The Best Firefighter

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While Hollywood has effectively captured the essence of many professions, it has consistently missed the mark with firefighting. The three main efforts, The Towering Inferno , Backdraft , and the recent Ladder 49 —along with the cable TV series “Rescue Me”—contain some drama but have very little to do with actual fire conditions or the people who fight the fires.

I have heard actors say that humor is the most difficult part of their trade. Firehouse humor is especially hard to mimic.

George Hall and Tom Wanstall, in their perceptive book FDNY: New York’s Bravest , captured the flavor perfectly. “Their sense of humor is uproarious and utterly tasteless, often bewildering to outsiders and newcomers on the job. Nothing—but nothing—is sacred in the firehouse—not your race, your gender, your mother, your wife, your kids. Not even your fellow firefighter who’s in the burn ward after going through the roof at last night’s job. Everyone and everything is hammered mercilessly, to the endless delight of all.”

Hollywood thinks of the firefighter’s profession as a drama, when it is actually a comedy, albeit a comedy interspersed with terror, chaos, professionalism, and split-second heroism. When I was newly assigned to Engine 43 in the Bronx, we were preparing lunch after a late-morning fire. One firefighter who looked, and acted, like the cartoon character Yosemite Sam was standing next to the knife drawer. Another firefighter was making such rude remarks about Sam’s wife that I thought he was going to grab a knife and start a fight. Everyone else in the room, accustomed to this sort of dialogue, appreciated the exchange. So did Sam. He quickly took his revenge by mixing the salad with his unwashed, sooty black hands. In the firehouse, everyone’s ego is a target. Experienced firefighters understand that with constant fires threatening life and nerves, with serious injury or excruciating death a real possibility, it’s better to just give up your ego. It’s very liberating.

In addition to its endless entertainment value, the humor mitigates the horrors firefighters deal with. The firefighters have figured out how to be totally rude without being malicious. I never recognize the characters in any of the Hollywood firefighter movies, yet when I sit with my kids and watch How the Grinch Stole Christmas with Jim Carrey, Shrek , or, again, cartoon characters like Yosemite Sam, I can immediately find the corresponding character in the firehouse.

Also, the historical context of the firefighters is absent from the movies. If you were to check the census figures of New York City and compare 1970 to 1980, you might wonder where a million people went. This dramatic drop represents the result of 135,000 arson fires that killed thousands of citizens and hundreds of firefighters.

I asked my captain, Tommy Anello, who spent as much time in the worst neighborhoods of New York as anyone, what he was thinking as he came to work in the late sixties and had to respond to an exploding fire load. “I thought we were winning,” he said, “because we were putting the fires out.” The firefighters never quit. The arsonists ran out of buildings to burn. To omit this sort of historical context is like making a wholly generic war movie. Consequently, Hollywood misses the relationship that existed between the firefighters and the people trapped in those crimeand arson-filled inner-city neighborhoods.

During the seven years I worked in the Bronx, I must have gone to more than 300 structural fires. I cannot recall one time coming out of a burned apartment or house that one of the people still in the hallway or out in the street didn’t say, “Thank you, fireman.” That alone made the rigors of the job worth it.

Next, the fires.

You can’t see. Most of the danger comes not from the flames, which could be extinguished or avoided in a burning apartment if there was any visibility, but from the smoke, which is so thick that a high-intensity light worn on a helmet does not even cast a perceptible glow. If you are on the forcible entry team, your job is to break down a metal door, crawl in as fast as you can, locate the fire, leave one member with a pressurized can of water to try to keep the fire at bay, then search the entire apartment for victims before the fire comes and traps you—all while you’re virtually blind. If you stand up, as is done in every firefighter movie I have ever seen, the next stop is the cemetery because it is over 1600 degrees at chest level.

I once spoke with a professional screenwriter about making better firefighter movies. He said that Hollywood wants conflict between the firefighters. I told him that there was very little. Whatever conflict might arise would ignite such general ridicule that it would quickly be extinguished. Another advantage of that raucous, bawdy firehouse humor.

The firefighters I worked with were both blue collar and college-educated —ex-military men, sons of firefighters, and people escaping the corporate world: lawyers, teachers, accountants. There were musicians, professional cooks, accomplished tradesmen, and athletes, all with a sense of humor whether or not they’d had one when they came on the job.