Discover more from ULTRAPHYSICAL
Rookie Year in the Fire Department
Two months into my new job and every day feels like hell. Between dealing with being treated like a child by my new co-workers, barely understanding my life-threatening job and extreme sleep deprivation, I’m somehow keeping my head on straight.
But if there is one thing that really makes me dread coming into work, it’s dealing with the driver of the fire engine: Luke. A savvy, mechanically inclined, thrill seeker from a rough part of New York City with a sharp sense for the game of firefighting. I’m intimidated by his knowledge, and he nitpicks everything I do: how I deploy a hose line, throw ladders, handle the stretcher on medical calls, clean toilets, mop the floors, and even chop tomatoes. I can’t deny that he’s under my skin. I want to do well, but coming into work feels like torture.
His expectations are incredibly high, and I feel the crushing pressure at every corner I turn. And after being burnt out from six grueling months in the fire academy, I have no idea how I’ll muster up the energy to survive here without my fellow recruits. All eyes are on me, and me alone.
Although Luke has said he cares about my success, I feel like I’m being suffocated by an overbearing parent. Because anything I do, he told me, becomes a reflection on him, good or bad. He told me that people would fuck with me a lot this year, but that’s a good thing, because if the crew makes fun of you, that means they like you. But if they are silent around you…they don’t want your ass there. He told me rookie year is where you soak up as much information as possible to become the best you can be. “Be a sponge,” he told me. But god damnit, this is overwhelming. And since I don’t have any firefighting experience nor am I blue collar, I’m a fish out of water getting cooked on a grill. I feel like I can’t do anything right.
But what I’m most anxious about is when am I going to get a fire. I’d like to get this over with because the anticipation is killing me. I’ve been called to so many false alarms in the past month but nothing real. And whenever we’re going to those calls, what I’m really scared of is not being trapped and burnt alive in the rubble of someone’s house; it’s that I won’t perform at the level I should in front of my experienced driver and that he’ll embarrass me. How is that I fear that more than death?
Yet, I can’t escape this ominous sensation that maybe all these false alarms are just getting me ready for the big one.
If the big one was to happen though, I hope it’s today. Why? Luke is on vacation. A matter of fact so is my captain and everyone else on my shift. It feels so relieving, like I can just breathe for a second. Even if I make a mistake, I won’t catch a verbal assault from him like it’s the end of the world. God, I hate dealing with his temper. Thinking about him just fills me with rage. I know I have to play nice to get through this year but what I really want to do is snap his god damn neck.
I know I won’t do that but the reality is I feel so alone. It feels like everyone from every shift at that station is against me.
But the Captain filling the spot today, nicknamed “Boulder”, was anything but nasty. Bald in the middle with a short round stature, he was welcoming and told me “We’re going to take it easy.” That surprised me. Is this a trick? We’ll see.
We went to a fire alarm and a couple of medical calls, but other than that, we didn’t do much. We rode around in the firetruck with Boulder blasting Linkin Park through the speakers. This guy seems cool. We ended up at a neighboring station in the wealthiest part of town and everyone joked around with one another while I stood and listened. It’s 2 o’clock and I’m starving. Should I say something? I don’t want to take away from these guys’ free time. I’ll suck it up.
I ran into a former crew member of mine, covered in tattoos, who had transferred stations because of how much he hated our regular captain. He fist bumped me and asked how I was doing.
“Oh you know, I’m doing pretty good.”
“Is Luke still riding your ass?”
I know I shouldn’t tell the whole truth, that he rides my ass with a saddle and spur boots and he’ll turn me into glue if I trip up or don’t know how to do something. But I was suffering. I just wanted someone to hear my pain. “Yeah, he does, but it’s ok, I’m learning a lot overall. In the end it’s going to be a lot better for me.”
“Aight. Well, just don’t wear yourself out man.”
It’s now 2:45 pm and we’re finally back at the station. I’m so hungry I can feel my brain switching to battery saver mode; I can barely think. But, at least I’m finally going to eat the left over beans, rice and chicken that I had made two days ago. I give myself a hefty helping in a bowl and heat it in the microwave. That smell wafting through the gaps is making my mouth water.
I sit down at the dinner table, fork in hand and start digging in. I’d rather have food in my stomach just in case we got a call right now. Historically, I’ve never been able to function on an empty stomach; I just shut down. So, luckily, I was almost done with my meal when the dispatch alarms went off. I wonder what it is this time.
“Engine, Medic, response—garden apartment fire.”
