Fortresses of Fire


Washington, DC press reports that last Saturday a 77-year-old man collapsed across the street from 26 Engine/15 Truck.

His timing was most unfortunate since persons seeking assistance by knocking repeatedly on the door at the firehouse were turned away.  They were told to call 911.

This kind of stuff happens more often than we think.  I can remember being on duty and standing in the watch office when the station phone rang.  An officer answered and the caller wanted to report a fire.  The officer told her to "hang up and call 911."  I can still remember complimenting the officer on his commonsense and professionalism:  a citizen is trying to report an active fire; she has, in fact, reached the fire department, and you turn her away.  Bully for you.  (He later made battalion chief.)


Knight Errant

Knight Errant

You can search but you won't find a better metaphor for a fire department that has lost its way than the blatant refusal of service.

The essential reason we exist is to save a life.  If your reaction to that opportunity is to "take a pass" using officious rationale as an excuse for laziness or more you have ceased to be a department.

Getting to the point where DCFD is requires sustained effort on the part of labor and management.  It takes almost super-human dedication and effort to screw it up this badly.

Everyone is to blame and it will take everyone to fix it.  It will also take courage and fortitude to buck a "system" where dereliction holds sway.

DC firehouses are mostly castles of knights-errant who are (mostly) happy to fight a fire but deign to engage in tasks they deem of lesser importance.

This past Saturday, the drawbridge was up and 77-year-old Medric Mills, Jr. paid the price.

Not you?

Some DCFD members will howl in indignation that this incident does not describe them or their department.  Unfortunately, yes, it does.

The great news is that you can change that, if you want.  Today and right now. At the company and individual firefighter/paramedic level do not tolerate abusive or dismissive treatment or conduct toward citizens.  If you see or hear it, call it out-of-bounds.  It's bullshit and should not be tolerated.

Here's the tough part about that:  You won't do that until you treat each other with dignity and respect.  Only then can you extend it to the public.  DCFD is deeply divided "six ways to Sunday" and it is the person on the street who pays the price.

FDNY Rescue Company 2

Rescue 2

Rescue 2

I want to finish up with a true story.

When I was in my early 20's, about 35 years ago, I did the coolest thing imaginable:  I rode with FDNY Rescue Company 2 several times.  It was the trailing end of the City's "era of burning" and it was amazing to go from fire to fire, all night long.

Not surprisingly, though I was a wet-behind-the-ears hick, I was treated with perfect kindness and respect at Engine 210 and Rescue 2.  That, in itself, is a lesson I never forgot, that extending hospitality is an essential part of our culture.

During one bitter cold night Rescue Lieutenant Fred Gallagher changed his turnout coat three times because the others were soaked and freezing.

I still have this extraordinary 5AM memory of once again, for about the tenth time, climbing into the back of the box where they had placed a kitchen chair for me to sit on. I could look through the opening and see the chauffeur and the lieutenant.  We had been to several workers throughout the night and had been back asleep for about 90 minutes when the next call came in.

I was exhausted and I hadn't done anything!  As the door swung open, dawn was beginning to break. In an iconic moment, Gallagher swung up into his seat, closed the door, rubbed his right wrist with his left hand, repeated the move on the other side, perhaps a reflexive warding off of fatigue. Then he said, "Let's go."  (It was a worker with fire blowing out of four windows of a Brooklyn brownstone.)

But, that is not why I write of Rescue 2.

On another day, I was hanging out at the fire house as the crews were changing shifts.  It was a balmy afternoon about 5PM.  The bay door was open and firefighters were conversing, moving in and out.  Gallagher had walked in and was standing there in civilian clothes, jeans and a button-down shirt.

Suddenly, a young woman came running into the firehouse screaming that her mother had stopped breathing.  A firefighter calmed her enough to get an address.  It was right around the corner.

By then, the lieutenant, still dressed in his street clothes, ventilator under his arm, was jogging  down the street with his team behind him.

Enough said.



  • Mike says:

    Can't disagree with you on this one! 

    While at work one day I notice our medic unit was out of service , at the time it was one of the busiest in the county. The unit had a new officer on it and thinking something bad happen to them I enquirer their whereabouts. This new officer had put the unit out of service so he could go to the office to complain in person about his pay status. When they went back in service I ask them to return to the station and explain why he did that. He had a great answer "was I suppose to do that on my day off" . I ask him what about our customers the public, another great answer F them, well after the ass chewing I got a phone call from a BC telling me I hurt his feelings . This is when I new change had come we no longer employeed firefighters we now had real employees. I am sorry that women got a employee when she ask for help. I think we still have a lot of firefighters  working in today's firehouses we just have to make sure they don't get beat down for answering the door the right way.

  • Junior says:

    Do the right thing.  Treat each citizen as if they were a family member; respect is earned in this job by supporting and caring for our fellow man.  Employees in the Fire Service are the product of corporatizing and analyzing our profession.  We replace blue collar work with over-educated, self loathing, analytical methodology compliant kids that have never turned a wrench, dug a hole, or pounded a nail in their lives and promote them to Chief.  Show me a veteran of our military looking for a job; I will show you the most noble and loyal firefighter for a career you could ever be blessed to work with!  Get back to the basics in the Fire Service and provide a service at the door, in the store, at the curbside, and at the bumper of the truck.  We owe it to these people:  we as firefighters have The Best Job in the WORLD!

  • Jon Lockwood says:

    Amen junior! I completely agree with your statement. Keep that attitude because it is absolutely the right one. Never do this job for you… Do it for those we are so fortunate to serve. Keep safe Brother!

  • Mike Schwartz says:

    As a civilian DC resident, I appreciate your commentary. As a civilian, I can tell you that this hurts the image of ALL firefighters everywhere and will take a long time to undo that impression.

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