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musings of an ex-volunteer firefighter

This can alternately be titled “musings of a retired volunteer firefighter.” Either way, it gives me a feeling of accomplishment to say it like that, like I actually served as a firefighter in a meaningful capacity, and didn’t just run away screaming after my first contact with a(n albeit controlled) fire situation.

Despite my fear of fire, fires have always seemed like rather bright and cheerful things. Candles, for instance, are pretty, and smell good, and add a nice ambiance to any setting. And, I always thought it would be a bit of a no-brainer to be a fireman. You go into a building which is bright with illuminating flames, run over to the fire, and hit it with your hose. It might take a while, but if you stand there pouring water on it long enough, it will eventually go out. Also, I have always loved firemen. Without the ability to throw people in jail, the authority never really gets to their heads.

But where I come from, you can’t just show up at the fire hall, say, “Hi, I want to be a fireman,” and they let you in. No. There is an official fire school, it lasts about a year, you have to pay to go to it, and then you have to graduate. It’s really hard, from what I hear, and you have to run around with weighted vests doing pull-ups. However, here on the Outer Banks, there is no paid fire department. It’s all on a volunteer basis, and since most people don’t want to risk their lives to fight fire without monetary compensation, the Volunteer Fire Department is very happy to see you when you show up. They’ll take anyone, regardless of age or size, even people who are afraid of fire (although to be fair, I didn’t actually tell them that part). But really, they are the most non-discriminating bunch I have ever met in my life, and all you have to do to be a Volunteer Firefighter is to show up at the fire hall at 7 o’clock on a Monday night and they’ll let you in. Or, at 6:30, if you want to partake of the free meal they cook for you. So that is what I do, the Monday after my house almost burns down. I show up at the Volunteer Fire Department, and just like that, I’m a Volunteer Firefighter. They even vote me in at a board meeting.

I continue to do this for about a month: I show up for at 6:30, get my plate of food, and then wait. And wait. I want to go back for seconds, but I don’t. So I wait some more. Seven o’clock comes and goes, and we’re all just sitting there until about 7:30, when a few more stragglers come in and complain when they see that there’s no food left. Now that I’ve been doing this for a while, I’m starting to get annoyed by everyone always being so late, and I want to shout, “There’d be food left if you’d BEEN ON TIME!” There are other things I could be doing right now, other things I want to be doing right now, like sweating miserably through a work out, but no. I’m sitting in the second floor of a fluorescently-lit living room of a house which has been converted to a classroom of sorts, with the smell of garlic bread and overcooked green beans in the air, and I’m completely out of patience.

I’ve already read everything written on the blackboard a few times, and even though I get a kick out of the list of running jokes that someone has written up there about Ken Mason, whose scariness appears to be legendary among the other volunteers (ie, Ken Mason doesn’t get wet – water gets Ken Mason’ed; Ghosts sit around the campfire telling Ken Mason stories), they haven’t added any new jokes since the last time and there’s only so much boredom and time-wasting I can take.

Finally, the lecture begins, but it’s interspersed with a lot of long drawn-out anecdotes about stories from the past, and lots of meaningless commenting from the other volunteers, and there’s a lot of time spent talking about the next great tragedy that will surely strike. “We know it’s gonna happen, it’s just a matter of WHEN,” they muse. “We all know how bad the shoulder is up by Pea Island … a tour bus filled with fifty old blue-hairs is just waiting to drive off the shoulder and roll, and we need to be prepared!”

In my mind’s eye, an image of a bus with an evil smile, revving up on the side of the road getting ready to make its big move, is quickly replaced with an image of a bunch of blue-haired ladies, hanging upside down from their seatbelts, trapped and screaming inside of a bus along Highway 12 with their heads on fire, and I want to shout, “ENOUGH! Can we stop sitting around talking about it and get out there and DO something?” I’m highly annoyed, and what ends up being 15 minutes of information takes an hour and a half for the Chief to impart, and we still have to do the Drill. It’s now past my bedtime, and I have a 30 minute commute home.

