It is seven o’clock in the morning and I’m blurry-eyed and wearing a fire helmet. Normally this is evidence of a kickin’ party, but in tonight’s case it’s not. I am at a fire station. I slept here.
The previous evening began at five o’clock when I showed up to Washington DC’s Engine Six Company. I was escorted to the captain’s office, who graciously chatted with me for several minutes about what life is like as a fireman, the hours, the dangers, the shell-shock of sifting through the Pentagon after September 11th, and a cursory assessment of whether or not I’m physically capable of sliding down a poll.
“Any questions?” he asks.
Yes. Where are the dalmatians, exactly? Are they out back in a kennel, or what? Is it true that firemen use dalmatians because their hearing is so poor that sirens don’t alarm them? I am patiently told that dalmatians were phased out of firefighting several decades ago, at the same time departments retired horses and quit using buckets. Oh.
Do I have any questions unrelated to spotted dogs?
I am shown the fire engine and given a tour of the various gadgets connected to it. I learn that, during a blaze, the DC Fire Department prefers to let smoke and heat out of afflicted buildings by knocking holes in them. People routinely think firefighters are breaking windows for the hell of it, or giving into universal looting instincts, but kristallnacht is actually a strategic maneuver based on physics. While firemen are knocking out windows, a man on the truck is extended upwards via a ladder, where he proceeds to saw triangular holes in the roof to let heat escape.
The idea of tactical destruction sounds fun to me, and I’m hoping I will somehow get to participate in it. I can’t in good conscious root for someone’s apartment to catch fire, so I instead hope a meth dealer blows up his lab, summoning us to extinguish the inferno. At which point, maybe, the fire department will say “Andrew, can you run around the outside of the building smashing windows with this hatchet?”
The alarm goes off shortly after we finish looking at the equipment, and I am invited to ride in the fire engine. I sit in the back, between two officers, as we proceed to tear down the street towards a gas station about fifteen minutes north of where I live.
Sadly, it is not a burning conflagration that I will be deputized to break windows in. In fact relatively few calls are made pertaining to fires; most fall between “miscellaneous” and “utterly stupid wastes of time.”
This is something I learn through conversations with firefighters again and again over the course of the evening: firefighters are called for everything. Everything. The purview of the fire department extends to medical emergencies of any sort, all the way down to aching knees or shuttle rides to the hospital.
One officer tells me how, last year, a man in a shelter called the fire department because of pains in his legs. When they arrive at the shelter, he further explains that it hurts his legs to climb into the top of the bunk bed, so can they get him one on the floor? It’s a legitimate grievance, but when they talk to the shelters administrators, they are surprised he never bothered notifying them. There’s been an empty bunk the whole time, but he went straight to the fire department.
While my stereotype of dalmatians with helmets was inaccurate, the stereotype of rescuing cats stuck in trees is spot-on. It’s also very common for people to call for non-emergencies. I had always assumed you would incur a fine if you called the fire department for a dumb reason, but that’s not the case. You’re only penalized, and then very reluctantly, if you repeatedly prank-call municipal services. Otherwise the fire department responds to everything, unless an actual fire takes priority.
Firemen regularly shows up to a row house, sirens blazing, to discover someone suffering from chest pains. Chest pains are a legitimate reason to call 911, but when they talk to the person they learn that he’s been having chest pains for two months, and has a doctor’s appointment today, and would like an ambulance to drop him off on the other side of town by three o’clock. Up until two months ago, an elderly woman in one of the District’s poorer neighborhoods called several times daily for the fire department to carry her down three flights of stairs, then after errands, hoist her back up again. It happened so frequently that the irritated firemen eventually contacted city services to find her a new residence on a ground floor.
This sort of municipal odd job is very common, and I gather that, to put it politely, the residents of DC are well accustomed to squeezing government services for all they’re worth. I think about my own family back in Oklahoma, and the few instances in which we might dare call the fire department. I imagine a truck pulling up to our half-incinerated home to find my apologetic parents standing out front with a garden hose and a bucket, explaining that they tried to put it out themselves but couldn’t, and are really, terribly sorry to have bothered anyone.
As it is, our first call of the evening is a fairly legitimate reason for dialing 911: “man down.” Usually “man down” refers to a drunk collapsed on the street somewhere, but on this occasion it is an unconscious taxi driver who has been slumped behind the wheel for about four hours.
The officers hop out of the fire engine and open the door to the taxi. They quickly asses that the man is dead, although the heater has kept his body warm, so they’re not entirely sure. As one of the officers goes to fetch a heart monitor from the ambulance, the captain asks, “So, ever seen a dead body before?”