No time to digest; my body is galvanized by adrenaline. I spring out of my seat, bursting through the bay doors to the fire truck with everyone else. Surprisingly, everything feels smooth as I just focus on my breathing. So much pressure is off now that I’m not being watched like a hawk. I throw my hood on, slip on my boots, pull up my trousers and flip my coat on quickly. I just have to remember, slow is smooth and smooth is fast. I get in my seat, as the lights and sirens come on and we race down the main road to the incident.
We’re speeding down the highway and clearing traffic like Moses splitting the Red Sea. Although, I don’t know anybody I’m working with, I feel more comfortable than ever.
Boulder is talking to command over the radio while also giving the driver directions to the apartment and locations of nearby hydrants. As much as he’s had to deal with, he was a 30-year veteran of the department, so he’s at home.
He tells us what radio channel we are on and what our assignment is. “Ok, boys, were operating on delta and we’re third due.”
I didn’t know much, but when he said third due, meaning we would be the third hose company on scene, I knew what I was going to do. Pull the 400-foot hose line and go around the back of the structure. I had read that in the garden apartment manual for the department. So that’s what I’m sticking to.
As we make it into the street surrounded by brick garden apartments, grassy knolls and trees, I’m putting my mind at ease even as I see crowds of people on the outskirts watching us roll in. A ladder truck is right in front of us along with a bunch of other units. Now that I think about it, this might be the real thing; the big one. Whether it is or isn’t, I’m pulling that 400-foot line. My heart is racing but I keep the panic isolated to my body and not in my mind.
We hop out as the airbrakes hiss. Boulder buckles the waste strap to his air pack and looks at me.
“Captain, I’m gonna’ grab the—”
“Grab the 400, Danny!” he cuts me off.
“Yes sir!” Great minds think alike? I hop up on the back bumper and grab the nozzle and stack of hose piled on top of it. It lands on my shoulder, and my backseat partner, a chubby paramedic with dirty blonde hair nicknamed Meatloaf, grabs the first “drag load” and then the second. Christ, this hose line is massive. Boulder grabs another 100 feet of hose from a side compartment just in case we came up short.
“Head down there!” Boulder ordered.
I started running, which ended up tugging my partner behind me.
“DON’T RUN! WALK!” Boulder yelled at me.
I slowed down, giving me too much time to see the crowd getting bigger through my peripheral. Maybe this is why Luke’s expectations are so high: he doesn’t want me to screw up in front of the public.
We weaved through the trees to the grassy courtyard where the apartment was. Another hose company was blasting high pressure water into a third floor balcony that was charred and still smoking. The thud of the water pounding the ceiling was thunderous. The firefighter on the nozzle was grunting in pain from handling the force of the hose for so long. I could see him wincing.
Oh. This is real.
“Hey, I’m all out of line!” Meatloaf yells.
“Danny, get that nozzle off! We gotta extend the line!” Boulder orders.
I drop the last of the 400-foot hose from my shoulder onto the grass. I unscrew the nozzle while a crowd of fifty people stands watching with horror and curiosity. I can feel the pressure coming on. Just focus Danny. Boulder drops the free-standing 100-foot stack of hose off his shoulder, and Meatloaf connects it. As I move closer to the action, evening out my section of hose to prevent kinks, I hear Boulder yelling again.
“Hey! Move that ladder to the balcony!”
I look up at this humongous 35-foot ladder, leaning on the brick by the burnt-away railings. There’s no way I’m dropping this shit in front of all these people. I turn back to Meatloaf who is putting his air mask on.
“Hey! Help me move this! Can you help me move this!”
God damnit man, he’s taking forever. I thought experienced firefighters were supposed to be fast at this.
“Come on boys! Get that ladder moved!”
“Shit.” I look back at the 137-pound ladder. Should I roll it over to the balcony? No, not taking that chance. “Let’s get this moved! Let’s do a beam lower!” I yell. I hope he knows what I mean.
Finally, my partner and I pushed this ladder up straight in the midst of the chaos, lowered it down on its side, and moved it to place on the balcony. When it was done, Boulder came back over, fired up.
“Danny, grab the line, were going up!”
“Yes sir!” Alright, here we go. I mask up quickly, taking my first breath through the regulator on a real incident. This is surreal. Everything is moving a mile a minute. Then, I grab the nozzle and sling it over my shoulder.