The night’s drill is this: in teams of two, follow a live water hose to its bitter end, through an obstacle course that has been set up in the fire station, find the downed firefighter, and drag him to safety. We’re 1) blindfolded, because – I’m shocked to learn – you can’t see anything inside a burning building. You can’t? Why not? Fire seems so bright; and 2) the trainers throw things down on top of you and bang things with a hammer, to simulate what happens to you in a fire. What? That’s what happens to you in a fire? People throw things at you? The only part of Backdraft I really remember is Billy Baldwin having sex in a fire truck. I don’t remember the part where people throw things at people.

We suit up in our firefighter costumes, which is only supposed to take a few seconds, but which takes me 5 minutes or more. God help the people who are waiting for me to come put out their fire. I picture a husband and wife, standing at the window of a flame-engulfed room, shaking their heads and tapping at their wristwatches, as I come screaming around the corner on two wheels in the ladder truck, 20 minutes late, steering the wheel with one hand and dressing myself with the other. But, this is the part I love, the costumes, only they don’t like it when I call them costumes. I’m supposed to call them “Turnout Gear.” The big baggy pants with suspenders is a really good look for me. It makes my arms look more defined and I wish I could wear them all the time. Since I’ve just started, I have to borrow someone’s boots and they’re way too big on me, and I don’t really like the hood, or the helmet which is so heavy that my neck is sore for days afterwards just trying to hold my head up. Then we put on the airtank and mask which is also not fun because it’s heavy and awkward and feels a bit claustrophobic. Then they blindfold us, which I’m thinking is still just a mean trick.

I’m paired off with Barry, who runs the island karaoke on Wednesday nights, only then, it’s not called Karaoke, it’s called Barry-oke. Barry has been a volunteer firefighter for a while, and knows what he is doing, so he goes in first. I’m his backup, which means I’m supposed to stay with him at all times by holding onto his boot with my right hand but this is hard because 1) I can’t feel much through the thick protective glove that I’m wearing, and because 2) I’m also supposed to be using my right hand to feel my way along the water-filled hose at the same time, and my right hand is having a hard time doing these two things at once. My right hand is also supposed to be doing a third thing during this time, which is to read the coupling of the hoses to tell me if I’m going towards the fire or away from it, but I’ll be damned if I can do these three very hard things at once, so I give up on the hose and the coupling and just concentrate on Barry’s boot, which seems to be my only chance of survival. I can’t use my left hand for any of those tasks, because my left hand is busily employed with holding an axe and sweeping it along the floor in front of me (while trying not to whack Barry in the crotch) and to the side of me, to clear the path of obstacles and look for victims, although if I sweep too hard and hit a victim’s head, I’m surely going to kill him. I briefly wonder if anyone has ever died like that before: “Yeah, sorry … he survived the fire, but I accidentally killed him with my axe.”

Here is what I realize, about three seconds into it: firefighters don’t have enough hands; thus, they’re doing an impossible job. It is simply not possible to be a firefighter. Suddenly, I no longer care about finding the downed firefighter inside the building: my only goal is to make it through the drill. I try to center myself, pull myself back into myself, squinting all my energy to a point right in front of my nose. I feel remote and contained, buried deep inside the hollow coffin of my turnout gear. I could easily have a panic attack, but I really need to get through this. Breathe, I tell myself, just breathe, and that’s all I can do, focus on my breathing, while simultaneously and blindly following Barry’s boot up into a fire truck and out the other side, sure if this was a real situation I would not make it out alive. My boots fall off twice and the helpers who are throwing stuff at us and banging on pipes have to stop throwing stuff at us and help me put my boots back on, which can’t be a good thing because I’m pretty sure I won’t have the luxury of having 2 men following me around making sure I’m properly attired in the event of an actual fire, and then it turns out that I haven’t tightened my helmet correctly on the inside, so it too falls off twice, and they have to help me with that too, and everything is so heavy and hard and I have no idea what I am doing other than scraping along the floor behind Barry’s boot. It’s just too much.

