One afternoon in Cleveland, I realized I was going the wrong way and was about to head south toward Akron instead of north to the interstate. So I made an illegal U-turn in the middle of the street.
Suddenly a police car appeared behind me, its red lights swirling. The officer walked up to my car and took note of the sticker on the window identifying me as a member of the Williamsville Fire Department.
“So you’re a fireman?” he asked with a smirk and a strong dose of attitude.
“That explains why you thought it was OK to do that.”
I admitted I was wrong and prepared myself for additional admonishments.
But instead, the officer gave me directions. And no ticket.
That story helps illustrate the lighter side of being part of one of the greatest groups on Earth, the fire service. Not because we get special treatment once in a while, but because of the bond we share.
An estimated 300 volunteer fire departments across New York State participated last week in Recruit NY 2013, a program launched by the Firemen’s Association of the State of New York to attract new members.
Only time will tell as to the long-term results of the effort.
There are numerous reasons why most departments in this area need new recruits.
They range from many younger men and women attending college out of town and many individuals having two jobs or demanding parental responsibilities, to potential firefighters feeling they might not fit the mold. Hopefully, the recruitment drive helped erase some of those misconceptions.
The benefits of being a volunteer firefighter far outweigh the drawbacks.
While there is always danger in responding to emergencies, there is a quiet satisfaction in retrieving someone’s personal possessions from a charred kitchen or seeing people who have no pulse suddenly start breathing on their own.
Getting through endless training and recertification is essential but actually doing the job is what matters most. “Walking the walk” gives a firefighter access to the proudest collection of people in the nation. Not all of us have faced the drama and urgency of what our brothers and sisters deal with in big cities, but we share the same call of duty. We may never face the danger of a high-rise fire or a major structural collapse, but the connection is palpable.
That bond allows us to walk into almost any fire hall or firehouse and be welcomed like an old friend. No one is considered a minor leaguer if he or she elicits the humble satisfaction of having done the job.
I’ve often said that being part of the fire service is part “Backdraft” and part “Animal House.” Where else could you meet a man who was taken in after being orphaned at a young age and given a home for life? He’s not a firefighter, but Washington, D.C. firefighters saved him from a life on the streets. He is one of them.
How else could I have met someone from Kapuskasing, Ontario? Another fan and I were both wearing our respective fire department jackets at a Sabres game and struck up a conversation.
A photo I took of a Buffalo battalion chief was chosen for the cover of Firehouse magazine in December 1983. Last year, when the man passed away, that photo was on display at the funeral home.
Complete strangers welcomed us into their New York City firehouse for lunch on the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.
I felt so unworthy of the applause I heard as I walked past ground zero.
I met President George W. Bush some seven months after Sept. 11 and thanked him for an inspiring speech he had just given in praise of firefighters. He shook my hand, looked me squarely in the eye and said, “Thank you for what you do.”
That’s all we ask.