Boulder bolts up the ladder and I follow behind with the dry hose, the nozzle clanking on my thigh. The firefighter on the ground is still spraying water into the unit. What the fuck. The stream of water is just whizzing by my face like liquid bullets as I hear gasps from the crowd. He’s waving it back and forth, spraying me as I ascend up the slippery rungs. Every muscle in my body is tensing, now clasping onto the rails for dear life thirty feet in the air. Smoke and steam make my vision hazy, and my gear is getting soaked. Two months in and this how I die, by getting knocked off a ladder. Underneath the 80 pounds of weight I carry, my heart is beating out my chest. They didn’t teach us this shit in the academy. Dear god.
Luckily, we make it to the top and hop over the balcony that looks like burnt firewood. How the fuck is this not going to collapse under our weight?! Although wobbly, it s=is stable enough. I take a deep breath, thankful that I’m alive, and start dragging the hose onto the balcony. The sliding glass doors into the living room were shattered from the blistering heat so we have easy access inside. We mov into the dark and smoky living room, and the couches and TV are littered with soot.
“Pull that line in!” Boulder orders again. I yank as much as hose I can into the unit. But now I’m nervous. Should I get on the radio and call for water? Fuck it, I’m standing around doing nothing, I’ll do it.
“NO!” Boulder yells, “DON’T CHARGE IT!”
Boulder goes to the railing and ties a knot around the hose so the water weight doesn’t drag it back to the ground. “Stand on the line!” he says to me. Then, he gets on the radio and tells the driver to send us water. As the hose fills up, other firefighters come climbing through the balcony and front door with iron hooking tools.
“Danny, go check the bedrooms for extension!”
“Yes sir!” I drag the hose to the back bedrooms only to find light smoke and no fire as the other crews conduct a quick search for anybody still inside.
Boulder looked at my partner, who’s already exhausted.
“Grab a tool Meatloaf! Were going to work!” Everyone inside started poking and tearing down the ceiling tile, exposing charred joists in the cockloft. Lath and plaster debris crashed down onto my helmet, white ashes covering my face piece.
As crews tore the apartment apart, checking for fire in hidden spaces, I did my job and sat there with the hoseline. I scanned my surroundings, realizing that I’m in someone’s home. Its unnerving. I saw family photos by the flat screen TV, prized memories of the families son and daughter in middle school graduation photos. It’s sad, but this is reality. No disaster I’ve seen on the news can compare to being in it. This family’s home was destroyed. Luckily, they were all alive.
When my partner went onto vibe alert, meaning his airpack notified him that he was low on air, we all had to exit down the ladder. The sun was shining bright after emerging from the darkness, and it felt nice. Despite the tragedy of the incident, I had never been so thrilled in my life. I really had to hold myself back because my body was rushing with endorphins and all I wanted to scream was FUCK YEAH MOTHERFUCKER, THAT WAS MOST BADASS SHIT EVER! FUCK YEAH! YOU SEE THAT SHIT!? I took my coat off, completely drenched in sweat.
There must have been sixty firefighters there total and sixty residents. The residents were cheering us on as a couple of women with big smiles screamed, “You are heroes!”
I saw one of my fellow recruits in the crowd, one of the strongest and most respected in our class. He was surprised.
“Danny!? Oh shit! You were up there?”
“Yeah,” I said catching my breath, “I went line over ladder.”
“Ok, ok, I see you, doing big things out here!”
Another respected lieutenant I worked with my first week out came up to me right afterwards.
“Danny?! Holy shit, I thought that was you.”
“Yup...it’s me alright.”
“Yeah, I got here and all I saw was Wang’ going up the ladder and I was like ‘that motherfucker.’ Outstanding job man. I’ll tell Luke you did a good job.”
I inhaled deeply. I was so relieved. Maybe this would ease things up at the station a bit. I didn’t know if I would have been able to perform that well if Luke was here. I felt like the universe was looking out for me.
We all had to get checked out by paramedics afterwards to make sure our vital signs were fine. One of the medics looked at the monitor than back at me with concern. “Hey man, looks like you caught a little bit of Carbon Monoxide in there.”
My gut wrenched.
“Oh, that’s not good.”
“Yeah man, you just gotta make sure the seal on your mask is tighter next time, but you’ll be fine.”
“Whoa, that’s not joke—will do.”
Later on, my crew and I were cleaning up and re-racking all the hoses. It took a while but when we finished, Boulder was jumping around with joy. “I got you your first fire! I got you your first fire!” He complimented all of us on a job well done.
I’m lucky I ate that whole bowl of rice and chicken before this, cause I would have been completely dysfunctional. When we got back, I walked past the dinner table. The entire bowl of food was there, completely full. I swore I ate the whole thing. But I only had two bites. I guess I can do more than I think.
Danny Wang is a professional Firefighter/EMT, writer, and an avid practitioner of Brazilian Jiu-Jijtsu.