August 1999
s m u g
by Rory Thompson

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Get Out of the Way!

You always hear us before you see us.

Usually, you're driving in traffic, trying to make the next light, either really liking the song on the radio or hurriedly switching from station to station hunting for a good one, when you become aware of a vague yet familiar whining somewhere in your subconscious.

Like everyone else, you ignore it at first, until you hear it's getting louder and closer! Panic starts to rise within as you realize it's a siren; no, it's two sirens, and blasting air horns, and a glance in your outside mirror reveals a massive fire truck, coming up fast and loud on your left, and Jesus! where did that come from, and you better move, because it's 20 tons of red and chrome, I'm driving it and you're in my way!

I've been a volunteer firefighter for almost 29 years now; I do it because it's a rush; always has been, continues to be so, and, I assume, will still feel that way for the foreseeable future. What is it that drives otherwise sane, stable, kid-loving, mortgage-holding, soccer-coaching folks to drop everything in a heartbeat and run off to help a total stranger, who's in danger of losing every material thing they've ever accumulated in a matter of minutes?

Damned if I know.

The official party line of volunteers everywhere is, "I like helping people." It's true enough, but scratch that surface a little bit, get to know to know the vollies as people just like you, and the truth comes out: It's fun, it's dangerous, it's a spontaneous break from the workaday routine that most of us plod through, and an opportunity to put some real-life skills to the test with an always-unpredictable outcome. You could get hurt doing it. People die doing it. Yet, the very danger is the allure; it's not like sitting at your desk for 8 or 10 hours hitting a keyboard and wheeling a mouse around. Firefighting is a skill where the situation changes by the second, and you damn well better know what to do and when to do it, or they'll be playing "Amazing Grace" for you on the bagpipes one day, sooner than you think.

Did you see that firefighter in Atlanta a few months ago, dangling from a helicopter rope, rescuing a crane operator who was trapped above a roaring warehouse fire? I haven't checked with them all personally, but it's a good bet that a majority of firefighters in this country - paid or volunteer - were thinking as they watched that tape, "Damn! I wish I could have done that!"

I'm at the point where I don't have to go into the burning buildings any more. There are enough younger members in my department who will physically push their way to be first at the hose line, chomping at the bit to rush into the smoky void, brave the heat and challenge the beast. Still, I make myself useful by driving the truck. Truth be told, that's where the real power and responsibility lies, so I guess it makes sense to let one of the older, more stable members handle that part. And even though I've been a "Qualified Chauffeur" (sounds like I should be wearing a black suit and matching cap, doesn't it?) since 1973, I still get butterflies every time I fire up the engine.

I live 1.6 miles from the firehouse. When my pager goes off (KEG-254, the Rockville Centre Fire Department, on the air with a General Alarm, a reported Building Fire), I'm already running toward my car, planning my route to the firehouse, depending on the time of day and the traffic I'll encounter. Once I arrive at headquarters, I always get mixed emotions. The first is a silent “Yippee! No one here yet. It's My Drive! BWAhahahahahaha…!”, followed by a more sobering, “Oh, DAMN. It really IS my drive! What if it's a big fire? What if I gotta work the pump? What if I don't remember how?” Since I've been playing this little mantra in my head for more than two decades, and haven't screwed up yet, I assume it's just a subconscious way of keeping myself focused. Once seated behind the wheel, a zenlike calmness sets in: Turn on the twin batteries, power switch to "on", and then hit both starter buttons simultaneously. The huge diesel fires up, echoing its roar off the walls of the firehouse bay as the control panel on the dashboard goes through its automatic checklist to make sure everything is functioning. I keep an eye on the oil pressure gauge, and wait a few seconds for the air pressure to build up so the air brakes work as expected. The last thing I want at this point is a surprise. I click on my seatbelt, release the parking brake with a loud hiss, hit "D" on the pushbutton transmission and ease the beast out onto the ramp in front of the firehouse.

Other members come screeching up, bouncing to a halt and running for my truck (Engine 2), the big Rescue Rig that we share quarters with, or one of the two ambulances. I'm intently listening to the radio, hearing which other trucks are already on the road, or what the first chief on the scene is reporting.

Frank, the company Captain, jumps into the officer's seat in the front beside me. "Whatta we got?" he asks, for my take on the situation. "Hose 3, Engine 4, and the Ladder are on the way; Chief just arrived, but nothing from him yet. I can take us in the back way and grab a hydrant, if you want."

He digests this for a split-second, says "You're driving, hit it," and off we go.

I've already mentally mapped out the route I'm taking, but before I press down on the accelerator, I always turn on the lights and step on the siren first. It lets the civilian drivers on the street know I'm pulling out, and reminds the Captain (or whoever's sitting in "The Seat,") to start working the sirens and air horns.

From there, it's a low but constant soundtrack in my head: "Left on Centre, right on Randall, approaching Village Avenue; slow down for that big bump, watch for idiots who don't see or hear me. (How can they not?) Siren wide-open now, bear left onto Hempstead Avenue, ease to the center of the road, watch that Chevy coming from the right."

The radio is chattering out updates; what trucks have arrived and where? Is there smoke? Are there visible flames?

Approaching a major intersection now, I've got the green light and cars are pulling over, but I watch for everything; daydreaming drivers, kids on bikes drawn to the siren like flowers to sunshine, other fire trucks converging who may not hear me over their own air horns.

Now the road is clear; one car ahead, plodding along. Windows up, more than likely the air conditioner and radio both blasting. As I get closer and realize they're not pulling over, I yell out, "Lean on it!" Frank steps on the twin air horns as I swing wide to the left. "Get out of the way!" I mutter, and they do. "We're goin' to your house," I continue, to no one in particular. And I just might be; they're heading in the same direction. Would they pull over any faster if they knew for sure?

I go one block past the fire street, take a right turn and then another, and nose in to the address, right at the hydrant.

"Nice spotting," Frank says as he jumps out to see what's up. We're in a good position; two houses away from the fire scene, right next to a hydrant, crew in the cab, suited up and ready if needed. I look over my shoulder to see them grinning back at me. "Good driving," one of them concedes.

Yeah, I think so, too. Made it up here in one piece, got me a hydrant, and we're good to go if they need us.

Good driving.

in the junk drawer

feature car
ac/dc gun
compulsion vise
posedown cheese
and such
and such
blab fan

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