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The Next Time You See a Firefighter

Jul 31, 2008
Give him a kiss. Well, if you're a man, a handshake will do. Think about it. You don't call 911 unless you're having a bad day. Unless it's a law enforcement issue, you'll be connected to the fire department and, whatever your problem, you'll expect them to help you. Unless it's something really stupid, in fact even if it is something really stupid, they will be on their way ASAP.

Firefighters have an amazing amount of training, an incredible range of skills, and a level of physical conditioning, which no one ever thinks about.

Twenty-five years ago, 80% of calls to the fire department were about fire. Today, approximately 10% are about fire and the rest are about health problems, traffic accidents, construction accidents, explosions, spills, trapped hikers, people in rivers. The list goes on and on.

The L.A. County Fire Department receives as many as 1,500 911 calls a day, and that excludes calls to L.A, City Fire. If you have fallen off your roof, cut off your finger, or spilled hot grease on yourself in the kitchen, you should hope a paramedic shows up (he will). If you are trapped in an automobile accident, you should hope they know how to use the Jaws of Life or a K2 Rotary Saw (they do). If you get zapped on a high power line, you should hope someone will know how to get you down (they will). If you are trapped in a structure fire, you should hope they understand what kind of fire it is (electrical, flammable liquid, gas, or just plain combustible materials), understand how to fight it, know where to cut ventilation holes, how to revive you, and how to keep you alive until medical help arrives (they do).

If you are being swept away in a flash flood, or have fallen down the side of a mountain, you should hope they know their ropes and knots and remember their rappelling skills (they do) and that they are not afraid to come after you (they are not). If a wildfire is coming to your neighborhood, you should hope they understand weather patterns, fuel models, humidity indices (they do) and that they are ready to be dropped from helicopters onto mountain sides to cut fire lines to stop the blaze (they are).

The physical demands are incredible. Full turnout gear and respirators can weigh 50 pounds. Try climbing up a two-story ladder wearing that. Try dragging an additional 50 pounds of (empty!) fire hose. Try holding onto a fire hose pumping 150 gallons per minute. Try carrying someone the size of a football player out of an inferno.

When firefighters ask, "How can I help you?" they really mean it. That's how they get their kicks. This is a group of positive thinking, "can do" men (and a few women). When the tone sounds in the firehouse, it's an opportunity to go out and get killed or injured. They don't stop to consider whether they should respond, or to find someone else to handle the problem. When the tone sounds, they are on their way, that's what "first-responder" means, and they will rely on all of their training and skills and physical endurance to help you. Need them at 2:00 in the afternoon? No problem. Need them at 2:00 in the morning? Still no problem. Cat up a tree? No problem.

Firefighters never stop training and learning and one of them could someday save you in one of a hundred different ways. For a firefighter it's not a job, it's a life. An old firefighter's phrase says, "Let no firefighter's ghost return to say his training let him down."

Finally, just so you know, here's the history of the Maltese Cross, which is the badge of a firefighter. When a group of crusaders known as the Knights of St. John fought the Saracens in the holy land, they were faced with a new weapon unknown in the West. When the Knights moved to the walls of Jerusalem, they were hit by glass bombs containing naphtha. The Saracens then dropped burning torches on them, burning them alive. The surviving Knights were awarded a cross similar to the ones worn by firefighters today. The Knights of St John lived on the island of Malta, and the cross became known as the Maltese Cross. Today it is our symbol of protection.

So, next time you see a firefighter, give him a kiss, or shake his hand.
About the Author
Kurt Kamm writes novels about fires and firefighters. A resident of Malibu, he has lived through several wildland fires. He is a regular visitor at the fire camps, stations and training academies of L.A. County Fire Department and CalFire. To learn more about his novels, One Foot in the Black, and Red Flag Warning, visit Kurt Kamm.
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