Twenty years ago today I walked into the Philadelphia Fire Academy to begin my career as a big city firefighter. It may be a cliché’ to say but man did those twenty years go fast. Looking back, I have fought a lot of fires, responded to many car wrecks, medical calls and just about every type of emergency imaginable. I have been blessed to have a career that has afforded me the opportunity to help so many people in their time of greatest need. I have hit a lot of milestones lately. It’s been a time of great reflection for me. I have had time to look back at how far I’ve come in life and this anniversary is special.
Of course, along the way there have been high points and low points. I have lost friends and colleagues both on and off duty. There have been line of duty deaths and those who died off duty (but as a result of the job). I have watched people come into this world and leave it as well. There are days that leave me laughing and days that have brought tears to my eyes. On occasion, I have broken down as a result of the things I have witnessed. But no matter what I always go back to the firehouse, along with my classmates and brothers to man the firetrucks and prepare for the next alarm. It’s what I know, what I do and who I am. Being a firefighter is more than a profession, it’s a way of life that few outside the job can understand.
I joined the department because my dad was a fireman, plain and simple. He retired after 32 years of service as a Lieutenant. To this day, I still run into guys who worked with him over the years and to a man they tell me what a great time they had working with him or when they made this or that job. As a kid I watched him go to work day after day thinking some day I would do that too. Some of my greatest memories as a kid are of when he would go to work to pick up his paycheck. (No direct deposit back then.) When you bring your kids to the firehouse, all the other firefighters automatically lead them to the station canteen. There they make you pick out your favorite candy bar (only to put it on the tab of a guy from another shift). It’s pure magic. Another great memory is tagging along to Dad’s softball games. I would watch and listen to the guys rib each other all game long. Nothing was ever too irreverent and even as a kid I knew there was something special about those guys.
For a time I thought I would be a police officer. But along the way I realized that I didn’t have the personality for that kind of work. I realized that cops and firefighters while cut from the same cloth, are fundamentally different. I don’t think I can explain why. I stayed with the fire department and now after two decades know this is where I belong. I’m banged up and a bit slower than I was two decades ago but I have gained the experience and knowledge of a veteran.
I have spent my entire career on the street and in the station. I look forward to the next ten years or so, but unfortunately I have deep concerns about the future of the department. We are currently being marched off a cliff with no end in sight. I’m praying, as we all are, for a change of leadership at the top. We need leaders who care about the troops and who know how to lead without threats of discipline and intimidation. Here’s to all my classmates, co-workers and the rest of our careers. Good luck and stay safe.