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What Firefighters Know

Their heroism is the stuff of movies and TV. But what is life really like for the men and women of the Chicago Fire Department?

What Firefighters Know

Their heroism is the stuff of movies and TV. But what is life really like for the men and women of the Chicago Fire Department?

Their motto is prosaic and unsentimental: “We’re There When You Need Us.” And yet, to hear almost any of the 4,500 sworn members of the nation’s third-largest municipal fire department describe their job is to understand just how much weight that promise carries. One minute, it can mean responding to a call about an overdose or a cat in a tree — yes, that’s still an actual thing — and the next it can mean extracting a toddler from a flame-engulfed bedroom minutes before the ceiling caves in. In all, the department handles more than half a million emergencies each year, and no matter the nature of the run, the city’s firefighters express pride in being the first ones in and the last ones out.

The 15 Chicago firefighters who spoke to us anonymously for this story — men and women, both active and retired — did not hold back in conveying the emotional and physical toll that their work can take. Posttraumatic stress disorder, respiratory illnesses, chronic pain: These are basically considered part of the job, along with gallows humor and busting chops. But these firefighters also talked at length about the extraordinary camaraderie and loyalty that underpin their work, as well as an intense sense of duty to the city they serve — a city that was, lest we forget, nearly obliterated by fire.

Here, in their own words, are these firefighters’ observations, impressions, and stories.

I. “Everyone Loves the Heroes.”

When I was a kid, there was nothing cooler than seeing those guys with soot-covered faces. I was like, Man, that’s what I want to do.

We’re the only job where we come to your house, break all your windows, and throw thousands of gallons of water in your living room, and then come outside and you’re like, “Thank you!”

The cops say, “Everyone loves the heroes. Everybody loves firemen.” They know that people like us more than them.

The city’s changed so much in the last 20 years. When I first started out, I went to a fire, and in the rough neighborhoods they were throwing bottles at us as we were putting it out.

We’re not like the cops. They do their time and they’re gone. Our guys love the job. They stay on till their mandatory retirement age of 63.

The police start off their careers in the busy areas and tend to try to get to the slow areas. With the fire department, you tend to start in the slow areas and then try to get into the busy areas.

We tell our wives, “If someone’s breaking into the house, tell 911 there’s a fire.” We’ll be there faster.

Pride might be one of the deadliest sins, but it’s helpful on this job.

II. “The Only Thing You Got Going for You Is Adrenaline.”

Fire in an abandoned building is one thing — I mean, yeah, we want to put it out — but when you’re in someone’s home and you know people live there, when you know you’re rescuing people, that makes it all different.

We show up at this hotel downtown, and a building manager meets us at the door and says, “We have a guy on the roof, and he was standing on the chimney and fell in.” We get to the roof, climb up the ladder, put a flashlight in there, and, yep, he’s down there, about 20 feet in. Lucky for him, he got caught in an angle in the chimney before it goes straight down for 40 stories. Which didn’t turn out to be that lucky, because he passed away anyhow.

When we make a rescue, it’s not because one guy found that person and dragged them out. There are 12 different things that happened and made it possible for that person to do that. It’s kind of like a football team: Just because you made it to the end zone doesn’t mean the offensive line didn’t get you there. But when you make the touchdown, it’s an amazing feeling.

There’s no such thing as bringing somebody out easily. The only thing you got going for you is adrenaline.

When you’re unconscious, you’re dead weight. It’s not picking up 100 pounds, it’s picking up 100 pounds that’s flapping all over the place. Also, when you’re trapped in a fire and it’s real hot, if I want to grab you, your skin could come right off, because it melts. And how do most people sleep? Naked or half naked. So I really got nothing to grab.

I pulled a woman out of a fire, but she was already deceased. It turned out the son wanted to get rid of Mom, drugged her. She passed out in the bed, and he lit a fire in the kitchen.

It’s usually not too much trouble to convince someone to go down a ladder. If you’re burning, you’re coming out, whether you’re afraid of heights or not.

