As I was driving through Cleveland, one afternoon, I realized I was going the wrong way and was about to head south toward Akron, instead of north to the interstate. So, I made an illegal U-turn, in the middle of the street.
A police car appeared behind me, its red lights swirling. The officer walked up to my car and took note of the sticker on the window, which identified me as a member of the Williamsville Fire Department.
“So, you’re a fireman?” he asked, with a smirk and a strong dose of attitude. “That explains why you thought it was OK to do that.” I admitted I was wrong and prepared myself for additional admonishments. Instead, the officer gave me directions. But no ticket.
That story helps illustrate the lighter side of being part of one of the greatest groups on Earth, the fire service. Not because we get special treatment, once in a while, but because of the bond we share.
Last week, approximately 300 volunteer fire departments, across New York state, participated in Recruit NY 2013, a program launched by the Firemen’s Association of the State of New York, to help fire departments attract new members. Only time will tell the long-term results of the effort.
There are numerous reasons why most departments in this area need new recruits. Many young men and women head out of town for college and a lot of members have two jobs or demanding parental responsibilities. Many potential firefighters feel that they do not fit the mold. I hope that the recruitment drive helped erase some of those misconceptions.
The benefits of being a volunteer firefighter far outweigh the drawbacks. While there is a dangerous side, to responding to emergencies, there is also a quiet satisfaction, in retrieving someone’s personal possessions from a charred kitchen or seeing people who have no pulse suddenly begin to breathe, on their own.
Firefighters must go through training and recertification, but actually doing the job is what matters most.
“Walking the walk” gives a firefighter access to the proudest collection of people in the nation. Not all of us have faced the drama and urgency of what our brothers and sisters deal with, in big cities, but we share the same call of duty. We may never face the danger of a high-rise fire or a major structural collapse, but the connection is palpable.
That bond allows us to walk into almost any fire hall or firehouse and be welcomed, like an old friend.
I often say that being part of the fire service is part “Backdraft” and part “Animal House.” Where else could I have met a man who was taken in, after being orphaned at a young age, and given a home, for life? He is not a firefighter, but Washington, D.C. firefighters saved him from a life on the streets. He is now one of them.
How else could I have met someone from Kapuskasing, Ontario? Another fan and I were both wearing our respective fire department jackets, during a Sabres game and struck up a conversation.
A photo I took of a Buffalo battalion chief was chosen for the cover of Firehouse Magazine, in December 1983. Last year, when that individual passed away, my photo was on display, at the funeral home.
Complete strangers welcomed us into their New York City firehouse for lunch, on the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. I felt so unworthy of the applause I heard, as I walked past Ground Zero.
I met President George W. Bush, approximately 7 months after Sept. 11, and thanked him for an inspiring speech he had just given, in praise of firefighters. He shook my hand, looked me squarely in the eye and said, “Thank you for what you do.”
That’s all we ask.
David Sherman is the managing editor of Bee Group Newspapers and a columnist for the Weekly Independent Newspapers of Western New York, a group of community newspapers with a combined circulation of 286,500 readers. Opinions expressed here are those of the author. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org