To this day, I don't know where I found the courage. I was painfully shy and not exactly an action hero, but there were two things I wanted to do with my life: write and fight fires. Not at the same time, you understand.
Having those as my full-time jobs never worked out.
Still, I summoned the courage to walk into that meeting room, my first experience with entering a smoke-filled room as a firefighter. (Smoking was allowed inside at that time, you see--and some of the members had taken to pipes and cigars.)
The Fire Chief asked my age, and didn't seem all that pleased that I'd turned eighteen that very day. Only decades later did I learn that the Albion Fire Department had, just a few short years before, reduced the minimum age for a volunteer from 21 to 18. I probably seemed like a snot-nosed, green little punk, which I was.
|Two of the trucks we had when I joined in 1980. Yes, I lined up the sign for this photo.|
For reasons I'm not interested in getting into, our department was in dire shape back then. We spent many years building it back up: replacing old trucks, updating equipment and training, improving protective gear and communications equipment. We got a lot better.
|The very old, the old, and the much newer.|
The AFD protects 96 square miles, mostly rural. As members we sometimes disagree on the best way to do things, but we've always understood our job is to protect everyone and everything to the best of our abilities. We've had our losses; we've had our saves. My home is one in a line of three buildings that at one time or another caught fire, but are still standing today thanks to dedicated volunteers.
Our job is to take the battle to the fire, not to wait while the fire comes to us. It's to do our level best to keep the danger as far back as possible. To protect businesses and farm fields; homes and wildlife sanctuaries; factories and a state park.
|Big water, four wheel drive, and--if you look closely--medical assistance, all at the ready.|
Emergency services are inefficient by nature. We can't just rent out equipment we need for a certain incident at a certain time, because emergencies don't call in to schedule themselves. Last year we didn't get such terrible snowstorms that we needed both our four wheel drives just to get out of the station. Next year, we might have half a dozen such storms. Tomorrow we might have a car fire that's out on arrival, or we might need our foam equipment for an overturned gasoline tanker, or we might send a brush truck to aid a neighboring department at a field fire, or we might have to extricate five people from a car crushed beneath a semi. Or none of those. Or all.
It's our job to continually improve our department; to leave it better than when we walked through the firehouse door. To keep it from falling behind again.
|Which takes people, as well as the right equipment.|
I don't know how long I'll be there for that.
This is not a "woe is me" post; I've had a good run. But I've had some problems with energy-sucking pain in recent years, some of it chronic, some of it of the "ouch! I'm dying right now!" variety. Ironically, it started when I hurt my spine at a fire in the 80s, and was exacerbated (get your mind out of the gutter and look it up) when I pulled a back muscle at an accident scene. (Fun fact: Trying to hide your pain instead of immediately seeking treatment is stupid.)
Some days I can fight fire; most days I can do something; some days I lay whining on the couch, like a man-flu victim.
In recent years I've floated the idea of being just the safety officer, at least on bad pain days, since that job can be done without a great deal of manual labor. Turn off utilities, check air quality, monitor hazardous operations, things of that nature.
|Blue helmet = Safety Officer. Well, on our department, anyway.|
After all, a safety officer should be present at every major emergency scene, and a lot of smaller ones. The first time I took action as safety officer, it was just a wildland fire. (Okay, it was a really big one, but still.) Somebody needs to take care of that stuff, especially as firefighters tend to be the go get 'em type.
All I have to do is discipline myself not to haul a hose into the building on my bad days. Lately, as the bad days increase, I've been thinking I could do that ... um, not do that.
But like all volunteer departments, we're undermanned. The question is, can I be useful enough in that supporting role, even if it's just keeping a head count or helping with water supply, when we don't have enough people as it is? Can't my being there be at least of a little help, even when I can't throw an air pack on?
Mostly I'm just thinking out loud, here, motivated by the turn of another year. All that is a question for the Chief and the fire board, not something I can decide on my own. But I'm starting to think it's that or retirement, and I do like to be useful.
Of course, there's always fund-raising through the writing of books, in which my wife and I are both engaged as we speak. But, like an old fire horse, I'll always want to gallop to the scene. Mostly I'm writing this because--maybe also like that old fire horse, if it could talk--seeing that anniversary come up started me waxing nostalgic again. I guess old firefighters never die: They just start telling war stories.
|This one, and another one in progress.|