Cantankerous Wisdom: Junior Firefighters, Part 1

By Bill Adams

When I was in high school, you had to be 16 to join the fire company as a junior member. The most embarrassing part was you had to bring your father (preferably) or your mother (inadvisable) to the fire station to meet the fire chief or one of his minions who explained how their precious little boy would be subjected to deceased, dying, and injured people; cursing, hard work, harder discipline, and training two days a week—Tuesday nights inside and Sundays outside. The chief would tell them that if their pride and joy ran afoul of the local constabulary or behaved inappropriately in public while displaying fire department insignia the repercussions would be hard, swift, and nonnegotiable.

The department sent a list of all junior members to the high school each year. If the juniors were needed during the day, the school would be called and a rig would pick them up—no questions asked. The down side was if sonny boy’s grades dropped off and the school thought it was because he was spending too much time at the fire station, a phone call to the chief resulted in a vacation from the fire department until grades improved. Juniors had to be out of the fire station by 9:00 p.m. on a school night and 10:00 or 10:30 p.m. on weekends. After completing initial training, you were expected back for night calls but had to leave as soon as everything was picked up. I recall it took about 14 months to complete all the training before you could get on any rig without being asked to. The officers decided who “passed” and became a junior. They accepted you or they told you they didn’t think you were up to the task. There was no recourse, negotiation, or arbitration. The ACLU would have loved it back then. About a dozen or so were in my group, and only four of us made it.

Besides being a volunteer, George was a paid deskman at the station, working every third day. He helped train the juniors. He was also miserable. Everyone has the right to be miserable, but most juniors believed George abused the privilege. You could be downstairs shooting pool and he would come down and ask you where the booster line spanner wrench was kept on Engine 5. If you couldn’t remember, he’d say no shooting pool until you found out where it was kept. Consequently, every junior believed it was his solemn obligation to terrorize George at every opportunity.

It didn’t work. No matter what we tried to pull, George would always find out. You’d put salt rather than sugar in his coffee; hide his coffee cup, short sheet his bunk, or turn the volume on the TV up so loud that it would rattle his eardrums when he turned it on. Later, we learned he was in the original junior firefighter program that started at the beginning of WWII. He had been there, done it, and had the t-shirt to prove it. Everybody really liked George, but wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of telling him. Four of our assistant chiefs started out as juniors with George. We couldn’t get away with anything.

Juniors were “checked out” to ride the apparatus one rig at a time. The first was the last-out pumper that supplied the ladder truck. It was followed by the second-due pumper, which supplied the first due. Then it was the ladder truck and finally the first-due pumper. I remember one time there was a call when the driver was leaving alone on the ladder. A bunch of us juniors were standing around foaming at the mouth. The driver asked the deskman if anyone was going. It happened to be George, who looked at us and told the driver no. We had one more lesson to go on the ladder and rules were rules.

The department ran a rescue squad that responded whenever anything detrimental happened to the wellbeing of a human being like car accidents, childbirth, drownings, heart attacks, feet or hands caught in a lawn mower—you name it. Before you were out of high school, chances are you saw it all. Some kids couldn’t handle it and wouldn’t ride on the squad, but they weren’t criticized for it. They got a pass.

After the initial Red Cross first aid certification, a crusty old battalion chief from the city gave a training course. He was good—real good. Then it was on-the-job training. If there was room on the squad, juniors in training were allowed to ride along as observers. If you encountered a deceased person in a residence, the black coats would get the next-of-kin out of the room and pull the E&J mask off the victim. The E&J was a 50-pound mechanical resuscitator in a box the size of an SCBA case. Whoever was in charge would look at a couple of new juniors and say, “get on down.” One had to perform what was then called “closed heart massage” while the other practiced mouth to mouth. Times were different then. “Rescue Annie” wasn’t invented yet, so you practiced on real dead people. More than once, you could hear ribs cracking. I remember one junior violently vomiting after a recently deceased regurgitated an esophagus full of a half-eaten dinner.

Speaking of dead people, the local undertaker used to get real upset every time he had to bring back a metal airway that we’d inadvertently leave inside someone’s mouth. The metal airways looked like small wire cages about the size of your bent long finger. So, we tied a nasty-looking never-been-washed white shoe lace to it. It served two purposes. First, you wouldn’t forget it after a doctor pronounced someone dead. Secondly, on the remote chance someone came to while you were working on them, you wouldn’t lose a couple fingers trying to reach inside their mouth to grab the airway. Oh—we didn’t have latex gloves back then either. Today’s emergency medical services people couldn’t have handled it.

Being a gopher, drafting, ground wasps, and the Duffle Bag will be in Part 2.

BILL ADAMS is a former fire apparatus salesman and a past chief of the East Rochester (NY) Fire Department. He has 50 years of experience in the volunteer fire service.

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