My mother died from lung cancer when I was thirteen years old.
Now, that’s something I don’t wish on anyone, but I can certainly point to positive points of my character that can be attributed to that single tragic event in my life. My responsibility, resiliency, work ethic, and my servant attitude are all credits to my mother and the fact that I lost her so early in my childhood – all characteristics that would prove to be pivotal throughout my career, especially in the fire service.
Unbeknownst to me, my mother kept a keepsake box for several of the eight kids in my family. My father gave me mine shortly after she died. I still have it and have continued that family tradition with our kids.
Amongst many other treasures in that box were two cards and a hand-made book that may have forecasted where I would be today.
The first card was to my parents congratulating them when I was born. The card was from the Evans Center Fire Company Ladies Auxiliary. Today, I celebrate my twenty-ninth year with that very same fire department.
The second was a first-birthday card from my grandmother that folded out to reveal a fire engine. In her handwriting at the bottom of the card is: “Someday maybe you’ll get the real thing.”
The book report was titled “The Fire that Ruined Chicago.” I wrote and illustrated it when I was nine years old.
Call it fate. Call it fortune. Call it what you want.
Almost every firefighter I meet speaks of how they always knew, from the time they were a very young boy or girl– that they wanted to be a firefighter.
I was one of those kids. I call them the “Run-to-the-Curb” type kids.
The Evans Center Fire Hall (as we called it) was just down Bennett Road and around the corner on Route 5, maybe a few hundred yards away from my house, as the crow flies. Closer than that was the rear entrance to the sixteen acres of fire company property, directly across the street from our driveway.
Growing up so close to the firehall, it was an obvious choice as a place to hang out with my friends. We played baseball on the ball fields the fire company leased to the Little League for a dollar a year. We helped out at and patronized the carnivals and other fundraising events. When the fire company added on a large banquet hall in 1971, we helped the contractors move supplies and materials. My initials are carved in the concrete sidewalk they poured. I was eight.
And of course, we ran to the curb whenever the fire siren went off. It was loud and it seemed to cycle forever. With the windows open on a warm summer night you could hear a siren from a fire station ten miles away. It would wake me up out of a dead sleep, trying to figure out the direction and thus the firehouse it was coming from.
Fire service communications had advanced so far that there was even a separate siren for either a first aid or a fire call. Each had its distinct sound and cycle. That was high-tech for the times.
Whenever we heard that siren wail, we would run out and look to see if the fire trucks were coming down our road or headed in another direction. As we got older and were allowed to venture further, we ran to the corner to watch them racing out of the station, lights flashing and sirens whining. The firefighters, in their rubber coats and boots, and metal helmets; were strapped to the tailboard of the fire engine by a coarse rope belt that had a sharp hook on the end that would gut you like a fish if it ever caught you. I still have one of those.
Oh, how we wanted to be those guys.
When we weren’t at the firehall, we were pretending to be at the firehall. We rigged our bikes with oversized reflectors to act as “flashing” lights, and made walkie-talkies out of pieces of wood with a sixteen-penny nail in the top to serve as the antenna. That same nail was also used to carve the hatch-work of where the speaker would be on the radio.
Our mothers’ flower gardens never got so much watering as when we stretched the big “green line” to douse the fictional flames on the side of the house.
I was blessed to grow up in a neighborhood with a lot of kids, twenty-one to be exact, across just three households. We had eight. My best friend John’s family had nine children – they were Irish Catholic. And my other best friend Doug’s family had four kids. They were just Catholic.
We were an anomaly in the neighborhood as we were neither Irish nor Catholic, but we held our own in the fill-all-the-seats-at-the-kitchen-table department. (If you’re interested, you can read more about my neighborhood in my blog titled “The Lost Act of Popping In.”)
We struck pay dirt when we became adolescents. We became close with the fire chief at the time and Jim would pick us up at the corner to ride with him whenever there was a call. Died and gone to heaven, we were.
My only problem was that Doug and John lived closer to the corner than I did and the chief only had room for two of us on the bench seat of his pick-up truck. My only solution was to be faster than they were. I didn’t miss many calls.
The rides with the chief became more frequent as we got older. We observed and learned a lot. We were accepted by the firemen as firehouse brats, despite the fact that no one else in our families was associated with the fire company.
I remember waking up one summer night to the siren sounding, getting dressed and running down the street, John and Doug jumping in line on the way. What made this time different was that when we reached the corner, we weren’t met by the fire chief but by the local police, as the fire was in the historic old schoolhouse on the corner. Fortunately, the chief arrived shortly and quickly vouched for the ad hoc ride-along program we’d been practicing for a while now.
Our un-official arrangement continued for quite a while until the fire company caught on to the fact that we were helping out way too much at fire scenes. After what was I’m sure a heated debate, the fire company decided to take advantage of our youthful exuberance and formed a junior fire company to protect us, them and our activities. On September 1, 1980 I was inducted as Evans Center’s first ever Junior Firefighter at age 17.
Of course, growing up across the street from the firehouse certainly gave me a distinct advantage in figuring out my passion for what I wanted to do with my life. However, at the time, it just wasn’t clear as to the route I would take to get there.
Since first running to the curb, I rose to the rank of Chief of Training and have held several other offices in our fire department.
Eleven years ago, with eighteen years of experience under my belt, I was blessed to be able to make my career in the fire service. I serve as deputy fire coordinator of our county’s fire service, in charge of coordinating the response and training of 97 fire departments and more than 5,000 firefighters.
Although much of what I do today deals with the broader spectrum of emergency management, I’ve never forgotten what got me to where I am today: hard work, a passion for serving others and my love for serving with others like me.
Trust me, there have been plenty of other stories along the way, some of which would make you laugh while others will make you cry.
I kept a log of every single call I went on in my rookie year. That’s a story in itself.
John went on to be chief of the department and our town fire marshal. Doug has been a paramedic for more than 20 years. I don’t think we turned out half bad. They’re still in the fire department and they’re still my best friends. They are my brothers.
The best part is that my collection of friends has multiplied many times over the years.
I count my blessings every day that I get to do what I love, and for the opportunity to share my love for the job with everyone I come in contact with: on paper, in conversation or via the latest technology.
The life of a firefighter is full of sadness and sorrow, challenges and obstacles, hurt and pain, laughs and happiness; and of the greatest rewards anyone could ever ask for and few can understand. Every day is a new day.
That’s why I’m a firefighter.
It was in the cards.
For a comprehensive offering of R&R resources, visit my blog at www.tigerschmittendorf.com. Click or call if you’re looking for ideas or want to volunteer your own. I’d love to hear your stories.
Let me know how I can help.
Until next time… “Stay safe. Train often.”
|Tiger Schmittendorf is chairman of FASNY’s Recruitment and Retention Committee and serves the County of Erie Department of Emergency Services (Buffalo NY) as Deputy Fire Coordinator. He created a recruitment effort that doubled his own fire department’s membership and helped net 525+ new volunteers countywide. A frequent presenter on the subjects of leadership, incident management, safety, recruitment and retention, he is a Nationally Certified Fire Instructor and has been a firefighter since 1980. Visit his blog at www.tigerschmittendorf.com and tell your story at www.runtothecurb.com.|