For the past 38 years, I’ve had the honor to work and serve with some of the best firefighters on the planet. It has been an unbelievable ride with plenty of ups and downs: countless fires, emergencies, historic events, and scenes that I could never imagine my eyes would see. Would I change anything? Probably not. I’d sign up to do it all over again. However, there are some things I’d like to mention that might help you out along the way. About 14 years ago, I was blessed to start writing this column, following legends who came before me. I hope it has had some impact and that the following column makes you take a hard look at yourself in the mirror.
In our department, you’ll often hear we’re “taking time”—that could be after a job to shower and put a clean uniform on or even after an EMS run to decontaminate and restock medical supplies. For smaller departments, it may be difficult to do this, but it’s something to look into. If a transferred or relocated company is in your firehouse, they’ll understand when you’re washing the SCBA and face pieces to get the rig ready, knowing it’s just as important to rehydrate the members and get them into clean clothes after a shower to wash off the by-products. Studies have shown that if we’re dehydrated, we’re more likely to have a heart attack, so hydrate during every shift.
I know personally (and I’m not afraid to admit it) that when it was close to shift change and I reeked like a melted pot of burnt food on the stove or a job and there was still time to catch a two-hour nap before running out to the side job, I’d just jump in bed to try to grab a nap so I could have some energy for the day. Never did I think it was that important to jump in the shower with two hours to go. I’d be fine washing my face and hands, throwing on a new T-shirt, while my hair smelled like a vacant building, rubbish, or a few rooms of fire. Sure, the sheets and pillowcase went into the washing machine, but for those two hours, what did I inhale? Was I off-gassing the toxins from the job I just left? Today, they have wipes and antibacterial fluids; keep them on the rig so you can wipe down as soon as possible. Those little pores on your skin just love to absorb materials that land on it; get it off ASAP!
Hoods and Bunker Gear
Hoods have become part of our personal protective equipment (PPE) and are great in protecting us daily while we’re performing our firefighting duties, much like our entire bunker gear ensemble. Too often, we can be seen using our hoods pulled up like we’re robbing a stagecoach in the old days of the Wild West. Sure, I’m probably guilty and will admit it; maybe that pot of cheap material melting on the stove isn’t producing a visible smoke, but if I pull this hood up to cover my nose and mouth, I’ll be able to breathe fine. This is stupidity by many of us, especially when we’re wearing self-contained breathing apparatus on our backs and we carry spare air cylinders on the rig.
One time, a chief heard me go on air shortly after broadcasting over the radio through the regulator: “It smells like food.” He was concerned because things must be bad and let the engine know to get a line ready. In reality, it was my hyper-reactive larynx going into a spasm and not being able to breathe that had me donning my mask so quickly. As for bunker gear and hoods, wash them off after the job and on scene to get the particles of asbestos, lath and plaster, drywall dust (lime, which is hazardous to your lungs), and soot off. I’m not jumping on any bandwagons or invoking any policies, but what I am telling you makes the cab cleaner for your ride back to quarters—and don’t forget about the boots!
Health and Safety
The other day, as the nurse was prepping me for treatment, she said there’s no reason to be nervous. I responded, “Why, is it easier to kneel in front of a burning apartment door than to be here?” Her simple response was, “Because you’re trained to do that,” as she was snapping my mesh mask encompassing my head and shoulders down to the table. As the tongue depressor with a fat piece of foam was inserted into my mouth and the table slid under the radiation machine, I heard, “Okay, here we go,” and then the next thing I heard was the vault’s door lock.
Staring at the ceiling made me flash back to where it all began and what words of wisdom I could possibly have for others. Firefighting is a craft that takes years of dedication to become good at; every fire and incident is surely one you’ll learn from and one that will add experience that will come back to help you. Don’t be so fast to rush it; it takes time.
When you’re experiencing these incidents, be as safe as you can. Yes, I read the warning label inside my helmet that firefighting is an ultrahazardous, unavoidable, dangerous activity, but be prepared as best as possible. Whether it’s from your training or wearing your PPE, be ready for the firefight. Being told you have cancer, needle biopsies, surgery, weekly chemotherapy, and daily radiation aren’t any fun and are painful emotionally and physically. If I have the ability through this column to make an impact on the fire service or one firefighter, I’m going to do it.