About 8 minutes later, with no help from me, Barry gets to the end of the hose, finds the victim, and we drag the victim out. Actually, Barry drags the victim out. I just stand there and pretend to pull at the victim’s arm, and then finally, it’s over, and we can turn off our tanks and take off our masks, which is trickier than it sounds because of the gloves, and actually a little scary because if you do it wrong you run the risk of cutting off your air supply for a few seconds. Even though we were only in there for about 10 minutes, I’m as sweaty as if I’d been through an hour and a half of Hot Yoga. And, I’m panting. It may have been the most intense 10 minutes of my life.

This is when I stop thinking that the other volunteers who actually know what they’re doing are just a bunch of guys who wanted to be firemen when they were kids, and that this is their way of acting out their fantasies. I stop likening them to the inept firemen in the movie Roxanne, who get blown back fifty yards whenever anyone turns on the fire hose. (“So, how was class last night?” “Well, did you ever see Roxanne, where the firemen run around like idiots? It was kind of like that. It was awesome! Those guys are amazing!”) This is when I gain a whole new respect for the Volunteer Firemen of Chicamacomico Banks. How anyone has ever successfully put out a fire without dying during the process is astounding to me, and that the whole world isn’t currently burning out of control becomes a source of constant wonder.

However, I still get mad the next week when they all come in late, complaining that there’s no food left, and wasting my time with stupid stories that have nothing to do with anything, so I am happy to hear that the following week, we will finally get to go down to the Burn Building in Buxton, and put out a fire. The head guy from Rescue One in New York will be in town and he’ll lead us through the paces and keep us all safe. A Burn Building, I’m told, is a completely controlled environment – a building explicitly designed for fire training – and the guys in charge know exactly what’s going on at all times, so there is no chance that any of us will die. See? This is why I still don’t believe them about not being able to see inside a burning building. Did they really need to just blindfold us? If it is completely controlled, and everyone knows what’s going on, you must be able to see. They probably just blindfolded us so that when we actually get into a burn situation, it will be that much easier, a pleasant surprise.

That week, I go to the fire station and I get all my gear that fits, and I practice putting it on, and I familiarize myself with the air tank and mask, because the last thing I want to do is look like a tool in front of the Rescue One guy from New York.

We get to the Burn Building at around 6:15, and start gearing up. The Rescue One guy is older and very compact, and it is obvious he knows his stuff. He lived through 911, for crying out loud. He has also brought a younger friend with him, to help, who at first I don’t think is anything all that special when he’s just standing there, but when he goes running into the building in his gear like a confident hero who knows what he’s doing, and then comes running back out, whipping his hat off to reveal a sooty black smudge across his cheek, I suddenly think he’s the sexiest man alive. And I think this even more so, once I’ve been into the building for the actual drill myself. I am filled with awe.

How is it possible to know what to do? How do you find the fire? You can’t see. Seriously, you cannot see anything, I soon learn, inside of a burning building. “Well,” he tells me, in a Brooklyn accent that I do my best to ignore, because when heroes speak to me in my mind, they aren’t speaking with Brooklyn accents. “As soon as I open the door, I drop to the floor and there’s usually an inch of clarity and I can sometimes see the fire that way.” He can see the fire through a measly old inch wearing that stupid mask? He is a GOD, and I fall 5 degrees hotter in love. It all seems so impossible to me, how a person can know so much about what to do, because every situation is different. There are so many things that can go wrong, things that you don’t know about the building. You don’t know the layout, you don’t know if the floor immediately in front of you has caved in, you don’t know where the piano is until you crash into it, you don’t know if something is suddenly going to explode. How does anyone survive? How can you know all that stuff? “Oh, it’s easy,” he says and I swoon again. There is nothing more hot than a competent man who can save me from a burning building.

So then it’s my turn, and I suit up way too early because I don’t want to be the last slowpoke that holds up everyone else. I stand around for 15 minutes feeling like Randy from the Christmas Story, in all my heavy gear. If I fall down, I’m not going to be able to get back up. Did I mention that it’s August? My nose gets itchy under my mask but I can’t scratch it and it’s all I can think about for the 15 minutes that I’m standing there all proper and stiff like a fire-geek while everyone else is lounging around nonchalantly, confident enough in their gear-putting-on abilities that they can leave it until the last minute. Not me! I’m so worried about leaving an exposed piece of skin that I have at least three people give me a gear check.

