Saturday, June 26, 2010

Faded Glory: On Being an Ex-Firefighter, Part 1

Faded Glory: On Being an Ex-Firefighter, Part 1

I used to be a volunteer firefighter.

I wore a pager on my belt. I had a radio by my easy chair, programmed to scan dozens of local emergency frequencies. Every Tuesday night was drill night. Alarms frequently interrupted my weekday evenings at home and family activities on the weekend. I could imagine the location of virtually any address in my town and I often roamed the rural areas, looking for odd addresses.

I scanned the horizon often, looking for the first faint plumes of dark smoke that indicated a brush fire. I ignored the huge billows of white smoke erupting from controlled burning of wheat field stubble.

Every siren caught my attention instantly. I could distinguish between police and ambulance calls just by the sound. Police prefer the yelp...medics favor the wail.

I became anxious during hot afternoons if more than four hours passed quietly without a call. Hot weather seems to ignite the trash-burning instinct in most farmers. They love to rake together dried weeds and rotten boards, dousing the edges of the pile with a mix of diesel and gasoline, igniting it with a butane pocket lighter, watching the fire grow until it reaches a climax, and then driving away, confident that the wind would not rise, nor radiant energy cause the nearby building to join the furor, nor dried grass furtively to steal away small flames, spreading the fire to stacked bales of hay.

I loved the smell of diesel in the firehouse, blended delicately with a hint of sage smoke and sweat. We called our protective clothing, "turnouts". They were heavy, fire-retardant, thickly-insulated pants and jacket, secured with snaps, buckles, and suspenders. Our boots were calf-high, black and yellow rubber, with deeply textured soles. All of my gear smelled of smoke. We washed our turnout after most fires, especially after the dirty, all-night, soaking-wet structure fires, but soap and water could not completely eliminate the smell of smoke.

The skill of which I felt the most pride was that of donning an airpack. Entering the interior of a smoke-filled, burning-hot structure required the use of bottled air. Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus, SCBA, provided a cylinder of compressed air, wrapped with a harness and connected to the firefighter's face with a mask and breathing tube. We called the gear an "airpack". Start to finish, an airpack should be on the firefighter's back, mask in place, turnouts buttoned up, in less than 60 seconds...I usually could do it in about 25 seconds.

The only time I hated being a firefighter was after a long day of back-to-back calls. Three calls in one day was about the maximum number I could endure before I became irritated and apathetic. Hot, windy, late-summer days, with lightning strikes in the evening brought multiple fires, sometimes simultaneously. I remember feeling exhausted and angry, irritated with ditch-burning crews who failed to monitor their fires, resentful of supervisors who expected too much, too often, and regretting the time I was missing with my family.

I used to be a volunteer firefighter, but now I'm an ex-firefighter.

Next week: Faded Glory: On Being an Ex-Firefighter, Part 2

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