We rarely ever find cats after a fire. They always find their way out.

We’re very task-oriented. We’re not going to stop until we complete the job. The world can be blowing up around you, but you’re so focused on that job that nothing else matters.

Good companies always want to work. Problem is, good companies also don’t believe in retreating. Sometimes somebody’s got to have enough testicular fortitude to say, “Hey, we ain’t winning. Back out.”

III. “You Gotta See This.”

Eighty percent of the calls that we go on, we don’t need to go on. They really aren’t emergencies.

Engine 122 had a lady who would take the Red Line, get off at 79th Street, walk about half a block, and lie down on the sidewalk. Ambulance would come, they’d take her to Jackson Park Hospital, she’d walk out and go home. She lives about three buildings down from the hospital. That was her way to get from the Red Line to her apartment.

A woman called with chest pain. We showed up, and she said, “I need this sewing machine moved to my mother’s house.”

We pull up, first truck on the scene. There’s smoke pouring out of the building’s front window. We’re ready to rock ’n’ roll. We go through the front door, and there’s three people sitting on the couch. They’re like, “What are you guys doing here?” We’re like, “What the hell is all that smoke?” Inside the bathroom, they’ve got oven grates over the bathtub, an exhaust fan in the window, and they’re barbecuing chicken in there.

We got a call about a cat in a tree from a cop, and I told her, “That cat can get down if he wants to.” And she said, “But he’s meowing and so hungry.” So I got the fire truck, started raising the ladder, and the cat jumped down and ran away.

I’m sitting in the truck, and one of the guys comes out and says, “You gotta see this.” I go in, and there’s a girl, heavyset, in the shower, and she’s kind of sitting on the faucet, with the showerhead up above her. I’m like, “What’s the problem?” The guys are like, “She slipped and fell.” The plunger for the showerhead got stuck in her ass, basically. I look around and suddenly the guys are all gone. But the family’s there, and they’re all laughing in the hallway. So now I gotta get her off of there. I have my arms around her, and she’s naked, and I’m not supposed to even be in here, I’m supposed to be on the rig. Every time I try to pick her up, she starts yelling, and when she’d pull up, the shower would spray me in the face. So she’s screaming, and the shower is going off and on. I’m getting soaked. Finally I hear the thing pop, and I fall back, and she’s on top of me, crying, and her sisters are making fun of her, and I got firemen jagging me the whole time. We’re stuck in this little tiny shower. And I’m lying in the bath water. That was the last time I ever got off the rig.

IV. “They Just Know What to Do.”

We haven’t changed the way we put out fires. The tools we use every day — axes, pipe, hose, bars — have been around for a hundred years.

There are guys 50, 60 years old that can outwork these 22-year-olds because they’ve got muscle memory. They’ve been doing it for so long, they just know what to do.

I came on the job in ’77, and I couldn’t be a pimple on the ass of some of these guys, they were so good. They said, “Come on, kid, we’ll show you.”

Before, we had a lot of construction people like me on this job. I know how that window was built. I know how to tear it apart. Now you got some kid out of college, and he doesn’t know anything about construction.

Thirty, 40 years ago, your couches and everything were made of wood and wool and cotton, and they burned slower. But your Ikea furniture is all pressed wood with glue and foams and polyester, and that burns hotter and faster. So 30 years ago if you had a fire, they’d say you had 10, 15 minutes before things got really bad; now you’re down to four or five minutes.

In an older building, we don’t worry about collapse. Because we know it’s going to last. You go into a newer building where they have I-beams going across? If you have a fire, it’s coming down. You just pull everybody out and let it go.

You can jump out a window at two and a half stories and you’ll be fine. High-rise fires? I want nothing to do with them. There’s nowhere to go.

People ask why the winter is so much busier for us. It’s because when it’s cold, you’re going to do whatever you can to keep heat in your house. Sometimes that means space heaters or borrowing electric from another building and running 10 things off one extension cord.

