When you join a volunteer fire department, you know that you will have to complete challenging training in firefighting and often in emergency medical care.
You know you’ll be learning to put out fires, rescue people, drive the apparatus, do CPR and save lives and property.
Nobody mentions that your dog will learn – and react to – the tones that summon you to a call.
They also don’t tell you that your home will gradually fill with images of red trucks, helmets and ladders, that your vehicle will accumulate everything from a seat-belt cutter to a fire extinguisher, or that you will never go to sleep without laying out a set of easy-to-get-into clothing.
And they don’t tell you that you will soon be striking up conversations and swapping stories with complete strangers with whom you have only one thing in common – a navy blue T-shirt with a Maltese cross design over the heart.
That T-shirt is “the universal sign of instant acceptance,” said Tiger Schmittendorf, deputy fire coordinator in the Erie County Department of Emergency Services.
And the fact that two people who have nothing in common but their T-shirts will go out of their way to talk with each other is unique, Schmittendorf said.
“Plumbers wouldn’t see a guy with a pipe wrench in his hand and say, ‘Wow, there’s another plumber, I should go talk to him!’ And accountants don’t have conventions where they say, ‘I was working on this set of books, and you should have seen these numbers!’ It just doesn’t happen,” he said.
Most of the conversations are the same, too. The people who were strangers seconds ago will discuss how big their departments are, how many calls they run in a year, and what kind of apparatus they have. Schmittendorf said, “I refer to those as the firefighter first date questions.”
Easy conversation with a stranger who becomes a friend is one of the hallmarks of the volunteer fire service. But there are many, many more, never discussed in training but recognized by nearly every one of the estimated 783,300 volunteer firefighters in the country who make up 69 percent of the nation’s fire service, according to the National Volunteer Fire Council. These quirks, from the tool-filled car to the canine first responder, are also familiar to many of the 6,000 volunteer firefighters in Erie County.
In the eight years since I joined the Snyder Fire Department in Amherst as a firefighter and EMT, my family and friends have become familiar with the mostly unknown world of volunteer firefighter culture. And within a week or so of being adopted, our dog learned to recognize Snyder’s sequence of tones emitted by the Motorola Minitor I carry. Even during dinner, Derry stops eating in midbite when Williamsville, whose tones sound the closest to Snyder, gets a call, then plunges his face back into his food when he hears the non-Snyder part of the sequence.
Herman, a 2-year-old English bulldog that belongs to Matt White, a firefighter with Twin District Volunteer Fire Co. in Lancaster, also recognizes – and reacts to – the tones for Twin District. He not only doesn’t react to the other departments’ tones he hears on White’s household scanner, he also ignores the 6:15 p.m. daily test of the Minitors, which sounds the same. “He only reacts when the tones go off at an unusual time, not at 6:15 p.m.,” said White.
Like Derry, Herman knows which tones matter and which don’t. “Sometimes I will just have the scanner going, and Town Line has a very similar set of tones to ours, but he doesn’t even react to theirs,” said White. When White’s parents visit from out of town, they sometimes have a difficult time figuring out whether Twin District is being toned out. So they look at Herman. “They’ll say, ‘That sounded just like yours,’ but because he doesn’t react, they know it’s not mine,” said White.
Not every dog is as interested as Herman and Derry. Hugh Wolf, first assistant chief at Twin District, said his Labradoodle is blase about calls. “When my tones go off, she just sits still and waits for me to leave.”
Some volunteer firefighters, including local physician Jason Borton, have written books about their experiences. But for the most part, the inside details that will have any volunteer firefighter nodding, laughing and contributing a few more suggestions are utterly unknown to those outside the fire service.
Saving time to save others
On some calls firefighters answer, seconds count: a person under water, in cardiac arrest or trapped in a burning house or car. A life can hang in the balance.
Because a critical call can come at any time of the day or night, most firefighters take a few steps to speed their response.
For Nicole Gerber, who has been with the Grand Island Fire Company for six years, that means that every night before she goes to sleep, she lays out everything she will need if she gets a call, starting with a set of clothes she can jump into quickly.
“I put things out in layers. It’s all laid out so you could slide into it,” she said. “The clothes look like someone just dropped out of their clothes on the floor.”
Downstairs, she sets out the things she needs to carry, including keys and wallet, “I have it all set up on the kitchen table,” she said. “Everything is precisely laid out in the same location. If you’re half-asleep going down the stairs for a 3 a.m. call, it’s easier when you have the routine and specific placement.”
When she was new to the department, Gerber also used to park her vehicle close to the door at night.
Today, she doesn’t worry about taking a few steps to the vehicle. But like every other volunteer firefighter interviewed, she stressed that her vehicle is always backed in, ready to be driven straight out and away.
“Backed into the garage, never pulled in,” said Wendi Walker of North Tonawanda, an 18-year member of the St. Johnsburg Fire Company in Wheatfield and president of the Western New York Volunteer Firemen’s Association. “There are times when I have a feeling that something is going to happen, and I will leave my truck in the driveway instead of pulling it into the garage. And we usually get a call when that happens,” she said.
Walker also keeps one or two pairs of slip-on shoes near the door. “I can just slip them on and go,” she said.
“All my winter boots slip on,” said Eggertsville Hose Company’s chief-elect Brian Multerer. “You can’t take the time to tie laces; you’re already taking long enough to put your hat and jacket on.”
Some firefighters take the quick response arrangements to heart, choosing homes on streets near the firehouse. Multerer and Michael Boehm, who each live less than 380 feet from the firehouse at 1880 Eggert Road, Amherst, are certainly among the volunteers living closest to their firehouses. But Boehm, who has lived in his house since 1977, actually saw the Eggerstville firehouse being constructed two doors down from him in 1995. Multerer moved into his house around the same time the station was being completed.
