The first two fires I attended were in the rain. After the Fire Academy and three weeks of department training I was a probie in the cab of a ladder truck, seated between the driver and the officer, headed to my first fire. I experienced a little boy’s delight as I worked the electronic siren. As we approached, the single story house’s roof was collapsing, a dark hole spreading from the center of the fire’s first penetration through the shingles. The engine companies had matters in hand, and we helped with salvage covers and overhaul.
The third fire was a night fire in a commercial row with a common cockloft where the fire was spreading. I was on the second arriving engine and went in second on our first hand line. When we went through the rear door into the narrow hallway, crouching low, I couldn’t see anything. I could hear the sound of breathing through SCBAs. I kept my hands on the line as we advanced in a world consisting only of sounds, including the failing wood and steel, and warmth. The first guy on my line stopped, and I heard water flowing from a fog nozzle, but not ours. The first due engine, having arrived just before us, had advanced from the front of the store, placed an attic ladder, and was darkening the fire.
I felt a hand on my shoulder and I heard my Lieutenant through his mask telling me to back out and take a break. Moving around him, I followed the line out of the rear door and went to the tailboard of our engine. After we wrapped up and reloaded the pre-connects and the supply line, the boss told me I did a hell of a job. I thought, “If that was a hell of a job, I wonder when the real work begins.”
Much later in my career I had learned what he meant. Even though I had no role in putting that fire out, I had gone into the hot darkness and stayed in the hot darkness with my crew. They would have carried me out had I stumbled and I would have done as much for them. I learned to trust most of them in the next many years, and learned that trust in your company when your ass is hanging out banishes paralyzing fear.
Even though the fire service was slightly more reactionary than a Southern Baptist church and most of them would have been appalled by my secrets, all that mattered was that we trusted each other to care when no other agent of care was present. Among the finest compliments I received as I rose through the ranks was the recognition by my peers in blue shirts that I was a hell of a firefighter.
I still love the memory of moving low in a dark building while flammable gasses overhead periodically ignited, causing flames to roll over our heads until the vapors were temporarily exhausted, as we looked for any in need of rescue, moving always to the seat of the fire.