Special Note- Tonight’s Firefighter Netcast at 8pm asks YOU why are you a firefighter? Weigh in with your opinion. For all the information, see http://firefighternetcast.com
Why am I a firefighter?
Because I never grew out of the childhood dream to be one. I guess it’s still possible that I might grow up and reach my potential, but there’s only so many years available, so I doubt it. This firefighting thing has stuck in my blood for a long time.
Not a great story here of interest to anyone- but me. I guess I could tell you that I like to help people, and enjoy the excitement of the job. It’s all been said by hundreds of thousands before me. Although its an overused cliché, it still accurately describes why I’m in the fire service.
Unlike many of the fine men and women in the fire service, there is no family member that led the way. I am not the fourth generation firefighter, and I didn’t grow up around firefighters or in a firehouse.
But, as I grew up in the 70’s, the fire service was evolving as well. The decade brought us “Dazed and Confused” and the rise and fall of disco also brought the birth of paramedicine, and much was being done in the public eye that was inconceivable just ten years earlier.
Ambulances equipped with only the most basic of medical supplies and oxygen served only as taxis to the hospitals (so that hasn’t changed much in some places, has it Happy?). Very little life-saving was accomplished in the glorified station wagons with lights and sirens. In fact, ambuli used to be owned and driven by funeral directors. Talk about an opportunity for repeat customers!
The fire department in my home town ran the ambulance when I was old enough to notice. They graduated their first class of paramedics, and a couple of those original guys are still doing their thing on suburban Chicago fire departments today.
Then came the TV show Emergency!
For an impressionable young lad who already “ran to the curb” (as so aptly described by my good friend Tiger Schmittendorf) whenever the screaming sound of fire apparatus approached, the show tipped it in for me.
I was hooked. I wanted to be a paramedic/firefighter.
As soon as I could, I enrolled in an EMT-basic course straight out of high school. I secured a job in a business within running distance of the volunteer fire station owned by a firefighter who, at times, would allow his employees respond to calls from work. So, with EMT
certification in hand, I applied for and quickly secured a spot on the fire department.
While the paramedic side of the fire service was the initial lure for me, that quickly changed. I had the incredible fortune of joining right before an incredible first drill night- an actual burn down of several buildings. They strapped on this air pack thing and sent me crawling in behind a young lieutenant into an interior fire.
No hose line, no water can. Just to experience the heat.
If I remember correctly it was only a burn barrel, but my instructor, Tom, made sure we felt the effects. With extremely limited visibility and very hot temperatures, I made sure Tom felt a little more heat by pulling his 3/4 boot right off his foot as we scrambled out. To this day, he hasn’t forgotten the young rookie who did that to him.
Next up, they wanted to make sure this new guy could climb an extension ladder and a roof ladder, then cut a ventilation hole directly over the fire room. As the third cut was completed, the flap fell in and the fire came exploding out of the hole sending me reeling backward with a revving K-12 almost causing a fall.
Back then, we learned literally in our “trials by fire”. No NFPA 1403 yet in place. Although not nearly as safe, it sure was cool, and definitely served its purpose in a way we don’t see anymore. I had discovered the pure thrill of battling the red devil and this boy was hooked!
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That’s the story, and I’m sticking to it- with pride. I urge all of you to remember how you got your start and what it was that motivated you down the path you took to get you where you are today. I urge you to remember the feeling of excitement and invigoration you felt when you first found out you were to become a firefighter!
It’s what I call feeling stoked, and it’s how I like to end most of my ramblings.
John Mitchell is a fire Lieutenant and paramedic in suburban Chicago.
He is a fire and EMS instructor, certified fire investigator and Chicago