I have not, at least outside of a funerary context. This is my first corpse.
I lean over to look through the windshield. His head is tipped forward and his eyes are closed, with a thin line of drool extending the half inch between chin and sternum. The index finger of his right hand is still extended on a chart, as if death unexpectedly seized him in the middle of a common, mundane task. He looks like he’s sleeping, and I suspect that the curtain descended either during a nap which became permanent, or in a split second by surprise.
When we climb back into the engine, I am curious about whether or not the firemen reflect on their own impending mortality as a result of dealing with corpses on a regular basis. Before I can ask, the driver says, “I guess he saw the gas prices, huh?” and everyone laughs.
I am unsure of etiquette at this point, but as I hear stories over the course of the evening, determine that either humor or unbearable depression are probably the only outcomes of life as a fire fighter, so jokes are preferable. Pranks are commonplace at the station, although there are unwritten rules about any gags which might interfere with the vehicles or equipment. Lacing a bunk bed with flour is a favorite trick, and dumping buckets of water on someone dumb enough to linger beneath a pole remains classic.
Back at the fire house, we eat a dinner of barbecue and proceed to sit around for a few minutes behind the engine. I am given instructions on proper pole usage, and invited to give it a shot.
Looking up at the poll from the ground floor, I assumed it would be an easy ride, with my native instincts kicking in to let me slide down gracefully. Looking down, it’s surprisingly daunting. I wrap my arms around the poll and let my legs dangle beneath me, then mostly jump down the sixteen feet, landing with a “thump.”
The firemen laugh and explain that I need to use my legs more; that’s where the needed friction comes from. On my second attempt I use my thighs, which is a horrible idea. I proceed down the poll much slower, but only because my man parts are inching down the metal like cloth-wrapped snails. I stagger a few feet, check to make sure I’m still a baritone, and trudge up the stairs again.
This time I slide down the poll like an expert. I wrap my ankles around the poll, use my arms as a balance, and in no way damage my gonads.
Around ten o’clock the alarm goes off again, and I jump into the fire engine before it leaves to investigate another “man down.” This time it really is a man down: a person curled up on the sidewalk next to a dumpster located behind the loading doors of a warehouse. It’s a homeless man who has soiled himself, and gone to sleep on the pavement. While it didn’t occur to me at first, the captain explains that, had no one called, he would have frozen to death by morning.
According to the man, he was walking to a homeless shelter, then either his legs gave out or he got tired, and he decided to bunker down and sleep. He seems to have been drinking earlier, but is now lucid. He’s loaded onto an ambulance gurney and taken to the hospital, where he will remain until morning when they’ll release him.
I chat with firefighters back at the Big House, and we go on another run, this time to someone whose child is running fever at a hotel. The kid is taken to the hospital, and we return to the station, where I am given sheets from the ambulance and a bunk upstairs.
Firefighter work schedules consist of twenty-four hour shifts followed by two days off. They sleep above the fire engines and trucks, then when an alarm clangs, zip down the polls and roll out. Some nights they may not sleep at all, dashing from one alarm to another for an entire day. Other times, they may sleep several hours before an emergency summons them from their bunks like pop tarts.
The alarm does not go off again until five in the morning. I do not arise from sleep lucidly or easily, so I have already decided not to bother with anymore pole business, as I will likely break one of my three legs. I have slept fully clothed, so I throw on my coat and jam my feet into tennis shoes, then dash down the stairs and leap into the engine.
Unbeknownst to me, the morning shift arrived three hours early, around four o’clock. So the evening shift I had been riding around with has either gone home or is sleeping upstairs. None of the new people have any idea who I am.
“Hey,” I mumble, as a man jumps into the driver’s seat.
He glances back at the groggy bearded man in a trench coat inexplicably seated behind him. Before he can ask about who the hell I am, the other officers climb in and the vehicle sputters off, to investigate a fire which politely extinguishes itself shortly before we arrive.
The firemen are fairly nonplussed about my existence, even before I explain I’m not a random homeless person who has showed up to use the bathroom. When we return, the other firemen are equally nonchalant when a bearded guy in a trench coat wanders into the rec room to scavage for cereal and ask if I can watch cartoons.
Around seven o’clock it becomes apparent that no one is actually keeping track of me, so there’s no predetermined time for me to leave. I drink a cup of coffee and ask if this part of town is okay to walk around in so early, but it’s an unnecessary question. There’s an ambulance on hand to drive me home.
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Andrew Heaton is a writer and standup comedian in New York City. If this post made you laugh or think, kindly "like" it on Facebook.