You’ll see people with a propane space heater, with gallons of propane right next to the heater in plastic jugs. Not only might you start a fire, but if those things start melting, you will fuel the whole house.

Engine 54 in Englewood burned off half the back of the firehouse. They had the grill going, went on a fire run, came back a half hour later, and the whole back of the house is on fire.

Fires have gone down greatly in the city. Gentrification brings in people who spend money on their homes. Maintenance, security systems, all that stuff. Aggravated arson is gone because it’s a Class X felony now. And cellphones have helped, because you don’t have to run down the street to a pay phone anymore. When we get there, it’s a wastebasket fire instead of a whole room.

Nicer neighborhoods? It’s usually accidental. Poor neighborhoods, it could be arson, lack of maintenance, bad electrical stuff. But cooking fires happen everywhere.

If you’re working in Lincoln Park and you’re telling me lots of fire stories, I’m gonna call you full of shit, because you’re not getting a lot of fires in Lincoln Park.

Thanksgiving, you’ll get people cooking all day, and they’ve never cleaned their oven. And now guess what? All that grease and all those drippings are starting to burn.

We had a fire Christmas Eve in Lincoln Park, and I will never forget it because as we started to put the fire out, I saw the third-floor table was all set for Christmas dinner, with the silver and everything.

After 9/11, a lot of things changed. A lot more money has come into the fire department through Homeland Security. We’re really prepared for any scenario that happens.

When you see a fire truck coming, do us all a favor: Get the fuck out of the way.

V. “It’s Not a Boys’ Club Anymore.”

When you’re at the firehouse, you don’t sleep. Even in the slow houses, you got one eye open.

In the old days, if you were lippy about the food, the cook could come and turn your plate over and not feed you.

One of the warmest greetings you can get from an old firefighter is “What’s up, fucker?”

Check your feelings at the door. We all come in with baggage. We all have problems. We all have families and we have kids. Nobody wants to hear about yours.

We used to have a saying: “What happens in the firehouse stays in the firehouse.” If we had a problem, we took care of it.

It’s not a boys’ club anymore. You gotta be self-aware and you can’t just be an idiot. I think the job’s changing because of that. We were like cavemen before.

I was in a class with the first group of women in 1986. I can tell you right now, I’ve been lucky enough to work with three or four women that I would take over most guys.

Women are physiologically not built like men, so we have to work a little bit differently, know our body. But there are a lot of men on this job that physically cannot do the job. Percentage-wise, probably more men than women.

A lot of the smaller girls are like sparkplugs and as strong as shit, and they can get in spaces that I can’t.

I was working on 9/11. We saw the towers collapse on TV, and as it was happening, guys were already calling to go out there.

I went to New York after the towers went down. You could walk into a bar with firemen from all over the world, and it was like you’ve known them for a hundred years.

St. Ignatius: That’s the fire department church. The story is, the priests were on the front steps praying during the Great Chicago Fire, and the wind changed and that’s where the fire stopped.

Being assigned to this firehouse doesn’t mean you’re a part of this house. You’re really not part of this house until you go on a fire and I find out that you’re going to be there for me. If I know you’re not going to come in the building with me, I have no use for you.

There is no better camaraderie than crawling down the hallway with somebody and they got your back and you got theirs.

I’ve seen guys that are as big as a doorway, and they’re scared, don’t want to go in. And you get little guys who are phenomenal, they’ll go in anywhere, never leave your side.

It’s funny, once you’re up in the attic of a fire and the smoke clears and everything’s done, you look around and it’s always the same four or five guys up there with you.

I’ve taught 20 years of academy classes, and I always say if I can get five people in a class of 150 to drink the Kool-Aid and believe that this is still a brotherhood, maybe we’re doing something right.

VI. “That’s a Smell You’ll Never Forget.”

Ninety-nine percent of the time, when you deliver babies in the field, it’s not a good situation.

The girl was lying in the middle of the room. Ten or so people there. Everyone high, doing drugs. And the baby was lying on the floor, had just popped out.

