Examining 40-plus fire service years: 3 stories of impact and influence
Reflections on the pain of loss but also the promise community risk reduction
If you have 40-plus years in the fire service and want to share a compelling story, please email firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss how to submit an article.
Picture it: 1981. Once a famous actor, California Governor Ronald Reagan is sworn in as the 40th president of the United States; NASA launches the first Space Shuttle, Sandra Day O’Conner is the first female associate justice appointed to the Supreme Court; Microsoft launches the first household personal computer with MS-DOS; and this 16-year-old preacher’s kid rode his bicycle down to the neighborhood firehouse to sign up.
It was a simpler time then. Gas was about $1.20 per gallon, the internet as we know it didn’t exist, a decent new car cost about $8,000 and a new custom fire engine could be purchased for about $125,000. Maryland’s “basic” fire school was an 80-hour course, and EMT certification could be achieved after successful completion of 120 hours of training.
I am an anomaly in the fire service in that no one from my family has fire service roots.
My father was a World War II Marine, a mailman and Baptist minister, concurrently, for more than 30 years. After raising my older brother and me, my mom earned her master’s degree and spent 20 years as a private school teacher and counselor. My older brother went on to be a letter carrier (just recently retired), while my younger brother became a Baptist minister – he’s still got lots of years left in him! And then there’s me.
Public service was in my upbringing, and for as long as I can remember, I would ride my bicycle down to the fire station, first sitting outside watching the goings-on, truck-washing, responding, drills and various other activities that we’ll leave for a different day. As soon as I turned 16 and could join as a junior volunteer member, my parents signed on, and the rest is history.
From a career perspective, after graduating high school, I applied to the fire department, police department and the Secret Service. The Prince George’s County (Maryland) Fire Department was the first to call, so here we are.
As I reflect on more than 40 years in the fire service, I want to share three of the most impactful events or involvements that steered my journey. The first story began when I was a volunteer firefighter/EMT with the Bowie Volunteer Fire Department in Prince George’s County, Maryland.
Drinking and driving: 19 classmates lost
It was an era of experimentation for teenagers, and alcohol and marijuana were prevalent temptations for us all. My parents were teetotalers, so I suppose it was my upbringing that gave me the strength to resist the peer pressure to indulge drugs and alcohol.
Unfortunately, over the course of four years, my class faced painful lessons in the consequences of drinking and driving. As a young EMT, I responded and had some part in picking up 19 of my classmates – and I don’t mean picking them up and dusting them off but rather picking up the pieces of victims of drunk-driving incidents. Yes, 19 of my fellow classmates killed over our 4 years in high school. (This was also the early days of the nonprofit Mothers Against Drunk Driving – MADD.)
One of those 19 classmates is still prominent in my mind today. Tim was not just a classmate; he was a friend. Tim was intoxicated when he drove his car off a bridge embankment to the road below. He was thrown from the vehicle, and an unsuspecting motorist ran over Tim’s body, reducing his head to an unrecognizable mass. I was the EMT to arrive first and declare Tim dead.
My mom and dad (much like others, I’m sure) instilled traits in me that paid off during this experience. They used to chide me when I would do stupid stuff – my response, like many kids was something like, “But Johnny gets to do it.” Their reply was always and uniformly, “If Johnny were to jump off a cliff, would you follow him?” I never liked when mom and dad played those mind games with me, but thank God they did because those lessons stuck.
Knowingly or unknowingly – I really don’t know – these 19 classmates were following Johnny off the cliff, and I wasn’t going to follow! The incident involving Tim had the most impact on my future decisions, and still does to this day, to not drink alcohol. I don’t judge others who make the choice; however, it has been one of my life’s missions to educate and encourage others to not follow Johnny over the cliff of poor decision-making.
The kids: The pain and the promise
I don’t know any firefighter that doesn’t have a soft spot for kids. While there are so many poignant moments, two in particular framed my focus on both kindness and continuing the mission of public service during my career.
The first fire was one like many others – a multi-family rental apartment building fire “inside the beltway” with the report of people trapped. What made this call a little different was the detail given by witnesses: “We saw two kids in that window right there; they were banging on the window, clawing” while trying to get out of the third-floor apartment that was on fire.
