The firefighter of old is vanishing or has vanished.
He has been replaced by a paramedic who texts and tweets and Facebooks.
You can go into a firehouse in the middle of the day and The View is on the tube. Someone is watching it, too.
There is ethnic diversity in the fire service today. There have been women firefighters for a generation. (It took a while before they got their own bathrooms). I am sure there are gay firefighters. No one cares. Competence — skill and strength — are all that matter.
Change is constant in life. The fire service has changed and is changing.
For the worse: The smart phone and the weight room have taken firefighters away from the kitchen and the comradeship that has bound firefighters for generations.
For the better: EMTs and medics are saving 70 percent of stroke and heart attack victims by treating them on the spot, instead of throwing them on a stretcher and pressing the pedal to the hospital. They used to save about 25 percent.
I went to the Toledo Firefighters Museum, an incredible place. Every Toledoan should go there — for the fun of it and the education. There I met John Repp, the curator. He served 28 years as a firefighter and another 33 years building this monument to the fire service. And Bob Schwanzl, former deputy chief. He served 36.5 years and is still revered. He often speaks at firefighter funerals. The young guys know who he is. That’s a good thing.
I saw Toledo Fire and Rescue’s first fire wagon — hand driven, hand operated. It took 20 guys, 10 on each side, to pump. I saw the horse-drawn wagons that came next. I saw the hose tower, used to dry the hoses. And the first steamers.
Change has been the watchword at the fire service from the start.
The fire service reinvents itself constantly. It has to. But duty and service do not change.
Today the job is largely medical care for the poor and invisible. A device called LUCAS pumps a human being’s stopped heart. Unlike a man pumping a victim’s chest, it can stay steady. That saves lives. That’s a good thing too.
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The two lieutenants who guided me, both from the class of 1988 — Brian Henry and Ron Kay — have seen as many changes in firefighting as your grandfather saw in his life. From no masks to total protective covering; from being essentially helpless bystanders at medical emergencies to being medical caregivers; from an all-white male firefighting force to a department of diversity. There are two simple metrics by which progress is evaluated in the fire service: Are more people’s lives saved? Are firefighters safer? And by those measures, the fire service in Toledo keeps getting better and better.
Firefighters are technicians and even scientists now.
They understand what makes “disposable homes” and cheap fast food buildings so dangerous. They await the official NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) reports on the deaths of firefighters in Toledo and Boston. Not for finger-pointing. That's not how those reports work. But so they can learn. Those findings will be eagerly absorbed by all.
One day I watched older firefighters drill young ones in how to use the Jaws of Life. They took two old cars completely apart. The equipment is heavy and dangerous and everyone, no matter size and gender, must learn to handle it. It was cold the day they were doing this drill. A cold day tearing pieces of steel apart. This is “downtime” in the fire service.
We watched, together, film of a fire in Stockton, Calif. “Get water on it,” they all shouted, as if yelling at a football team and its coach. “Get off the freaking roof.”
Those men in Stockton are distant brothers. The tie that binds is this singular, poorly understood vocation, its risks, and the common weight of duty.
Four Toledo firefighters were killed in the “Trail” fire in June of 1961. That was the worst. But two were killed this year — Jamie and Stephen. Jamie had a 1-month-old child.
For a peak salary of roughly $60,000 a year, these men and women run into fire to save people like you and me. They go to the central city in the dead of night to rescue people we will never see, leading lives we don’t want to know about. A few years ago, a fireman was shot on what at first seemed to be a relatively routine rescue run in the city. He lived, but had to retire. And that broke his heart.
The men and women of Toledo Fire and Rescue operate mostly below our radar. They come into our minds when we need them (911) or a tragedy occurs (Magnolia Street). Ostensibly, they work for us. But really, they work for each other. I think they do what they do mostly for the satisfaction of doing something very hard.
There are firefighters still active and working who have pulled dead children out of a burned home. They are not over it. They never will be.
Deputy Chief Brian Byrd told me that virtually every intersection and corner in this city holds a sad memory for him and that for years he avoided a particular intersection in the Old West End — taking the long way around so he would not recall what was all too easy, and too painful, to recall.
No one on Toledo Fire and Rescue is over the Magnolia Street fire. They never will be.
And yet …
Chief Byrd said to me: “What other profession is there where you want to go to work every day, where every day is different, and you feel like you made a difference — every day.” He told me a story: Not long ago, he went into a restaurant with his wife and two sons. He saw a man come into the dining room who seemed eerily familiar. Then the man’s wife. Same thing. Then his son. The same again. How did he know these people? The chief’s wife said, “You always think you know everyone.” Chief Byrd finally figured it out. He and his brothers had resuscitated that man. Saved his life. He remembered the wife and son because he’d taken them aside to distract them while the medics worked on her husband and his Dad. That man was alive and having dinner because of Toledo Fire and Rescue.
That’s a good feeling, said Chief Byrd.
Did he identify himself to the man in the restaurant?
No. He met the man’s eyes on the way out and said “hey.”
Every firefighter I asked to evaluate his profession, bar none, told me the same thing. Every single one of them told me he had “the best job in the world.”
Keith C. Burris is a columnist for The Blade.
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