When we got a drug call, we’d play “Heroin or not?” The answer was always heroin. Now we carry naloxone for overdoses. Gallons of it.

If they are overdosing, we just try to get them breathing OK and leave them to sleep. A lot of times they get pissed and want to fight because you ruined their high.

Two winters ago, some out-of-towners were downtown hanging out by the river, and one of them dropped his cellphone. He thought the ice on the river was thick and went after his phone. He fell through, then his friend went in, then another friend went in. Three people ended up going in the water, and one of them ended up dying, over a cellphone.

With the L, we have a bunch of electrocutions. And that’s a smell you’ll never forget.

We always get a lot of drownings in April and May, because we’ll have a day that’s like 85 degrees and the water’s like 50 and people get hypothermia right away.

We pull up to the scene of a crash on the Franklin feeder just outside Chinatown. One car is demolished. The other is on fire probably 50 feet away. We go to the first car, and a woman is turned sideways, looking at me. I ask, “Ma’am, are you OK?” Then I see her torso is totally twisted in half but her eyes are still open. I thought she was alive.

This guy was drinking, got hit by a train going 50 miles an hour. We picked up parts of him for half a mile. We found half of him under the train when it finally stopped.

At the YMCA downtown, someone died in their room and it was over a week before anyone reported him missing. And as soon as we walked in the lobby, we’re like, “That dude is dead.” The room was a few floors up, but you could tell. It’s a distinctive smell.

VII. “You Just Kind of Accept It.”

Two, three days after a fire, you’re showering and still smelling smoke. It’s coming right out of your pores.

The black boogers, the unproductive cough — you just kind of accept it.

The old guys were doing no masks, and they have a lower cancer rate than the new guys. There is definitely something going on — more plastics, more toxic stuff that’s burning.

When I started the job, you felt that the city was going to take care of you — the pension, the medical. There was a reason why you’re doing an inherently dangerous job every day. Because you think, Hey, in 30 years, I’m gonna have a pretty good life, family will be taken care of, insurance will be pretty good. And now you look at the end of the tunnel and you see they don’t give a fuck about us.

I’m sure anybody that’s got over a few years on the job has been covered in brain matter and blood and dead baby, because it happens.

I remember Bringing Out the Dead, that dark Nicolas Cage movie where he’s an ambulance driver who sees awful stuff and starts to lose it. I was the only person in the theater laughing my ass off. Everything about that movie was fucking hysterical.

You pick up someone’s brain, or do CPR on a child, and then you’re like, “Hurry up, the chili is getting cold.”

I was on the fire in Little Village where the 10 kids died last year. We hear on the radio, “We need another ambulance, we need another ambulance, we need another ambulance.” Ten times.

We noticed that they were doing CPR on a few kids out on the front lawn. I didn’t realize the severity of it. You don’t think about it until you sit down, the adrenaline stops, you put the hose away, and you say, “What the fuck happened?”

Some kid getting killed, some kid getting burned up — you share a little bit, you talk, you joke about it. Whatever you’ve got to do to get it out of your system.

When I was younger, nobody knew anything about crisis intervention. We’d go back to the firehouse, sit around, bullshit a little bit, and everything was cool.

Now you got guys after a fire, instead of talking about it, one’s in the corner playing video games, the other guy is texting, the other guy is on his computer.

It’s hard for us to go to an outsider. We don’t trust them.

I have two sons and a wife who I would give my life and take somebody else’s life for. They are everything to me, but when I’m at home, I have no patience for ’em. I talked to a doctor, and they say it’s some kind of empathy disorder.

Before we had the employee assistance program, they’d come back from a bad run and they’d have a couple drinks. I think they started realizing firemen were self-medicating.

One year we had like 10 or 12 suicides. A couple guys had terminal cancer and they just killed themselves.

We’ve had a push for PTSD counseling. I mean, I get it. But I’m of the theory, “You took this job. You know what is going to happen. You’re gonna see bad shit.” It’s terrible. But it’s our job.

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