firefighting

The day after

I work a strange schedule: 24 hours on, 48 hours off. In practical terms, I get up at 4 every third day, schlep to the firehouse to be on duty at 6AM, and work until 6AM the next morning. When I roll out of the station, I have exactly 48 hours to recover before starting the process over again.

Most days when I get off work, I go home, try to recoup a little sleep with a short nap, and have a day in which I write and run errands with low expectations for myself. I'm coming off a shift in which I've usually been privy to some horrible shit, and the primary goal of the day is to avoid and suppress it. I have a bunch of rituals designed to reinforce the firewall between the world of perpetual emergencies and the quiet of home, but it is work to maintain the defenses.

Over time, I've noticed something about the day I get off work. It's like the third rail of my days. I'm more likely to have an argument with my wife - so much so that I avoid discussions of meaningful topics. I'm overcome by strange and sweeping emotions. I have sudden, compelling ideas - maybe I should buy a strange wig at Goodwill and wear it to the Odesza show! - and tend to see myself as damaged, if not outright psychopathic for my ability to tolerate such constant doses of human suffering. 

Then I get a normal day, in which things feel pretty normal. Then I go to work. Those are the normal days.

 

The Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire

I occasionally help teach EMT classes, and one of the topics I enjoy covering is multiple casualty incidents (MCIs). I frequently use examples from real incidents, and I've searched for so many recordings of fire-rescue radio transmissions during active shooter incidents that I probably have my own electronic file somewhere in a bland national security data warehouse.

As a firefighter, I'd heard of the Cocoanut Grove fire, which played a tragic role in the advancement of fire safety regulation in the US. I stumbled across it again and took an unexpected deep dive into the history of the fire.

In 1942, despite passing routine fire inspections, the nightclub was a fire trap, even by the lax regulatory standards of the day. In addition to placing cloth and palm-frond decorations on the walls and ceilings, the club owner had locked up emergency exits and windows to prevent patrons from slipping out without paying their tab. 

The Cocoanut Grove was full beyond capacity on the night of November 28, 1942. A patron in the downstairs lounge removed a light bulb so he could kiss his girlfriend in the darkness. A sixteen year-old waiter, who took the job to help pay expenses for his ill mother, was told to screw the bulb back in. He climbed on a stool, struck a match to see what he was doing, and restored the bulb to its place. Shortly afterward, flames began to spread across the ceiling. Flames and choking smoke spread so quickly that some patrons were overcome at their seats, their bodies later recovered with hands still grasping their glasses. Archive.org includes hundreds of pages of witness statements.

In all, 492 people lost their lives that night. The fire is credited with spurring changes to both fire protection standards and burn treatment

Investigators said they could not point to the match as the cause of the fire (other investigators have theorized the fire began as a result of an electrical spark igniting fumes from the club's air-conditioning system), but many people blamed the young waiter for the tragedy, and he bore the stigma for the rest of his life. 

Thankless jobs

Within the world of fire/rescue, there are two particularly thankless jobs. First, 911 dispatchers, who are the first point of contact for the emergency system, and who must sort out the chaotic, frightening moments of an unfolding emergency*. The other thankless position is the one who arranges to have the correct staffing at every fire station, every day. Both these positions have this in common: when they do their jobs exceptionally well, no one pays any attention. When they screw up, letting their humanity show over the phone or radio, or short-staffing a station, everyone calls them out on the mistake. 

I would have thought that was the textbook definition of a thankless job: one in which good performance goes unrewarded, but bad performance is immediately condemned. This chart proposes more axes of thanklessness, including pay, public opinion, stress, and environment. 

For obvious reasons, I found it interesting that this and other lists classified fire/rescue as "thankless." It's true, I don't always get thanked for what I do, but I also enjoy having a career that's lauded and seen as worthwhile. More importantly, firefighting is listed as one of the careers with highest job satisfaction. That list, which discusses the "crummiest careers" and what makes them so rough, is worth a read. Not surprisingly, we don't reward the people who have to deal with our junk (literally and metaphorically) nearly as much as we should.

[* If you want to hear why I have so much respect for dispatchers, listen to this audio of a dispatcher handling emergency radio traffic after three police officers were shot while responding to a domestic disturbance. She is calm and controlled on an extremely tense and emotional incident.]

