Nobody knows why firemen are firemen.
Not even they can tell you why. It’s time somebody try.
Firefighting is the most risky of all dead-end jobs yet,
also one where most workers are likely to punch in early.
It’s hard enough to believe that; impossible to explain it.
Fire and ice are uncomfortable, separately or together.
Wives hate the hours; kids love the noise.
Fire and ice.
Any day at the firehouse the bell from hell puts the dispatcher
on the horn with a tenement tinderbox address.
Into bunker pants, rubber boots, turnout coat, grab the mask and go.
Minutes later you’re on site, as others run out, you go in.
You’ll need all you can carry.
The four pound axe, a six foot hook, and the Halligan pry-bar.
The ceiling, concealing the smoldering,
has to come down and it’s one of those stubborn tin ones.
In the scary dark with the heat eating your ears, you are gouging out,
and tearing loose, and pulling apart: gulping air and tasting black,
your windpipe is closing and you’ve lost track of which way is out.
Is it worth it?
They’ve budget-cut your ladder company from six men to five,
so now everything you do is 16.7% more difficult, more dangerous.
Your air is low, inside your mask you’re throwing up.
Hours of using all you’ve learned, and learning more.
Now you’re back at the station house.
You’ve stuffed your nostrils with soapy fingers.
You can almost breathe again.
Next come tedious hours as you and Brillo gang up on grimy tools.
The cleanup crew at the firehouse is you.
When windows need washing and the toilets need cleaning
and floors need mopping and beds need making — You do it.
Fire and Ice; they both go with the job.
Then there’s that night another engine gets there first.
You see this wet-eared rookie hot-dogging ahead.
His Academy boots are still shiny.
You lose him inside the crackling dark.
You forget about him until your helmet warning bell says “Get out”.
The Battalion Chief is calling you off.
You get out.
The other guy didn’t
He had heard a scream from the bottom of burning
basement stairs and he’d headed down there.
When on the bubbling tar-paper roof, the three-ton compressor broke through.
That day we lost two.
Oh yes, firemen cry.
But only briefly because now comes the inevitable
and ever-more paperwork just in case OSHA complains or somebody sues.
Is it worth it?
Your B-crew pumper swapped his day shift so some
family guy could be home for his kid’s birthday.
Then outbound toward a false alarm your buddy
gets blindsided by a hot-rod driven by a drunk.
Fire and Ice.
The intercom barks again.
This time it’s a warehouse —
a big, fast, multiple blaze, probably torched.
On site, engine men draped with icicles dragging an
inch and three-quarter pre-connect frozen hose, are waiting for your big line.
Laddermen can’t make the building without you.
Search, rescue, ventilate.
Eventually it’s over and out.
You’re smoke-smudged and sleepless and wrung out
but you won!!
Behind graffiti-fouled walls you saved what you could but the
raging blaze that wanted to consume adjacent buildings didn’t
-because you were there.
Back at the firehouse before cleanup you and the guys sit a spell
tired but stimulated drinking coffee, laughing, feeling good about one another.
Nobody outside your world can ever know this feeling.
In any other uniform you get streets named after you for killing people.
In this one you risk your life to save people.
Until one day you run out of chances and at one final fire either you buy it, or you don’t.
If you don’t, it’s only eventually to be brushed off with a puny pension.
Yet there’s no third way you’d ever leave this job
and you’re doubting even God knows why.
Your out of the shower now. Most of the grime and some
of the cynicism are down the drain when you hear
a strangely familiar voice saying,
“It’s worth it!”
Your hearing this voice and there’s nobody there but you.
The quiet voice from nowhere is saying
“For salvaging things and people, from flames,
I have to rely on your hands.” You look around; still nobody.
But when you get over your incredulity you feel better.
Suddenly today’s crew cook in the kitchen hollers,
It smells like roast beef today.
That’ll be good. But you’ll eat fast.
For any next alarm you’ll want to be ready.
— Author unknown