This was a domestic incident, and a man had lit the place on fire with the kids in the apartment. First-arriving crews made an aggressive attack and searched to no avail – no kids were found.
I was a training officer and had come from the training academy. After consulting with the incident commander, I got with the most reliable-seeming witnesses and had them point out the specific window and go into detail about what they saw. This was a hard discussion, one that I all but knew wasn’t going to end well.
With one other senior officer, we entered the room where the children were believed to have been and began the painstaking process of looking over every inch. Sure enough, as I lifted small pieces of drywall, a hand was visible, then the arm and torso of these two precious children. The officer with me had to leave. I stayed with the kids until we were sure the fire was out and we could fully uncover and remove them. Nothing made me madder in my 40 years than that fire, yet we go on.
The second child incident involved a house fire where a father and three siblings perished, but mom and a daughter survived. I would be remiss if I didn’t make the point that smoke alarms did activate, but no one left – and no, there were not sprinklers in the home.
I was fire chief at the time and will focus on the positive out of this tragic incident. After the fire, I went to the hospital to visit 8-year-old Tamia Price and her mom. Tamia told me that she remembered firefighters coming to her school, telling them to close their doors if there was a fire, and to have a second way out. When the fire broke out, she pulled her mom into a room and closed the door. They then went to the window, where neighbors would help pull the two out before firefighters arrived. Such a powerful story that I will cherish forever – the power of our actions and words should never be underestimated.
The CRR impact: Sprinklers save lives
The most impactful story of my 40 fire service years has been the work on public education, smoke alarms and residential fire sprinklers. It’s certainly not the sexiest of topics for some – that area we used to simply call “fire prevention” – but I can tell you with assuredness that the above incidents I described would have been mere family inconveniences, as opposed to fatal ones, if residential sprinklers had been installed. I truly believe that the only reason I am able to speak with any positivity about the second incident is a direct result of our firefighters’ public education efforts.
I was a firefighter when Prince George’s County legislated residential smoke alarms for all occupancies in 1987, and a lieutenant when residential sprinklers were legislated for all new construction in 1992. Tying this discussion into a neat bow is pretty simple.
I recall the hyperbole of the building industry: “It will cost too much, nobody will be able to afford a home”; “water damage will far outweigh the fire damage because all the heads will activate”; “sprinklers won’t prevent the fires,” etc. Well, they’re actually 100% correct about the prevention piece – that’s where firefighters have to get to work. Sprinklers don’t prevent a fire from starting, but they do give occupants the extra time they need to get out. As for the other building industry claims, the reality has been quite the opposite, with Prince George’s County’s new home market flourishing better than the majority of the National Capital Region during those 30 years.
In the 30 years since residential sprinklers have been mandated, there have been more than 700 fires reported in sprinkler-protected residences and thousands of fires in non-sprinkler-protected residences. Where a properly maintained sprinkler system has been installed, there have been ZERO deaths in the sprinkler-protected fires, but there have been more than 70 civilian deaths in the non-sprinkler protected fires. ZERO deaths where there was a properly maintained sprinkler system, and 70 deaths where there was not a sprinkler system are irrefutable facts that should silence any and all opposition to residential sprinklers. Alas, we continue to struggle gaining sprinkler traction with both politicians and the building industry.
Reflecting on my 40-plus years and these three impactful occurrences, I see two primary takeaways. First and foremost is the trust, honor and ethics that are necessary for us as public servants to maintain the public trust – that’s my takeaway from the alcohol incidents my classmates experienced. Grandma Jones needs us to be at the top of our game, to be trustworthy, and always ready when she needs help – we can’t do that if we aren’t disciplined and staying safe ourselves. Second, CRR is a way of life – and it has made more difference that most of us will ever know. While Tamia wasn’t a spokesperson for fire safety, she remembered what we told her and was able to at least save her and her mother’s lives.
Making things better for people has been my passion, fueled by the adrenalin of the life-and-death circumstances that I’ve experienced along my journey, along with every firefighter than takes an oath to protect and serve. I can only hope these stories inspire others to find their path and fuel their desire – their passions for public service and life safety.