Imagine this: you are standing in the street, watching the flames lick up the sides of the house, thankful that your family is safe, but faced with the contradictory feeling of helplessness as the rest of your life goes up in flames, you watch your house burn.
Suddenly the blaring of sirens rises out of the darkness and the engine comes screaming down the street like shiny red cavalry. It comes screeching to a halt and the firemen pour out of it, each intent upon their particular task. One man runs out a short hose from the truck to a nearby fire hydrant, while another pair roll out the longer hose toward the house. A very large man, obviously in charge, quickly assesses the situation. He asks if there is anyone else inside. He reassures you that the situation is under control and issues adjusting orders to his men.
The Kansas City Fire Department consists of ladder companies, heavy rescue companies, hazardous materials companies, and arson investigators. The emergency medical technicians are now civilian contractors and are not run through the fire department. The ladder companies, named for the familiar extending ladder used to reach tall buildings, are also called pumper companies. They are the actual firefighters.
The heavy rescue team, which performs search and rescue, vehicular extraction, and occasionally gets kittens out of trees, stands down as the pumper team springs into action. They plunge into the burning building, seemingly oblivious to danger as they risk their lives to save what is left of your property. You might call them heroes, but they consider themselves ordinary men just doing their job.
Their job, however, does not seem to have the financial rewards commensurate to the risks that they incur.
Firehouse Magazine ranked Kansas City 152nd in pay throughout the country. Starting pay for a fireman in this city is only $29,676. The highest pay that any fireman in Kansas City can receive, $58,548, is lower than the entry level pay in five other cities. Conversely, we have some of the busiest stations in the nation. Kansas City has the 54th most busy ladder company, responding to 1,754 calls in 2003, and the 33rd busiest heavy rescue company, responding to 1,703 calls.
The first thing I noticed when I walked into the fire station was that people were smoking. This seemed odd, because I thought smoking in government buildings had been outlawed for at least the past decade. Then I realized that no one here must mind the smoke.
The fire station consists of a garage area, a sleep area, an activity area, and the kitchen area. The furniture consists of a few tattered couches, some easy chairs, and an end table that appears to have been gnawed upon by a dog or a toddler. All of the furniture is old and worn. It is supplied by the firemen themselves, for the most part. When one of them gets new furniture for their house, their older furniture usually finds its way to the station, where it is still much newer than what the city would provide.
The garage, where the heavy equipment is stored and maintained, is where the majority of the work at the fire station takes place. The fireman’s day is made up of maintaining the equipment, training sessions, and either long periods of waiting or short periods of intense activity as they answer fire or rescue alarms. Maintaining the aging fleet is an ongoing battle, but one that they diligently perform. As the station captain gives me the guided tour through the garage area, there are two firemen performing maintenance and operability checks on the fire engine.
Captain Mike Cambiano is a towering man with big meat hooks for hands. I had felt like a child when he greeted me, looking up at him with my hand swallowed in his massive grip. He stands over six feet tall, and must weigh in at 250. His jet-black hair is swept back out of brown eyes that are simultaneously serious and mischievous.
“Life is serious,” he says, “and we all take the job serious. But if you take it too serious all the time, it will get to you. There is a time to be serious, and a time to joke around and horseplay. I like it when my men are a little bit rowdy, as long as they take care of the little things. Being rowdy and cutting up relieves a lot of stress, and there is plenty of time for seriousness when the alarm goes off.”
“Taking care of the little things also relieves stress,” he continues. “If the thing we fear most is the unknown, then knowing that you have done everything you can do to eliminate the unknowns, like whether your equipment will work when you need it, will reduce the fear. Besides, there’s no time to check the oil when the alarm goes off.”
We continue into the activity room, where the firemen can spend their leisure time. The room has an old set of weights. A collection of dumbbells is stacked on a homemade iron shelf. The one weight bench had seen so many sweaty backs that the vinyl has hardened and cracked, and the exposed stuffing is stained. The room also has a television with a Playstation™ game console hooked up to it. In the corner is an old bookcase with dog-eared paperbacks that have been rescued from a local thrift store.
I ask this colossal man if he is afraid when he walks into a burning building.
“Well, we don’t really call it fear around here,” he says with a grin. “Only an idiot doesn’t feel a bit of fear when their life is in danger, but we prefer to call it ‘respect.’ Fire is a crafty (expletive), and She won’t respect you. But if you respect Her, or at least respect what will happen if you let your guard down, you’ll go home at the end of the day.”
Most of the activity in the fire station, much like it does in a home, takes place in the kitchen area. I hear the radio squawk as we walk into the kitchen. The dispatch area shares the large room, and the radio is turned up loud enough to be heard above the television. The television is on, and is tuned to the Outdoor channel. The kitchen is built around a huge table, which is currently occupied by three firemen, absently listening to the man on TV whisper about the trophy buck in his sights. The kitchen is complete with a full-sized stove and refrigerator, and a stocked pantry. The coffee pot on the counter is so stained it could be the star of an Oxyclean™ infomercial.
I ask Captain Cambiano about his home, and about what keeps him coming back to risk his life. While his huge barrel chest was conspicuously not puffed up when I asked him about his thirteen year career and his recent promotion, the love and devotion creeps into his voice as he talks about his wife and two daughters:
“When things get tough, I think about how it would be if it were them that needed help.”
Firemen may be ordinary people, but the job they do is extraordinary. They don’t do it for the money, that is obvious. They don’t do it for the glory either because unless they are currently saving their house, most people don’t seem to think about them much. Whatever their reason, I am glad they have enough love in their hearts to keep doing it.