Firefighting- Legends and Realities

Firefighting can conjure up images of heroic men and women bravely rushing to the aid of families and extinguishing flames, putting their own well being at risk. For a friend of mine, 20 year old former engineering student named Alex Diamantopoulos, the transition from typical academia into firefighting was rather simple. His experiences in training and speaking with professionals have left him well informed on the subject—he is aware of the stereotypes and myths, and can verify the truthful elements despite his rather brief escapades.

Before heading over to the campus for the first time, Waukesha County Technical College in Southeast Wisconsin, Diamantopoulos gave me an introduction to his studies and goals as a firefighter in training. He had been there for a semester when this all happened, and was an “A” student, commanding the respect of his peers and instructors, which he informed me of in the utmost confidence. I had very little idea of firefighting and what it entailed other than the obvious, so he started simple. “Basically, people are divided into specialties like in the military. Then they go out in teams to respond to everything as quick as they can.” While his specific goals have varied since he began, he is currently working towards being an emergency medical technician, or EMT.  EMTs are trained to quickly respond to those at the scene of an accident. They can provide immediate care to those who are injured, and can be employed by both firefighters and police units.

He also went on to explain that firefighters follow a sort of militaristic ranking system, with a Chief being the top dog, Deputy Chief being below, Captain at an intermediate, then Lieutenant and finally the basic firefighter. Emergency specialists like EMTs were typically one step above the basic level. Each rank also possesses an insignia to demonstrate their capabilities, though to an outsider, it looks indiscernible. It did to me anyway, when he showed me a shot of the various line patterns and bold colors.

Fire students gear up for a training exercise.

Fire students geared up for a training exercise.

Firefighting, titled rather simply by Jack Gottschalk, provided me a history of the subject matter, which dated back farther than I would have imagined. As civilization expanded, fire naturally became an increasing concern because of the danger it presented to lives and property. Interestingly, the first urban fires of historical importance were probably the result of arson. It’s said by historians that Lugdunum was a Roman colonial capital in 59 AD, it did not meet desired appearances and was thus set ablaze. This is of importance because the Romans would later develop an interest in fire prevention and control, and would develop a rudimentary fire code and organization composed of soldiers and slaves. Buckets of water, handheld syringes, pikes to tear down walls, and short ladders were the tools typically utilized by such units. Well into the Dark Ages and into the Renaissance, the methods for fire extinguishing would change little—a testament to Rome. The Great Fire of London in 1666 is what marked to the transition into modern firefighting. Around 1700, the English colonies in America had fire resistant materials, leather hoses, and engines tailored for such activities. The symbolic fire hydrant was first added around 1802.

Firefighters will typically work around the clock in long, rotating shifts; such an important service is of course necessary at all times. This is accomplished via a firehouse, a large building where workers report in and wait for a call to action. Waukesha County Technical College has one set aside just for its students, which is functionally identical to a real firehouse, just that it’s filled with aspiring young minds rather than sweaty grown men. The firehouse contains the items one would expect in a typical household: a television, furniture, a kitchen with the usual items, etc. As was (somewhat jokingly)  pointed out by one of Diamantopoulos’ instructors: “If you want a guaranteed job, just let them know that you know how to cook.” Simple, little things like that can come in handy for a job like this, it seems.

Fascinated by the similarities to the military lifestyle, I took to finding information about firefighting in the military. When I began, I didn’t even know such a concept existed, but indeed—military firefighters do exist, and they unsurprisingly follow a stricter regimen daily (not to discredit any “normal” firefighters when I say that). An article on the website DoDLive entitled A Day in the Life of a Military Firefighter chronicles the daily adventures of Sergeant Katryn Tuton’s crew. Workers here make use of civilian firehouses and are required to work 24 hour shifts at a time. Sometimes getting off of a shift requires immediately going into Army training, leaving little time to breathe. Out of the few military men and women who make up these units, majority of them are military veterans, who are already accustomed to such exhaustive days in the field. Like civilian firefighting, training is a key component, as messing anything up when the time comes could cost people their lives. Though, there is a softer side. As was mentioned by Sergeant Jeremy Lorton, having such long shifts brings the team together like family, and provides a sense of comradeship that civilians perhaps won’t experience.

On my first visit to the campus, the firefighting students were throwing water bottles at the police students. I even had the opportunity to participate in such thrilling events. The other students didn’t seem to mind, some of them stopping to ask if I was involved in the program, which I wasn’t. Though my conversations with the other students were brief, many of them did mention going to school for something else originally, but then switching to firefighting due to a perceived ease or other factors. However, students dropping out is not unheard of. Certain courses are apparently there to help weed out these students, similar to an organic chemistry course for biology majors for example.

An instructor explains route planning at WCTC.

An instructor explains route planning at WCTC.

The apparent hatred of police students was absolutely fascinating. As Diamantopoulos explained to me, it all comes down to tradition, which is a significant part of the career’s history.  It is not really a hate or animosity, but rather a friendly rivalry. More than once, the police were referred to as “blueberries” and criticized by the instructors. One of Diamantopoulos’ instructors apparently said on his first day that smart people became firefighters and everyone else becomes police officers. It is worth noting that the police lifestyle is very comparable to that of a firefighter: long shifts, very organized training, and military-esque rankings. But again, it’s all tradition and nothing to be taken too seriously. The experienced firefighters will often don the full mustache, according to tradition, which is also due to a full beard getting in the way of protective facial equipment which one of Diamantopoulos’ instructors warned him about early on. His usual sloppy beard was gone shortly into the semester, trimmed into a neat goatee. There was a more discriminatory side to things that I have mixed feelings about too—some instructors believe the job should entirely be left up to men and that women aren’t capable of being firefighters. Others believe homosexuals shouldn’t be allowed in either. Again, harkening to military ideals which many veterans still hold onto.

Other than the core training classes, students still have other sideline credits to take. Diamantopoulos was in a psychology class to complement his fire science and training schedule. Some of these credits and expectations vary according to desired focus, like EMT training in his case. This requires classes dealing with people, and assessing situations quickly. Different types of specialized jobs can have different salaries too—CareerProfile lists engineers, EMTS, dispatch officers—all with different projected incomes and benefits. While Diamantopoulos doesn’t anticipate becoming wealthy, he does expect a career that pays well for the work he does and that he will enjoy. And at the end of the day, nothing else really matters.

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