Firefighters share pain of injured colleagues

Firehouse: Strong bonds are formed among those living in close quarters and working a sometimes dangerous job.

January 05, 2001|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

James Smith Sr. stood yesterday in a West Baltimore firehouse where his son would be if he wasn't at the Johns Hopkins Bayview Burn Unit with scorched skin and a tracheal tube running from his throat.

"He'll be back fighting fires again," said Smith, a firefighter who retired eight years ago. "It's in his blood - it's part of his life."

James Smith Jr., 32, and seven other city firefighters were injured Tuesday on North Broadway when two floors of a burning building collapsed while they were inside. Smith, who sustained the worst injuries, was trapped under smoldering debris for 30 minutes.

Getting hurt is as much a part of the job as spending sleepless nights on the station's uncomfortable beds or taking cold, communal showers in the bare-bones living quarters.

It's not something they talk about much.

"It's a dangerous, exhilarating job," said Capt. Michael Campbell, who works out of the same station, Engine 13, as Smith. "It takes a different kind of person to do this. The stress level is unbelievable. The divorce rate is unbelievable."

Smith's father, his firefighter uncle and his buddies at the firehouse at 405 McMechen St. had no doubt yesterday that Smith would be back - like other fighters injured on the job - running into flaming buildings when necessary.

If he were the type of person who shied away from danger, they said, he wouldn't be working at one of the busiest firehouses in the city, where he goes out on about 10 calls a shift in the winter. "When you go up to a fire, ignorance is bliss," the elder Smith said. "Lots of times you walk away with bruises. Sometimes, something worse happens."

Last fiscal year, the firehouse - which includes a truck, an engine and an ambulance - responded to about 14,500 calls.

Firefighters go out for everything from fires and flooding to gas leaks and medical calls. But what keeps them going, they said, is dousing flames and saving lives.

"I keep pictures of my wife and kids up so I remember why I'm here," said firefighter Bernie Muller, 43. "The worst part about this job is when kids are involved. Its hard because you can't show emotion until you go home."

The salary wont make them rich: Starting pay is $21,000 a year.

The hours are grueling: four days on, four days off. And there are few perks: Firefighters sleep in their clothes and pay for their own phone line so they can make personal calls from the station.

But most have wanted to do it their whole lives.

"When I was a kid, I used to listen to the scanner and chase fire trucks up the street," said Jeff Darby, 31, who has been a firefighter for five years.

Their station is a large garage with a fire engine and truck in the middle. In small rooms around the garage are a kitchen with a ripped-up floor, a weight room with donated equipment, a sleeping area with metal-framed beds and an area they call the "tiki lounge," where they can watch television from hand-me-down couches.

About 60 men and women rotate working at the station, 10 to a shift.

They cook together, watch movies together and spend a lot of time making fun of each other and getting on each other's nerves - like a family. If they hear the alarm go off at 1 a.m., they get up from their beds, get into their boots and figure out where the door is in less than 30 seconds. Before they go into a burning building, they pack on about 80 pounds of equipment.

They believe a statistic they once heard: One hour on the scene is equal to 16 hours of manual labor for their bodies.

Their jobs have gotten harder, they say, since the city began closing fire stations. Mayor Martin O'Malley's administration closed seven fire units in the summer, and the firefighters at the station have a handwritten list of eight engines and five trucks that have been put out of service citywide since 1987.

The firefighters call closing firehouses "Russian roulette."

"You can't close firehouses and not expect an increase in response time," Campbell said. "We feel like the city is trying to balance their budget on our backs."

In the past two years, the number of calls the station's truck responded to in December jumped from 207 to 317.

"They keep closing engines, and we keep making it work," said firefighter Tom Tosh, 33. "We race other firehouses to fires at breakneck speed. That's what makes it work. We're our own worst enemy."

Most firefighters have second jobs as truck drivers or technicians, for example, to provide more for their families.

Talking about fear is not part of the culture for firefighters, but it is for their families.

"The [fire]houses being closed puts my husband's life in danger," said Muller's wife, Sue. "I worry about how the department has changed."

She said their two girls, ages 11 and 13, think of their father as a hero.

"Sometimes you take this for granted, like it's a nine-to-five job, until you hear stories like what happened this week," she said, her eyes filling with tears. "You never know if they're going to come back."

Jeff Darby's wife, JoAnn, said she has been more aware of the danger her husband faces since the firefighters got hurt.

"When things like this happen, it hits home more and you sit and worry more," she said. "And now that we have an 8-month-old, it makes everything more real."

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