Bleeding Fire Engine Red

The editor of the newspapers I work for asked me for a fire service related article for our Fire Prevention Week insert last week, and this is what I came up with:



It’s not easy to say how a first generation volunteer firefighter like me got into the business.

For many of us, firefighting becomes such a part of our lives that we bleed fire engine red. Okay, bad example. But if your father was a volunteer, and maybe his father before him, it’s easy to see what turned your blood from red to, um, red. In Albion, if you’re a Lock, or a Beckley, or a Jacob, for instance, your family has been in the business for a good portion of the town’s history. I’ve fought fires beside more father-son combos than I can count … and some father-daughter combos, too.

I was first generation, and for many years before joining I was clueless. How many years is open for debate. Early in life I attended Scout gatherings in the basement of a building that I only later realized was the Albion Fire Department. I was a newbie in every sense of the word.

But one day I saw a big (it wasn’t really that big) beautiful lime green fire engine (honestly, it really wasn’t that beautiful—except to me) go by on its way to extinguish a motorcycle fire. Later a grass buggy rolled out of the fire station on its way to a brush fire, while I stood staring from across the street, ignoring my lawn mowing job. By the time I turned eighteen, I was inhaling any information I could get about the fire service.

And then, before I knew it, I jumped in with both feet. Well, actually I just stood there in the AFD meeting room, trying to overcome my painful shyness. Does fighting fires require courage? The most courageous thing I did in my career was walk into that room full of strangers and ask to become one of them.

My initial impression, in that windowless upstairs room, was that everyone smoked. (It was 1980.) Pipes, cigars, cigarettes—there was no need to test the fire station’s smoke alarm, as it got set off during business meetings. And who cared? This was a time when protective breathing apparatus was a mild suggestion. They included heavy steel tanks, and we only had about eight of them on the entire department. The first time I crawled into a burning building, my protective ensemble consisted of hip-length boots, blue jeans, and a windbreaker. Did I mention it was 1980?

A firefighter crawling into a burning home inhaled as much bad smoke in five minutes as he did smoking for a year. Luckily, these days we have much better breathing protection, and a lot less tobacco.

To my shock, about a year later I got a check. We got paid for this! For volunteering! Two bucks an hour! It almost made up for the scorched clothes and empty gas tanks.

Now we get $7.50 an hour at fires, and that’s not too shabby for a volunteer job. Of course, we don’t get paid for responding to accidents or medical runs, or for training, or business meetings, or fund raisers, or parades, or maintenance duties, or cleaning details.

But at least we have good working conditions. I remember once, when we had this January fire at about 3 a.m., and I fell asleep leaning against a truck because my clothes were so frozen I couldn’t bend over …

Never mind.

Volunteer firefighters bring unique skill sets to the job. When I first joined, only three of our seven trucks were actually designed to be fire trucks. The volunteers put hundreds of man-hours into the other units, formerly fuel trucks and delivery vans. They did electrical work, sanding, painting, designed storage compartments, installed emergency lights, sirens, and radios, which brings me back to electrical work.

We had professional electricians on the department; construction workers; mechanics; and farmers, among many others. (In my experience, farmers can do just about anything.) When we needed to put an addition on the fire station, we gathered the materials and did it ourselves.

By which I mean, they did it, and I watched. It turns out that, while I can use firefighting tools to tear things open and apart, I’m not too good at actually putting stuff together. Searching for a way to contribute, I learned how to use the department’s complicated 35mm camera and became the AFD’s photographer. I also became the public information officer because, according to some, I have a bit of writing ability.

By the time I’d been on for several years, I began to suspect the department’s one hundredth anniversary was coming up. It turns out my incipient powers as an historian were on track, and I began writing the story of the Albion Fire Department as a Centennial present to the town.

I finished it just in time for the AFD’s 125th anniversary. Luckily, I’ve since become much better at deadlines.

Now I’m slowing down a bit. I’ve had chronic back pain since wearing one of those old steel air tanks at an all-nighter downtown fire in the early 80’s. I’ve developed a chronic cough, and had a cancer scare a few years ago. After I go to bed, there’s a good chance I’ll snooze right through the fire page until I’ve put three or four hours of sleep behind me. Sometimes I think that book, Smoky Days and Sleepless Nights: A Century or So with the Albion Fire Department, should be my coda. The sales go straight to the department, so after 34 years of service I could kick back with the knowledge that I did my part.

But I can’t let it go. I suspect, if I ever do hang it up, I’ll offer to stick around as the department photographer, or maybe have myself displayed at fund raisers wearing 19th Century gear. Any chance to soak in the atmosphere for a little while longer.

It’s the blood, you see. Fire engine red.

"A fire? Where? Where?"
“A fire? Where? Where?”
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