Since it will be my first time going into an actual building with fire in it, my role is simply to observe. I get the easy job. All I have to do is hang onto the Captain’s boot and watch what everyone else is doing. Plus, the Captain is a big strapping fellow whose sheer bulk makes me feel safe. He’ll definitely be able to carry me out if I collapse, and I fear that I might. So many things can go wrong. What if my mask stops working? It could. I will not be able to fix it because of my heavy gloves. How do firemen survive, I wonder for the twenty-millionth time.

I feel like now would be a good time to come clean and tell them all that I’m so afraid of fire I can barely light a match, but it seems a little unfair to be springing this on them so late in the game, so I follow the Captain into the building, despite what I feel is the beginning of a panic attack. “Stay on the ground,” he shouts. “What?” I say. It’s hard to hear anything with all that gear on. Plus, fire isn’t just hot; it’s also very noisy.

I am here to tell you firsthand (if it wasn’t already abundantly clear by now) that you really can’t see anything inside a building on fire. It really is that dark, you might as well be blind, and it is very very very very hot. We’d even done a walk-through before the building was completely ready for us, so that should’ve helped me with the lay of the land, but it didn’t, so it was a good thing I was hanging onto the captain’s boot, otherwise, I wouldn’t have known where to go. You’re supposed to feel your way with your hands, but how do you do that while sweeping with an axe with one hand, and holding onto someone’s boot with another? Again, the “not enough hands for the job” issue rears its ugly head. Five seconds in and I’m glad that I don’t have a role other than observer, because there’s no way I could be doing anything productive in here, like putting out a fire or rescuing someone’s screaming baby. And if truth be told, I wasn’t even doing a good job as an observer. Again, just like in the drill, I immediately stop trying to do anything except self-survive. I can’t be caring about anyone else right now, so nobody else better need my help; they really better have this thing under control like they promised. It hits me that all I’ve done tonight is dress up in a costume and follow a large man around in a burning building on my hands and knees. At least my boots didn’t fall off this time, but otherwise, that’s about it. But also, “observe”? Even if I WAS doing my job, who are they kidding? I couldn’t see a thing! I couldn’t observe properly if I wanted to. I completely failed in my role as an observer.

Finally, we make it out, and while most people have to go in twice, I only have to do that one tour, since it’s getting late, and the REAL people need the experience, and at this point I’m just a waste of time. In the event of a real fire, no one is taking me along with them as backup.

The next week, I skip my first meeting. The next day, the Chief stops by my office. Busted! When you live on an island with only one road going through it and you drive a yellow jeep with 4 big fat headlights on top, it’s kind of hard to hide. “I just wanted to make sure we didn’t scare you away,” he says. The Chief is a kindly man, slightly built with sad eyes – the kind of man you’re happy to learn is married because otherwise you’d feel responsible for his happiness – and I hate to let him down.

“It’s not your fault,” I want to reassure him. “I was afraid of fire before you ever came on the scene,” but I don’t say this. I tell him I was busy at work, which is true, but not the real reason. I also tell him that I’m better off being one of the people who don’t actually go into the fire itself but who stand around and tell everyone where all the gear is on the truck, but truthfully, I really don’t want to spend time learning about where everything is on a truck because tools and hardware bore me, so I’m just buying time.

I don’t go the week after that, and the next week we’re evacuated off the island for Hurricane Irene. I plan on stopping by the station on my way out, to make sure they’ll be covered during the storm, not that I would have stayed if they hadn’t been (I’m also afraid of hurricanes), but in my rush to get off the island, I forget to stop by, and by the time I return to the island, four weeks later, I feel like too much time has passed, and plus, my heart’s just not really into it anymore. Maybe when the Rescue One guys come back I’ll join up again, so I can watch them running confidently into a burning building like the heroes that they are.

And that’s it. As suddenly as it started, I have retired from the Volunteer Fire Department. I wonder if they’ll let me keep the baggy pants and suspenders as a parting prize.

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