Both men appreciate their proximity. Boehm, a 38-year member, walks to the hall for calls, meetings or drills. Even though chiefs generally respond directly to calls in their district-issued vehicles, living nearby allows Multerer to be back home five minutes after finishing up any task at the hall.
Gear on the go
Many local departments provide their chief officers with vehicles, which are stocked with a variety of lifesaving, safety and firefighting equipment.
Carrying everything from a full set of bunker gear to an automatic external defibrillator is “very reassuring,” said Wolf, the first assistant chief from Twin District.
Wolf has served in six departments around the state in his 25 years in the fire service. As a chief, he said, “I definitely have a lot more gear with me than I ever had.” The down side to being so prepared is the bad feeling you get when you’re not, Wolf said. When he flies to other cities for business, “it’s definitely uncomfortable when you are on the road and don’t have all the gear with you that you are used to having,” he said. “But if you do see anything happen, you help out any way you can.”
But it’s not only the chiefs whose vehicles are stocked with emergency equipment. While bunker gear, boots and helmets are issued by their departments, many volunteer firefighters buy and carry everything from extra rope and fire extinguishers to seat-belt cutters and window punches.
“Luckily I haven’t had to use it,” White said of the emergency gear he carries in his car.
Decor and more
But the gear and clothing firefighters accumulate in their cars is no match for the decor items that fill their homes, everything from lithographs to action figures, from old helmets to box sets of “Emergency.”
Gerber of Grand Island is a longtime antiques-hunter who discovered a new world of collectibles when she joined the fire service, “Now, I find things like old nozzles and pieces of equipment used by fire companies,” she said. “I never would have noticed that stuff, but now I know what they are, and that gives them special significance.”
Jordan Kellerman, a fire captain with the Orchard Park Fire Company, has accumulated quite a bit of firefighter decor, most received as gifts from his girlfriend, Julie Krause. Kellerman recently bought his first house, which has a finished basement and a bar. The highlight of his collection, a gift from Krause, is a tin model of an antique ladder truck that’s nearly 2 feet long. “That’s right on the bar,” he said.
Kellerman said, “I really held off collecting things because I didn’t have a place for it. Now that I have the house and the basement, I think I will collect more. I’ve always liked the old fire extinguishers, the old water cans, maybe an old tin helmet.”
Kellerman could get some tips on collecting from Jack DeGroat of Highland Hose in Derby, a 60-year member who remains active with the fire police and as historian. DeGroat has a veritable museum of fire service history in his house, carefully arranged on shelves and in display cases. He has everything from photos, books, newspaper clippings and posters to toys, ornaments, figurines and helmets. In one corner is a larger-than-life fiberglass firefighter figurine that DeGroat bought in the 1980s in Pennsylvania. He drove home with the figure’s helmeted head sticking out the side window of his Cadillac.
“I just got it into my blood to collect,” says DeGroat, who cherishes a first aid kit that his father, a firefighter himself, made in the 1940s.
DeGroat had to sell two vintage firetrucks he once owned, a 1939 Seagrave hook and ladder and a 1943 GMC pumper-tanker. But he kept an obsolete canvas life net once used to catch people jumping from burning buildings.
Although he still checks out antiques barns, garage sales and flea markets, DeGroat doesn’t buy much anymore. “I’ve got almost everything I want,” he said.
In his travels, DeGroat often stops at firehouses in other places, swapping patches with other volunteers and looking over their apparatus. That’s another similarity he shares with most other volunteers, who have stopped into a small-town or big-city firehouse to say hello.
Schmittendorf said, “I say all the time, real firefighters don’t go on vacation, they just visit other firehouses.”
When Gerber vacations with her fiance, Dave Reilly, they often visit firehouses. During a trip to Reno, she said, “I was walking past a fire station and a guy was outside. We got talking about wildland firefighting, and he went in and got me a patch and a T-shirt. I got his name and I mailed him a T-shirt.”
And no firefighter can resist checking out neighboring departments’ apparatus on the road. A vehicle from outside the area might mean that a statewide conference, such as the Department of Health’s Vital Signs, is in town. An old piece of apparatus from a far-away district might have been sold and be en route to its new home; a new truck is likely being delivered.
Back to ‘ordinary life’
While some volunteer firefighters stay in the fire service for decades – the Fire Association of the State of New York routinely lists 50-year members, and some have served for longer – sometimes work, family or other issues mean a volunteer firefighter must resign, turning in the bunker gear and Minitor. It takes longer for them to stop checking for the Minitor on their belts, and still longer for their heart rates to stay steady when they hear their department’s tones.
Borton, an emergency room physician who wrote “Memoirs of a Volunteer Firefighter,” joined Sweeney Hose Company in North Tonawanda the day after his 18th birthday and served for 15 years. When he moved to a new house outside the district in 2005, he left active service, although he remains an exempt member of Sweeney Hose.
“It was a very difficult decision to make, but it was a changing time in my life,” Borton said. He most misses “putting ordinary life things aside and putting on fire gear to go into a burning building with brother and sister firefighters who also temporarily gave up their ordinary life commitments to serve their community.”
Today, Borton still misses “the thrill of going to calls,” a feeling understood by anyone who ever watched a firetruck headed to a call, sirens blaring and lights flashing.
He has another regret. “I miss getting to know the new members of the company,” he said. “The firefighters that I went through training with are like members of the family, although I consider every firefighter in the world as sort of a brother or sister in a global point of view.”
And beyond the camaraderie, said Wolf, there is deep dedication. “At the end of the day, your focus and purpose in being here is to help somebody who needs your help, somebody who is in a dire situation.”