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5 of the toughest customers in firefighting history

These five firefighters prove that there are certain qualities inherent in those who choose to put on turnouts and run toward danger

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By FireRescue1 BrandFocus Staff

From the volunteer brigades of the mid-19th century that would fight fires (and each other) through today’s modern fire service, one quality has characterized firefighters throughout history: toughness. It takes an incredible amount of grit to shrug off pain and fear to get the job done and save lives, as firefighters do every day.

You don’t get to be a firefighter without being tough, but over the history of the fire service, a few individuals stand out as among the best, most selfless, and, yes, toughest ever to don turnouts.

Here are their stories; share any others you have in the comments.

1. Deanne Shulman

(Photo/National Interagency Fire Center)

Some of the most elite forces of firefighters are the Type-1 and Type-II wildland firefighters, also known as Smokejumpers. These brave men and women parachute into remote fire scenes, carrying up to 100 pounds of gear on their back.

The first woman to ever become a Smokejumper doesn’t like to consider herself a pioneer, but she certainly had to overcome several obstacles to join the crew. After washing out in 1979, Deanne Shulman became the first female Smokejumper in 1981.

To make it into the elite group of firefighters, Shulman was required to carry 115 pounds over three and a half miles in less than three and a half hours. She also had to prove she could detach her parachute and rappel to the ground after landing in a tree.

After a long career with the Forest Service, Shulman retired in 2011 as a Battalion Chief.

2. Bill Heenan

(Photo/Loyola Medicine)

On Jan. 18, 1996, Firefighter Bill Heenan was a nine-year veteran of the Chicago Fire Department when he responded to a high-rise fire. He was the one who climbed the department’s too-short ladder in an attempt to reach families who were trapped on the sixth floor.

Heenan climbed to the top of the ladder and yelled up to the terrified families that help was on the way and he wasn’t going anywhere “I’m never going to leave you. I’m going to stay right here and talk to you.”

Unfortunately, from his perch at the top of the ladder, Heenan watched in horror as one panicked child hurtled to the concrete below after jumping out the window. When another child hurled herself out the window, Heenan leaned out, stuck out his left arm and made the most amazing catch – grabbing the 80-pound 8-year-old with one arm. He successfully carried the girl down the ladder with one hand.

Four years later, Heenan proved his grit yet again, when he was among the first rescuers to reach an elderly couple trapped in the rubble of a natural gas explosion. He was off-duty at the time.

3. Eddie Loder


He is considered the most decorated firefighter in Boston FD history. Eddie Loder’s illustrious life-saving career with Boston began in 1987, when he rappelled down an elevator shaft to save a maintenance worker trapped between the fifth and eighth floor.

His second citation occurred in 1990, after he rescued a woman threatening to jump from the 6th floor of the Ritz Carlton. He used rappelling gear to swing out over the roof out of sight of the distraught woman, who he surprised by pushing into the room.

In 1993, Loder had responded to Boston City Hospital, where a man was threatening to jump. He was at the top of the aerial ladder when the man decided to climb down the side of the building on a pipe. He lost his grip and began to fall. Loder extended beyond the tip of the ladder and managed to get a hold of the man’s shirt as he fell. He held on to the man until the man was safely removed.

In 1998, Loder was part of a two-man rescue team who entered the Charles River to a woman who had thrown herself off the bridge. The two swam about 375 feet to reach the victim, who they placed in a police boat. They performed CPR and the woman was revived. Loder and his colleague were treated for exhaustion and exposure to the cold water.

In 2001, Loder rescued an elderly woman from the second floor of a burning building by putting her on his shoulder and bringing her outside, where he performed CPR.

4. Anthony 'Mike' Romano

(Photo/New York State Honorary Fire Chiefs Association)

In the ultimate story of perseverance, FDNY Firefighter Anthony “Mike” Romano had been back on the job a few short weeks following his recovery from a serious injury when he stepped up to save one of his own.

A few short months after he had been severely injured in a stairway collapse, Romano didn’t hesitate on Feb. 26, 2008, when he responded to a house fire. On scene, after hearing a “mayday,” Romano climbed a ladder to the second floor, went into the house and found the injured firefighter. His plan to go back down the ladder was thwarted when the room erupted into flames. Instead, the two jumped off the roof and Romano used his body to shield his fellow firefighter. He was treated for second-degree burns and kept in the hospital overnight.

5. Jack Pritchard

(Photo/Flag for Hope)

He’s the most decorated firefighter in FDNY history. Jack Pritchard began his career of saving lives early on, rescuing a child with developmental disabilities who was trapped on the third floor of a burning building. Without an oxygen mask, he used his jacket to cover the child and jumped to the first floor, where his fellow firefighters sprayed them down with water. 

In 1992, Pritchard entered a burning building to find a man who was reportedly on fire in his bed. He extinguished the man and dragged him out of the building.

In 1998, he rescued a baby from a crib by picking up the entire crib and dragging it outside to his colleagues. He retired from the FDNY in 1999.

We know there are countless examples of courage and integrity across the fire service. The preceding five are a small example of the toughness inherent in firefighters.

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