You aren't just what you think you are

@History in Pictures is a great twitter feed that mines photo archives for stunning moments from the past - some grandiose, some intimate, some curious, some utterly bizarre. Just one example:

There are many different ways to unpack and interpret this image, some of them outside my experience and understanding. Certainly, there are some who would pose the question - why protect an avowed racist from the impact of his beliefs? Why should he receive governmental protection that is less commonly afforded to those he vilifies and would gladly oppress? On the other hand, if we aren't willing protect the rights of all citizens, who decides whose freedoms will be protected, and whose will be ignored?

Looking at this image, though, I mostly feel sympathy for the police officer. Although my job is wildly different from law enforcement, I also wear a uniform, and I'm often perceived foremost as my role, not as a man who will go home at the end of my shift.

That's not such a bad thing. People who call me should be able to count on me to fulfill the duties of my role. They shouldn't have to negotiate with a fallible man, and potentially face criticism if I disapprove of their decisions or lifestyle. The uniform should represent something reliable, fixed, steadfast. 

My uniform provides a benefit to me as well. Although I'm not a wild fan of the superhero genre, I understand on a visceral level why we envision them wearing costumes. My uniform is protective - it shields my psyche from what I see on the job, In theory, it's something I can remove when I return to my everyday life. 

I've been in situations, like this officer, in which I do what I'm there to do, regardless of my opinions. I treat all patients, regardless of who they are or what they've done. I do my job, because in certain moments, my job is actually more important than I am. It outranks me, my personal preferences, and my opinions, because someone has to do it, and on that particular day, I happen to be the one. 

Maybe your job isn't your job, but I'd be willing to bet you've got work to do out there, things that are bigger than you and me. 

Grown ups

Before he anchored a fantasy franchise, Peter Dinklage played a taciturn oddball who just wanted to be left alone, in The Station Agent (2003). I remember that movie as a bit of a revelation. Was this, I thought, what adult friendships were really supposed to be like? Although there were ample moments of emotional exposition throughout the film, its fundamental model of friendship was that people just kind of did decent things for each other, without messy deconstruction and exposition. No one benefited much from explaining themselves in painful detail. The presence of empathic adults was all the redemption that the characters really needed.

I think most of the relationships in my writing are a bit like those friendships. They unfold though a few actions and words, without an overabundance of fanfare. The world of fire/rescue can be a bit like that, too. Firefighters can go full maudlin in extreme circumstances, but for the most part, they hold it in. We have each others back. Not much more to be said about that. 

In fiction, though, people like a little fanfare. They appreciate an occasional messy deconstruction. So I've had to work on allowing characters to expose their emotional lives. That's part of the vulnerability in telling stories, making plain all that you cherish and wondering if it will be real to someone else. 

The moment before the moment

There will always be the hour before the world was destroyed, and people tend to remember that moment with terrible clarity, polishing it in their mind like a stone. 

One morning, April 16 eight years ago, I awoke in my girlfriend's bed to hear the wind-blown tree limbs raking the side of the house with wild fingers. She had a white mosquito net hanging overhead, a purely aesthetic touch, but one that felt familiar and comforting to me from the years I slept under nets in Senegal. The trees hissed and grated in the darkness. I arose and got dressed, barely trying to keep quiet over the noise of the wind, kissed her goodbye and went to work at my firehouse. It was the 66,953rd morning of my life, what should have been another forgettable moment. By now I should have no memory of the net, the wind, the trees, the kiss. 

But that morning, a house caught on fire, and the wind turned it into an inferno as firefighters entered, trapping and killing my friend Kyle as he searched a second-floor bedroom.

Now that morning lasts forever. The trees writhe and buckle in my memory, and the wind keens like an animal, like a foul portent, or like nothing, the wind howling through just another morning that happened to be the last one before the end of the world.  

The Competition

Anything that human beings do for fun, they'll find a way to turn into a competition. Do you enjoy Irish dancing, or whitewater kayaking, or juggling? You've probably only scratched the surface of the competitive leagues, Olympic events, and fierce rivalries between competing philosophies and disciplines. 

Even something as task-oriented as Firefighting, my profession, can be reduced to a series of timed events. This video shows almost mind-boggling feats of agility that bear only a passing resemblance to the actual physical work of the job.

I was thinking about this as I looked at the website for the 2015 World Police and Fire Games, which will be centered a stone's throw from my house. I was poring over the lengthy lists of sporting events, and pondering whether I could be competition-ready within six months. I'm in pretty good shape - my job demands it - but when it comes to serious athleticism, I'm like a normal guy who read an encyclopedia in lieu of being smart. There's something very enticing about the idea of taking part in an Olympic-styled event with colleagues from around the world. It's almost enough to justify the inevitable ass-kicking I would suffer at the hands of genuinely gifted and dedicated athletes.