Friday, 26 April 2013

Fire, fire!

This building in our town was consumed by flames last month
I was listening to a news story on the radio this morning about the funerals of the firefighters who were killed in West, Texas, when a fertiliser plant exploded last week. It was a big news story, not only because it happened on the heels of the Boston bombings, but because 14 people died, 11 of them volunteer firefighters who were the "first responders" on the scene.

I didn't realise before moving to the US that many town fire departments are completley staffed by volunteers - including that of the town in which I live. You would think that a town 20 miles from New York City would have an official fire department, but we don't. And it's not as if we don't have any fires. The scream of the town fire sirens is an almost daily occurrence here; when I first moved here I couldn't understand how anyone put up with it, as the noise is incredibly loud, like an air-raid siren, particularly if you happen to live near a fire station. But people do, because of the respect afforded to the fire department, and also because houses seem to burn to the ground here within hours.

Most houses are made of wood in New England, and many buildings too. Since living here I personally know of at least two families who have had their house burn down, and recently we had the most dramatic fire of all - a historic building on Main Street was consumed by flames, luckily not killing anyone but leaving many families homeless and three businesses displaced. The flames were so huge that at one point the whole town smelled of smoke; it was the lead item on that night's local New York news.

The firefighters who go to fight these fires all, with a few exceptions, have other jobs. They do "shifts" at the firehouse. However, fires here are ranked in terms of "alarms" to describe how serious they are. If it's a "three alarm fire", my understanding is that all available volunteer firefighters have to drop what they are doing and get to it. They're not paid, but they go into burning buildings and save lives.

And that's not all; after Hurricane Irene, when the tree destroyed the roof of our rented house, it was the fire department who were responsible for going into the house and checking it, at great danger to themselves. The fire marshal (who I got to know rather well over the course of that week) looked exhausted as he ran around town dealing with tree damage and fires that occurred when the power came back on; one day he confessed he had had no sleep, and he had bandages on his hands which had got singed in a fire.

I asked an acquaintance recently why these people do it, when they don't get paid. Is it pure altruism, the need for adrenalin or perhaps some urge to feel like a hero, I asked? He replied that some do it for benefits. Although they are unpaid, apparently the firefighters do receive some perks such as health insurance and the like. He also said he guessed that the "fire houses" were "fun" places to hang out, with free drinks and socialising (I wonder if some Dads of young kids find it a welcome escape from home?)

Whatever the reason,  I do think it's pretty amazing that these people do this job. It also seems to me to epitomise something about America. Yes, it's a very capitalistic society and money sometimes seems the sole motivator. But there is also a strong ethic of volunteerism and "giving back" in many communities. So when I hear the wail of the siren now at 6am, I, too, think of the volunteer firefighters and all that they represent.



13 comments:

MsCaroline said...

My cousin (in New Jersey) has been a volunteer EMT for years, and you're right: there's a very strong sense of wanting to give back to the community.I suppose this volunteerism is something most Americans have grown up with and just accept as a matter of course. Once again, it's such a treat to read about one's own culture from a different perspective, because it points out the good things as well as the bad ones. Really enjoyed this one - shall send a link to my cousin!

Iota said...

That's amazing. The firefighters where we were were definitely paid, not volunteer. Our next door neighbour was a firefighter, so the fire truck would sometimes be hanging round outside his house if he'd forgotten something.

The RNLI, of course, is largely (or totally?) staffed by volunteers. I used to think of that when the maroon went off (one for a practice, two for the real thing - or was it the other way round?)

The word "singed" is an odd one, isn't it? At first I thought you'd spelled it wrongly, but you didn't. It just doesn't look right, somehow.

Nota Bene said...

As you say, isn't it interesting that the fire service is run be volunteers...whatever their motivation, it's a brave thing to do...

Expat mum said...

A lot of CHicago's houses are frame, as was the first house we lived in. I always remember, soon after we moved in, five houses in the next block all burnt to the ground. The embers get caught by the wind and its' really hard to stop the fire from spreading, hence the devastating Great Fir of Chicago in 1871 which pretty much leveled the City. You can more or less tell where it reached because the houses that were built after the fire are mainly brick.

Julie said...

Great post...please continue your blog when you move back home :)

About Last Weekend said...

Incredible photo at the top. I did not know that about many of the firefighters. I think all the ones here are full time and fully paid. I can't imagine anyone in Oakland volunteering to be a fireman, mainly because they are always the first to the scene of any crime as we don't have enough police. Also I heard on NPR they are really hampered in our town because of new legislation that says two of them have to be stationed out the front for the others to enter the house. Unbelievable, but this is crazee Oakland for you!

Almost American said...

The volunteers are very special people. I have one friend who's a volunteer EMT - she was about to let her certification lapse, but at her son's soccer game last week she spotted a guy sitting on his own in a car in the parking lot having a heart attack . . . She did CPR until the ambulance arrived, but unfortunately couldn't save him.

Another friend was a volunteer firefighter in Greenwich, CT where some firefighters are paid and others are volunteers. When he moved to VT, he continued to carry all his firefighting gear in the back of his truck 'just in case'. (Greenwich bought his gear for him and let him take it with him when he left - many towns make the volunteers buy their own gear.) He'd only been there a week or so when a barn within sight of his house went up in flames - he raced over there and joined the volunteers even tho he'd not yet had a chance to sign up . . .

Clare Taylor said...

I have no idea if it's still the case, but in the small town I grew up in - in deepest Gloucestershire - we had a similar arrangement; firegighers were volunteers with other jobs who got paid when they turned up to fight a fire. I remember one particularly hot summer, when my parents were having their house repainted and it took ages, because the painter they had employed to do was also a volunteer fireman who had to keep running off to put out fires - literally...

Metropolitan Mum said...

As a kid we lived in the German countryside for a short while. The fire department there was staffed with mainly volunteers, too. A school friend's dad was such a volunteer. He had to 'practise' every Saturday morning with the fellow fire fighting volunteers. So I guess you are right to assume that there's a social aspect to it, too...

nappy valley girl said...

Ms Caroline - hope your cousin enjoys it (and he can point out anything I've got wrong!).

Iota - I'm guessing that in cities they have to have a larger, paid force. I know that in Texas they had to wait for the guys from Waco to turn up and put out that fire. Yes, singed is a very strange word...

NB - exactly. Whatever makes them do it, it's admirable.

Expat Mum - I do wonder why more houses aren't brick - the number of fires they have....

ALW - interesting. Maybe California has a different approach?

AA - both sound very impressive people. I didn't know they have to buy their own gear - makes it even more selfless.

Clare & Met Mum - I didn't know it also happened in the UK and Germany. See, we're all getting an education here!

Almost American said...

Oh, and there was a fuss a while ago somewhere in the US about a town where they asked people to cough up money to help support the fire department . . . optional, but if you didn't, then the fire department would not come to your house if it was on fire. I think the deal was that there were people who lived outside of town & didn't pay town taxes, but expected the town to provide services. A family chose not to pay, then when their house was on fire called 911 & asked if they could pay the tax in order to get the FD out there - they were told "No", and their house burned to the ground.

Michelloui | The American Resident said...

I'm with MsCaroline, it IS really nice reading nice (and interesting) things about one's home country! But not nice reading about all the fires. Growing up in northern Minnesota there was always a house or two burning down in October as people were starting to use their fireplaces more, but hadn't cleaned their chimneys and a squirrell (or something?) made a nest--perfect kindling... Sad.

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