I learned early on that firefighters are adrenaline junkies. It was a job requirement not included on the application. Sometimes things got slow and no calls were coming in, no smokes were being spotted from the lookout on Blue Mountain. Guys would get jumpy and anxious for action at those times, they’d have a hard time sitting still and they’d get hard to talk to. The captain would start creating chores and the atmosphere would get tense around the barracks.
An alarm came across the radio regardless of which station was being dispatched. A central office miles away would send out tones and each station had it’s special own tones. When ours came through we knew them instinctively and an extremely loud horn would go off in various locations around the station all at the same time. Out tones were like the “Charge of the Light Brigade” to us, a thrilling, uplifting swelling symphony.
Information was given about the type of incident, the location and the route we were to use in getting there. The captain or engineer would write down the basics and everyone would get to and on the engine as fast as possible. You did not want to be the one to make the captain wait. Our captains were judged in part on the time it took for us to get rolling and the clock started ticking from the moment the horn went off. The captain radioed in that his engine was “10:8” which meant the stallion had left the barn with its knights aboard, help was on the way.
Sometimes the horn went off in the middle of the night and there was one located high up on one end of the barracks. It was so loud that it would make you sit bolt upright from a dead sleep. I’m pretty sure that wasn’t good for anyone’s heart but it certainly got everyone up quickly. Everyone would dress in a flurry of socks and shirts and pants and Red Wings. You put on enough covering to race outside without being arrested and you’d finish buttoning and tucking and lacing as the engine rolled out of the driveway and into the darkness lights whirling red through the pine needles and sirens screaming at the offended wildlife.
Lights and sirens were “Code 3” which pretty much gave the captain license to drive like he was in the Indy 500. The off road tires of the big heavy four wheel drive International engine whined down the highway while the central dispatcher gave orders or directions and dispatched additional fire companies to the incident. The sirens of other engine companies were audible in their radio transmissions and the excitement in their voices was palpable.
The people in the lookout tower gave updates on the progress of the fire from their high vantage. The adrenaline was pumping as the captain or engineer drove through intersections and everyone on the road pulled over to let us pass. The loud air horn blurted out obscenities at resistant or confused drivers who impeded our way.
The real adrenaline began when we first sighted the smoke, especially if it was a large column. We knew we were in for excitement and danger and lots of hard work. All of it was good, it was what we practiced for, it was why we put on the uniform. We loved the adrenaline involved in putting them out. “That’s a major-rager!” someone would inevitably say when a large smoke was spotted. The radio blared instructions about where our engine should attack the fire, who was the fire boss and about air support. It was going to war, people could die, destruction was imminent, we were the white knights riding to the rescue and all citizens bowed to us as we passed. When they didn’t they got the big air horn raspberry.
Firefighters are proud of what they do. They’re “smoke eaters” and they love it. I probably ate enough smoke in two years of fire fighting to equal about ten years of smoking cigarettes. We’d cough up black soot for days after a good fire. Our tired faces would be black with ash and streaked with sweat. I learned that whenever the smoke gets too thick to breathe it’s possible to get fresh air by breathing down beside the water flowing out of the nozzle. I don’t know it that was a firefighter myth or not, but it seemed to work.
When the fire was out and after we had put water on every angry coal and after we had cut a line to contain its perimeter, we loaded up the flat and blackened hose and we stowed away all the brass and the tools and we left the ashy scene of victory. It was time to go “10-19”, time to go home to the firehouse. We were sapped and hungry, we were exalted and satisfied. We’d won the battle. We’d boldly ridden in and we’d conquered the beast. So back we’d trudge to the barn, just another lumbering truck on the highway now. Back to the barn we’d go to curry our steed, to replenish our supplies, tend our wounds and nourish ourselves. There at the station we’d wait for the next call to battle and for the adrenaline to make us invincible once again.
To be continued…