Inside A Firefighter's 'Madness'

ELLIE'S EYE

July 28, 1991|By Ellie Baublitz

His forehead is creased with worry lines, his eyes show the pain of others' suffering, and he's tired and dirty, bathed in his own sweat from hauling 3-inch hose lines up flights of stairs to fight a blazing fire.

The front cover picture of Bill Hall on his new book, "Turnout: A Firefighter's Story," is every firefighter around the world.

"So, what kind of madness makes someone run into a burning building when everyone else is running out?" Bill asks in the introduction to his book, just published by Greenberg Publishing Co. of Sykesville.

I had a chance to see Bill in action and, hopefully, to answer his question July 15 when I and photographer Mark Bugnaski spent the day shift with him at Superhouse, the city's largest and busiest firehouse, where Bill has been stationed for the past 18 years.

It was the kind of assignment every reporter jumps at to relieve the tedium of face-to-face interviews and meetings from which most stories come.Chasing fire engines through Baltimore streets had to be thrilling!

My own husband, Charles, has been an Anne Arundel County firefighter for 22 years. And I've been with him when he would get a call, andI've even watched him fight fires near our home in Brooklyn Park before we moved to Carroll.

But I'd never actually chased an engine to a fire, though I have covered fires for the newspaper. Mark and I had hoped to be able to ride the equipment with Bill, who works on Rescue 1, but the Baltimore City Fire Department said no way -- liability, you know. So Mark consented to be our driver, and Bill graciously got us a spot on the ramp next to Rescue 1.

Not all of a firefighter's time is spent fighting fires and saving lives. They spend a lot of time waiting for a call to come in.

That's what Bill, Mark and I did for the first three hours of Bill's shift -- waited. At 10:18 a.m. a call came in of a gas leak in an apartment on South Charles Street. All of Superhouse's equipment went, with Mark close behind Rescue 1.

It was a brief, but harrowing ride through red lights and around fast corners. And it was all for naught; after about 10 minutes, most of the units were released.

The second call had a little moreto it -- a longer ride and detail, but still no action. We ended up in Fairfield in South Baltimore, where, going through Cherry Hill, Bill thought for sure a city policeman would get Mark. But he didn't even try.

While all Mark and I got, story-wise, was some sunburn from standing around for two hours in the heat, we didn't come away empty-handed.

"I have to compliment you," Bill said to us. "You're fast. I didn't think you'd be able to keep up with us."

High praise indeed from one who knows the importance of speed.

And Mark did geta photo in next day's edition of The Sun of firefighters checking for the source of a gasoline leak.

After the shift was over, I visited Bill and his wife, Carol, at their Sykesville home, for more insight into why he wrote the book. I asked Carol what it meant being married to a firefighter.

I discovered that Carol and I had similar feelings about our husbands. And we've shared some of the same experiences, such as being there after a fire claimed another firefighter's life.

We realize that it could have been Bill or Charles, but we don't consciously think about it. You can't, not if you want to keep your sanity and your marriage, because you also realize that he's doingwhat he loves and wants to do, and it's not your place to tell him to stop.

"When we were first married there was a lot of fear," Carol admitted. "You think he isn't going to come back.

"But over the years, it's diminished," she said. "I know he's careful about what hedoes, and you just trust that he'll be OK, or he'll die doing what he loves.

"You learn to live with it," she said. "(The fear) has its little place on the shelf, and you leave it there."

You also know that if he dies, he'll die a hero, serving others. Is there a nobler way to die?

We have our own ways of dealing with the stress of living with a man who we know, in the back of our minds, may not come home tomorrow.

The widows of firefighters who die in the line of duty qualify for $50,000 from the federal government. I was delighted when Carol said she told Bill she'd put him on ice and take him to the fire station if he died anywhere else but in the line of duty so she could get the money.

I've told Charles the same thing: If you have to go before your time, make sure it's in the line of duty.

Sounds cold-hearted, but it's practical: Carol has four children to raise, and I have three.

And firefighters simply don't make a lot of money. Base pay for Bill and Charles, after 19 and 22 years, is about $31,000 and $36,000, respectively. Both men have second jobs, and Carol and I both work.

I'm not going to answer Bill's question for you. Read "Turnout" yourself to find out why firefighters do what they do.

You'll feel, with Bill, the crushing defeat of losing a child in a fire one day and the exhilaration of saving a woman from her collapsed house the next.

You'll feel the outrage and helplessness atman's inhumanity to man that the firefighters react to with practical jokes on each other back at the station. As Bill says, "It's our way of dealing with the stress."

And if you don't already respect and appreciate firefighters everywhere, "Turnout" will teach you why you should.

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