Last week returning from vacation, I read the article regarding the Grand Rapids fire hall groundbreaking and expansion, coupled with the fact that October is Fire Prevention month. It was hard not to reflect on the 20 plus years I served on the Grand Rapids Fire Department.
What it meant to me to serve the community, the personal satisfaction and honor it was to replace my father as a firefighter after his 20 years of service, to fight fire alongside my brother and two uncles, not to mention the group of remarkable individuals who dedicated their time and service to the GRFD over the years.
Many were not surprised when I returned home from college that I would look to join the fire department. I had grown up attending parades, department picnics and, as mentioned earlier, I wasn’t the first one in the family to don the turnout gear of the GRFD.
What no one knew at the time was why I really decided to join and how it changed my life forever.
One cold winter evening when I was eight years old my brother and I headed to the Forest Lake hockey rink for an evening skate. On the way my brother decided to stop by a friend’s to see if he wanted to join us. Upon arriving at his friend’s house we were surprised to find him across the alley in the neighbor’s garage. My brother’s friend called us over. Reluctantly we entered as his friend closed the heavy wooden overhead garage door behind us.
As my brother questioned him as to what he was up to, his friend lit a match and dropped it on the garage floor. A small flame appeared. My brother immediately scolded him. “Did you pour gas on the floor?” my brother asked.
Without another word my brother grabbed me and said, Let’s get out of here.”
As we headed toward the door his friend called out, “Watch this.” Instinctively we looked back. There he stood with a five gallon can of gas in his hand.
As he poured gas onto the floor he was unaware that the match was still lit.
Throwing the gas can, flames erupted, catching me across the right side of my face.
I froze in shock and fear as my brother grabbed me, opened the heavy wooden door and pulled me into the alley.
As my brother and his friend ran to the house to call for help I headed down the alley towards home. After making it a block I stopped and pressed my face into the snow piled along the road. Though the burn was similar to a bad sunburn the cold snow gave relief instantly. Scared, crying and unsure what to do next I sat there.
Within minutes a fire truck rolled up a 100 yards away. Two firemen jumped off the tailboard yelling out, “I don’t see any fire here.”
Standing up I yelled, “It’s up there,” pointing to the orange glow in the sky one block east. Not wanting to explain anything I ran home.
It wasn’t hard for my mom to figure out where I had been. Dad was on a fire call, truck siren two blocks away and me with no eyebrows, red face and singed hair.
There is no question my brother saved our lives that night but for me the nightmares would last for many years.
As I got older I was diligent in making sure I knew where doors, windows and escape routes were when staying in unfamiliar places.
When the opportunity came to join the fire department years later I had to make a decision. Continue to be haunted by my childhood experience or overcome my fear by learning as much as I could about fire, how it reacts and how to control myself in stressful situations.
The training I received was remarkable. I would enter many burning buildings over the next 20 years. I would receive a similar burn to the left side of my face while fighting fire, but this time I wasn’t afraid of the situation I was in, I knew what to do and did it.
I would find myself in many more stressful and uncomfortable situations over the years but I was able to control my adrenaline and anxiety through thinking things through rather than reacting, looking for solutions rather than panicking. Breathing techniques and focusing on the situation at hand would help overcome the fear.
Even away from the fire service what I learned would be invaluable. From restoring breathing to an unconscious man in the remote Canadian woods, helping my best friend to safety after a bear attack, to calming an injured nurse who was trapped in her car that had rolled in front of me on Interstate 35.
What started off as a way to overcome my fear of fire turned out to be so much more.