3 times a probie: From volunteer to paid firefighter to instructor
“Starting over again gives you the opportunity to see things in a new light”
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By Ed Rush
Standing on the ledge of the third-floor window looking down, I hear my instructor yelling “make sure you throw your feet up and land on your ass.”
I’m 18 years old and a brand-new volunteer firefighter.
I launch myself into the air, hoping my classmates have a good grip, and land with a thud in the middle of the life net. (Yes, I’ve been in the fire service long enough that my initial 39-hour Essentials of Firemanship class included use of the life net.)
Fast-forward 17 years. I’m a 35-year-old probationary career firefighter with a pompier ladder in my hands, looking up at the six-story fire tower wondering how the hell I’m going to scale this entire building with this archaic piece of equipment. I had given up a good job as a CPA, and had three kids, a pregnant wife and a mortgage. This is all that stood between me and completing the fire academy. But I managed, and thus began a wonderful fire service career that culminated as chief of department.
Jump to 27 years later. I’m in the basement of a volunteer fire station in a new state, wearing full gear and SCBA, taking instruction from the training officer who is the same age as my youngest kid. I’m about to go through the mask confidence course so I can become a certified interior firefighter. I’m a probie again at age 62.
Changes over 40-plus years
Starting over again gives you the opportunity to see things in a new light. It made me realize that I have seen some very positive changes in my years in the fire service. To name a few:
- We have gotten rid of the life nets, and many of us now have personal bailout systems.
- Pullup boots, rubber coats and fireball gloves have been replaced by Nomex bunker gear, leather boots, and hoods.
- We have gone from heavy steel SCBA 20-minute bottles and masks with rubber straps that pulled out your hair, to lightweight composite one-hour bottles and high-temperature masks with Nomex netting.
- We no longer ride the back step in all kinds of weather, and now ride in enclosed air-conditioned cabs.
- Some volunteer chiefs used to carry a bottle of scotch in the back of the car for a quick nip to ward off the chill of a December night, but we now have formal rehab units.
- Dirty helmets and turnout gear are out, and clean cabs are in. We have finally realized that the crap we have been breathing in is killing us. Cancer has been recognized as a major killer of firefighters and we are finally doing something about it. Having my name on the Lavender Ribbon Report is one of the accomplishments I am most proud of in my fire service career.
- After those really bad calls, we were told to suck it up and left to deal with our issues on our own. Now we have formal CISM and peer support groups. We are finally understanding the mental health aspect of firefighting and doing something about that also. Having my name on the Yellow Ribbon Report is another one of the accomplishments of which I am extremely proud.
- For many years, the fire service has been the good old boys’ club, a predominantly white male domain. Departments are now realizing the benefits of having a diversified workforce that mirrors the community they represent.
As much as things have changed, and for the better, some things have stayed the same, also for the better. The dedication of the firefighters to the craft and the desire to serve the public remains strong. The camaraderie of the brotherhood and sisterhood occasionally shows some cracks, but for the most part is still intact. The kitchen table remains the place where all the problems of the world are solved. Firefighting was and continues to be the best job in the world.
‘I’m as good once as I ever was’
I’ve had a wild and wonderful 46 years in the fire service, both career and volunteer, and I’m not ready to give it up yet. As the country song says, “I’m not as good as I once was, but I’m as good once as I ever was.” I know I have slowed down a great deal, and I can’t always keep up with the younger generation. But I still have a lot to offer and I’m going to keep going as long as I can.
I have often heard that being a firefighter is not what you do, it’s who you are. I’m realistic and know that my days of interior status are numbered, and I’m OK with that. Someday soon, I’ll be exterior only and mostly drive the apparatus. And some time after that, I’ll transition to administration and help with training the newer members, doing fire prevention details, and sitting around the station, complaining about the young kids and telling stories about the good old days.
Another of my favorite sayings is “the most important thing an old firefighter can teach a young firefighter is how to become an old firefighter.” That’s why I’ll continue my work as a NFFF Everyone Goes Home Advocate to further that goal.
About the Author
Ed Rush has over 46 years in the fire service, both career and volunteer. He retired as career chief of the Hartsdale Fire Department and has previously served as chief of the Elmsford Volunteer Fire Department, both in New York. Rush served seven years on the Board of the Volunteer and Combination Officers Section (VCOS) of the IAFC and serves on the Government Affairs Committee of the New York State Association of Fire Chiefs. Rush currently volunteers with the Lewes Fire Department in Delaware and Montgomery County Fire and Rescue in Maryland.