NEW YORK – San Francisco Firefighters Union Chief John Hanley and the firefighters he works alongside never stop moving. If they are not responding to a call for burning building, they are helping someone who is locked out of their car or assisting an elderly person who has fallen down and could be injured, among many other things.
“That socio-economic thing of everyone from the family living in the neighborhood and taking care of each other has really changed. Firefighters have to be there to fill that gap. Now we answer all kinds of calls,” says Hanley without a trace of resentment for varied challenges his job presents. This unassuming demeanor is a trait common to so many firefighters.
Hanley, a 26-year veteran in his profession, says that the many changing dimensions of the job of course still include the age-old task of fighting fires. But the conditions of firefighting have changed significantly with the advent of modern technology and the types of materials modern Americans have in the home. “The way homes are built now, they burn a lot with computers and plastics-that makes fires more dangerous,” says Hanley.
In fact, the technology of a fire, how it burns, and how to put it out is a complicated science that all firefighters are taught to understand through extensive training that continues throughout their careers.
According to Hanley, “We never stop training. We train every day, and you get better through training and experience. You just get better at knowing what to do in a fire.”
Diversity and Bravery Come with the Territory
Every firefighter, volunteer or career, knows that after going through the rigorous process of qualifying for the job, a whole new world of challenges awaits them. And they have little to do with crawling through a burning building or holding a hose that is spraying water.
Modern firefighters are cross-trained as Emergency Medical Technicians, hazardous materials handlers, nurses, police officers, scuba divers, and more. They are almost always the first ones to respond in disasters, natural or man-made; rescuing survivors, clearing roads of felled trees and live electrical lines, and pulling drowning people or animals from raging floods to safety.
On top of that, the Emergency Management Protocol varies from state to state, so when major disasters such as Hurricane Katrina strike, emergency management is faced with an inevitable meeting of methods with incoming help from outside states.
The deadly serious work of a firefighter means that they need to be in a constant state of adaptation, and on a constant upward learning curve. This means almost constant training and education.
Dennis Smith, a former New York City firefighter and the founding editor of Firehouse Magazine, is bestselling author of eleven books, including Report from Ground Zero and Report from Engine Co. 82. He sees the adaptation of the profession as paramount to saving lives of victims and firefighters alike.
“The emergency services are changing, and to not recognize that is irresponsible,” explains Smith. He believes that these changes relate as much to the crews on the ground as to the policy makers who sit on high in offices.
Smith says that policy choices about how to make key decisions in this ever-changing field should come from solid knowledge of the profession gained from years of experience. “You [policy and high-up decision makers] have to make the demand that you spend your life in the emergency services before you take up these positions,” he says with the conviction of years of first-hand experience. “There are no second chances in the emergency services, because people die.”
Facing the Terrible, and Worse
Without the safety net of providing a revenue stream to the state, firehouses and the professionals they contain represent a special set of budget and human resource problems for the coffers of government funding.
According to San Francisco Firefighters Union Chief Hanley, when the budget axe comes down, it can put the fire department under a dangerous strain. “When it comes to budget cuts, they [lawmakers] look at the Fire Department. When we lose five firefighters, we can’t do our jobs, because the number of calls we respond to doesn’t change with budget cuts.”
Then there is the very real possibility facing these men and women when they go to work that they might never come home again. In 2005, 106 firefighters lost their lives in the line of duty, according to the U.S. Fire Administration. 48 firefighters died of heart attacks and 26 were killed in vehicle crashes during the same year. It is a life-and-death job that takes its toll on those who are left behind to continue on.
But this doesn’t stop them from going back to work and taking that chance, year after year. Nor budget cuts or the promise of fatal danger can hold back a firefighter who knows they are needed.
Not even the lure of touting the achievements of one of the busiest fire departments in the country can keep a proud firefighter on the telephone with a reporter.
That was clear when Hanley stopped in the middle of his interview with our newspaper to listen to a shrill incoming alarm. “Gotta go,” he said unceremoniously. “That’s me.”