As a teenager, I spent summers mowing lawns, and one of those was at Orange and Hazel Streets. One day, a car screeched around the corner and stopped at the building across the street. Once an auto dealership, it had been converted to become the home of Albion’s Police and Fire Departments.
A moment later another man pulled up, and they threw open an overhead door on the side of the building. I had little interest in vehicles, but what pulled out fascinated me. I watched the old army truck, now red, until it disappeared around the corner. It was my first time seeing a fire truck actually respond to a call. Most likely it was a small grass fire, since it was the grass truck, but that didn’t matter – I was hooked.
On July 14, 1980, I walked into the firehouse as a prospective member. My only knowledge came from my certification as an Emergency Medical Technician, with a few calls under my belt, and episodes of the TV show “Emergency!” I expected uniforms, and a fire pole. Boy, was I disappointed to find there was no fire pole. There were uniforms, yes, but only for special occasions: The Albion Fire Department was all volunteer.
The meeting room upstairs was filled with old furniture, folding metal chairs, and smoke. Cigarette smoke, cigar smoke, pipe smoke. These days the office areas of the fire station are non-smoking -- ironic, considering that even with today’s breathing equipment we probably suck in more smoke at a minor grass fire than a heavy smoker gets from a carton.
The Chief was a grizzled old veteran – well, he looked grizzled to me – named Jim Applegate, who looked at me and growled, “How old are you?” I didn’t realize until much later that the department’s minimum age had only recently been lowered from 21 to 18.
It was, in fact, my eighteenth birthday, which by chance fell on a meeting night. It would have been physically impossible for me to have joined any sooner.
That was 25 years ago.
Let’s do some math. The Albion Fire Department was founded in 1888. That seems long, but I’ve been a member for over 20% of that time. (That means our most long-lasting active member, Phil Jacob, has been here for one quarter of the time we’ve been in existence!)
In that time, the AFD has operated 11 pumpers, the workhorse vehicles that carry hose and pump water onto a fire. (That’s an average of about one new truck every 10.6 years – don’t you just love math?) I’ve ridden on 8 of those 11 vehicles, and actually responded to fires on 7 of them. Unless I missed one or two vehicles somewhere along the way, I’ve gone on calls in all the AFD’s rescue trucks, 5 of the 6 water tankers, and 3 of the five grass trucks – but never the grass truck I saw that day, while mowing the lawn.
I’ve driven 14 trucks, although I didn’t like to, and never had an accident. On the other hand, I always liked interior firefighting, and had many an accident then. I’ve fallen down stairs, been burned, collapsed from heat exhaustion, sucked in too much smoke, and had more than one ceiling fall on me. They made me Safety Officer.
I’ve also been secretary, public information officer, and training officer, even though I’m terrified of public speaking. Of course, anyone who fears nothing shouldn’t be in the fire service.
Have things changed? On my first house fire, I rode a 1952 pumper to the scene, then entered the burning building wearing a protective ensemble consisting of a pair of fire boots (which were too large). That’s it. By the end of the year I had a rubber coat, plastic gloves, and a helmet I bought for myself that strongly resembled the one worn by Darth Vader. I sounded like Vader too, after half an hour of fighting fires with that steel air tank strapped to my back. Yeah, things have changed – for the better.
Thankfully, we got the best of training from an old smoke eater named Roger McNair, a retired career firefighter who couldn’t let it go. I can only hope to become half the teacher he was.
Of course, any good teacher has war stories, and I’ve got a few stored up. In between, what – 500 Monday night meetings? – I missed a few meals, lost some sleep, saw people die. Spent some nights complaining of being hungry and cold while tearing apart the homes of families who lost everything, while searching out that last ember of smoldering fire. I’ve been called back a few times when we didn’t find that last ember, and learned my lesson that more damage from an ax is preferable to a second roaring fire.
I was there when the old mill burned up, making the sky glow for miles. I ended up on oxygen when a gasoline semi tanker overturned one hot, humid, 12 hour day. I was one of the few people who got inside Camp Lutherhaven, before the fire drove us back out. I was the first to put water on the fire at Frick’s Lumber in Brimfield, and first on the scene of the largest brush fire we’ve fought in the last quarter century. I’ve been inside numerous burning buildings, seen lots of wreckage, been so hot I’ve sprayed myself down with the hose, and so chilled to the bone that I’ve wanted to start the fire again, just to warm up.
You’ll always need firefighters, hopefully people better than me: stronger, braver, faster thinking. Most of the suffering I’ve seen over the years could be prevented – by insisting every building have a sprinkler system, just for starters – but where there are humans, there will be fires, accidents, injuries. Don’t think for a moment that I’m special; every community will always need a large team of people, to come out and do what’s right when everything goes wrong.
Still, I’ve had the fortune, or misfortune, of seeing a lot over 25 years, and I guess if I can contribute one more thing, it should be to pass on what I’ve seen to others. So my anniversary present to the community will be to get back to work on that history of the Fire Department, something I started but never finished several years ago, and maybe it will someday educate or even entertain somebody.
I’ll just have to make time for it … because more and more, that history passes in a second.