routine.
“How was the first night as a hero?” asked mom.
“We had two all-hands fires, a few smaller ones, a fifth alarm for a lumberyard, and a borough call for a church in downtown Brooklyn,” I said matter of factly.
“Hurrrrummmmmph,” growled my father, “already with the firehouse bull,” as he stormed out of the room.
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.