Recently, I spoke with some people who asked me what I do now that I am “retired” (although I have been classified as “disabled” since 1992). When they asked me how I had gotten hurt, I explained that it probably happened when one of my legs fell through a hole in the floor of the house in which I was training; that incident also damaged my left knee. At that moment, I did not feel any back pain, which occurred later in my life. Yes, there were several subsequent incidents that probably affected my back, but each of my doctors had pointed to this initial knee injury. Moreover, that injury was the reason I eventually had to give up front line duty seven years later.
To answer their initial question, I explained to them that besides household errands and doctors’ appointments, I spend a lot of time promoting the fire service and addressing key challenges today’s firefighters face such as cancer and fitness (by promoting organizations such as the Firefighter Cancer Initiative) through our production company, Dalmatian Productions, Inc., on Twitter; and through our new podcast program, “5-Alarm Task Force.”
“Why would you spend so much time doing that if the fire service was the root cause of your disability?” one person asked. I looked at him, stunned. I replied, “The fire service is who I was then and who I am today.” Although I had to leave the fire service, the fire service has never left me. Since the day I left active service in 1985, I have carried a basic life support emergency bag in every vehicle I have owned. My wife and daughters agree that they have lost count of how many times I have arrived as the first or second on scene at an emergency and given my all to render aid.
I then added, “Firefighters know from the moment they decide to join the service, whether as a career or a volunteer firefighter, that an element of danger exists on every single call, from the proverbial cat up a tree to a raging structure fire. We take an oath to protect the lives and property of the people we serve, and we strive to live up to that oath every day.”
On 9/11, I tried to make it to New York City. Even though I knew that, physically, I could do little, I felt I could assist in data entry work by compiling victims’ data and information taken from their families. I was ready to do anything I could as I cried my way through that day. Why? Because those were my 343 comrades from the Fire Department of New York, the New York Police Department, and the Port Authority of New York/New Jersey.
When I initially joined Twitter using an abbreviation of our company name, I did so because my partners and I saw it as an avenue to raise interest and gain support for a new dramatic television show we had written. However, within just weeks of joining, I found myself participating in numerous discussions about today’s fire service on topics such as recent fires, accidents, and line-of-duty deaths. Although I served in the fire service for just eight years more than 30 years ago, I served as an educational director and executive director of several nonprofit institutions. As I grew more involved in the “Twitter world,” I found myself blending the current lessons I was learning about my profession with my past and current knowledge of the fire service.
During my tenure at these institutions, the governing boards always consisted of volunteers. With elections usually occurring every two years, new officers and board members typically required training in leadership, board responsibility, fiduciary topics, recruitment, retention, and much more. People join nonprofit organizations for many reasons, and they leave them for even more. I taught several of these people the importance of exit surveys and how they benefit us by providing a view of the organization’s shortcomings.
I witnessed some of these shortcomings in the two departments in which I was proud to serve. I saw officers elected based on popularity rather than knowledge and leadership skills. By the time I arrived at my second department four years later, I had earned certifications in basic firefighter I and II, hydraulics and pump operator, high-level rescue, and emergency medical technician (EMT) I and II. On my acceptance, I immediately took that state’s EMT course. I was often in the top 10 of responses, stopping in the station almost every morning on my way to work, almost every evening on the way home, and often on weekends. Yet, I was barely selected to learn to drive our van-style rescue, and (of course) I was never approached to run as a line officer.
Getting on the Job
Often, when we first get on the job, we don’t know how to act. Even if we had previously belonged to an Explorer or other “junior member” group for those under the age of 18, the day on which we are sworn in makes us feel as if the whole experience is brand new. The following is an incident that occurred at my second department that exemplifies this lesson.
My department was punched out on the second alarm for a fire at a fast-food restaurant in an adjacent town. The second alarm was a call for staffing to perform overhaul and look for hot spots. Thus, per our standard operating guideline, our heavy rescue would be first due.
Once our driver and officer arrived, I climbed into the back of the apparatus after three members got in ahead of me. One member was a nice young man who, although he had hung out at the station soaking up what he could for nearly two years, would be on his first call to an actual fire. I reminded everyone to “buddy up” (mask up), check each other’s tanks, and test their mask’s seal. With that, the rescue pulled out, the “Q” and the air horn clearing the way.
A few minutes later, we all heard a set of self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) low-air bells go off. Our probie, who was still wearing his mask, promptly ripped it off his face, turned to me, and said, “Hey, I got a problem here. I’m outta air!” The three of us stared at him as though he might have had three heads. “What? Why are you looking at me like that?” he asked. Then, it hit him. He realized that the three of us had our masks hanging on our turnout coats, not over our faces. Suddenly, realization and embarrassment came over his face, in that order. Not only had he tested his mask’s seal on his face, but he also continued to suck his SCBA dry during just a few minutes, because he was so excited to respond on his first real call.
We arrived at our destination within another couple of minutes. We walked out of the back of the apparatus, and I told the probie to tell the driver he needed to change his tank and then report to the incident commander for assignment.
I knew this young man very well; he lived just a few houses down the street from me, and his sister was our babysitter. Within a few days, we were all able to laugh about the story together. He went on to become an excellent firefighter in our department and, I believe, a firefighter in the neighboring city. Although I had already moved on from that community, I was proud to hear of his accomplishments. This young man had passion and, with the right direction, became an excellent firefighter.
All too often, we immediately label any firefighter who is always willing to do the in-house chores, has his nose in the books, and requests permission to register for numerous classes and seminars as a “brown noser.” In reality, this firefighter is looking to improve his knowledge and abilities to be the best that he can be, not to prove anything to anyone other than himself.
Did many of us not do the same thing when we first got on the job? Did we not long to grow beyond the nickname of “probie” and be considered a full-fledged firefighter? Haven’t many of our children followed in our footsteps partly because of the passion they saw in us as they were growing up?
Today, that passion is often a small commodity because firefighting is seen as just another job with benefits. I read in a recent news story that a large portion of job candidates inquire about a job’s benefit package before they do the salary! Thus, the passion we are looking for is not for the job as many of us had but rather for the salary and benefits, no different than a job in almost any other field. Let’s be sure to note that this does not apply to the entire American fire service. We have many wonderful firefighters who have that passion burning inside of them, just like my young probie had years ago.
However, I believe that we—as current and former members of the fire service—should look to nurture that passion when we see it. We can help mold and shape those who will fight the fires and perform the rescues after we no longer do. Instead of embellishing firehouse “stories,” we can teach new members some of what we learned, not necessarily in the academy but from seminars, drills, and hands-on expositions we attended.
Although many of us may no longer be on the front lines when our children are older or when we have grandchildren, we can still help them by helping those who come after us to do the best job they possibly can.
STEVEN S. GREENE is a former volunteer firefighter/emergency medical technician (EMT) in the Guilford County and Greensboro, North Carolina, areas. He has also served as a volunteer firefighter/EMT in the Syracuse, New York, area. He is the president of Dalmatian Productions, Inc., a production company dedicated to showcasing the men and women of the American fire service. In May 2016, Greene launched the “5-Alarm Task Force: News & Issues for Today’s First Responders” podcast.