This job is my life, my first love, and what I was put on this earth to do. We help people in dangerous and dynamic environments every single day – an experience only so many of us in this world get to put into motion when we ride the rigs into the fray. Every time I show up at the firehouse, I feel lucky and proud that I'm one of the people in this world who can do this job for a living. A dream come true.
‘Helmets abused – that was the look’
Since I was 3 years old, I wanted to be a firefighter. I grew up around several firehouses and watched every TV show and movie that was fire-related, including “Backdraft.” I couldn't wait to be on the job. Seeing the firefighters wearing the dirty gear, helmets abused, showing the battle scars of the past and present was exhilarating. That was the look. It was a look that not only attracted me to the job but pushed me to be like them. The salty gear they wore with such pride was a trendsetter.
The fire service opened its doors to me as an explorer in August 1998. Finally, my life-long dream was coming true.
My first department was small but active – many good people to learn from and great calls to gain experience early on as a junior member. The one set of gear I wore was already 10 years old. If it got dirty after a fire or nasty call, a light rinse from the garden hose and back in the locker was the way we did things. It was common then (even today for several departments) to wear the same gear throughout the shift without swapping it out for a fresh set. Again, this is when I wasn't even a firefighter yet – and things didn't change after I joined as a firefighter on May 25, 2001.
My first year as a rookie firefighter was a busy one. I went on plenty of brush fires and structure fires, plus countless EMS calls. Every fire we ran had the same result – gear stays dirty the entire shift; it was the same story with trauma calls. Naturally, I’d be the dirtiest guy on the rig, not just because I love to work but because I wanted to prove myself to the crew.
Responding to EMS calls after fires, we would often tread our mess into someone's home. If it wasn't an occasional soot-stained footprint on the carpet, it was the aroma of dense, wet smoke that filled their house. Not the best impression in the eyes of a taxpayer, let alone someone with a medical condition that doesn't need to breathe in our work.
‘All that changed the second I became a father’
Keeping on the most absolutely thrashed dirty gear was the coolest – and I realize now, dumbest – thing I've ever done in my career. It's a sight to be seen, hanging on the side of the apparatus reeking of smoke, dusted with debris, sweat, and suppression water dripping at a steady pace from the wrist cuffs. The aroma of the work we just did striking the nostrils of our fellow firefighters, prompting them to ask questions about the last job we had. Walking past the civilians on the street with drywall and chunks of building falling off our turnouts and helmets as we're going back to the rig. It's a pride thing.
All that changed the second I became a father. Keeping that filth on me longer than I should have suddenly felt incredibly dumb.
I have a wife and small ones to consider – three daughters and expecting our son later this year. It's not just about me anymore; it's about them at home. Despite the crazy things I do on the job, my wife trusts me to be safe, loves me unconditionally, and wants me home when the shift's over. I appreciate that.
I wanted to start preserving my longevity so I could actually be present to raise my kids. I want to do everything I can so I don't become a cancer patient fighting to live another day. I've seen it with several coworkers and my dad, too – gone now. It was a horrific lesson learned at the expense of friends and family dying. It changed me.
‘I miss him incredibly’
One of those friends who changed my life was Phil Harwick. Phil was an engineer with the San Diego Fire Rescue Department. He served over 30 active years and retired out of Station 14 in North Park. One of many historic incidents he ran on was the PSA plane crash in 1978. He worked in an era of one set issued gear, occasional air-pack usage, and heavy fire duty.
I met Phil in the hallway of the local fire academy where we lived. We both applied to be training officers at the same time and got hired together in the spring of 2005.
Phil was an amazing character – full of epic one-liners, great sense of humor, loved by everyone he met, and very much a hands-on worker. Though he was retired, he would be out with students pulling attack lines, sweating it out in live-fire training, and telling incredible survival stories of his past to keep our recruits safe when they hit the street.
Phil's life was turned upside-down when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. In the last few conversations at his kitchen table, despite the intense pain he was in, Phil would always reiterate one thing to me, "Take good care of your kids." That's the kind of guy he was. Phil always thought of others before himself. We spoke briefly about cancer screening and preventative measures pre/post-fires, and Phil advocated to get checked as often as possible, well before any signs or symptoms were present.
My friend took his final breath on Jan. 18, 2018. I loved that man, respected him beyond measure, and miss him incredibly.
‘Every week I see one more victory’
A brother firefighter and I were talking after a fire just the other day. In that conversation, he mentioned to me something that caught my attention. He said, "When you go to a restaurant, you don't remember the outfit the server wore. You remember how they treated you from the service they provided."
He's absolutely right. I believe that holds a lot of truth to our profession, too. In many of the good jobs I've been to, I don't highlight the tattered turnouts or smoke-stained helmets down memory lane. I remember who was on my crew, the saves and the good work we did together. The filth eventually washes away, so we might as well do it when we get back to quarters.
In my garage, there's a collection of helmets I've retired over the years. I can remember where I was in my career that made those helmets a wall-mounted art gallery piece. The magazine articles of cancer studies and members around the country dying of job-related cancer really stirred my thoughts. It had me contemplating if keeping my gear absolutely trashed with the elements of the job was smart, safe or worth it.
Being a family man, I can tell you it's not. Don't get me wrong. I'm the first guy to dive in and do the Lord's work in the poorest of conditions, but I’m also the first to scrub my helmet clean and change out into my second set to be comfortable for the remainder of the shift, plus safer from reducing my exposure to "the aftermath" of fires and other emergencies we encounter.
Actions speak louder than words. People are more drawn to follow someone based on their work rather than their bark. Since my personal push to keep my helmet and gear cleaned, I have seen more brothers and sisters joining the cleaning party. After a job, we'll put on some music, open the apparatus doors, grab the gear and tools needing attention, and start the process. The turnouts are the first to get cleaned. Luckily, we are blessed to have a second set of gear, so that's put in service quickly. Dirty gear goes in the wash, and the rest of the equipment gets serviced. Every week I see at least one more victory, one more person keeping themselves clean.
‘I finally got the message’
After 23 years of wearing turnouts, I finally got the message that so many people along the way were trying to preach to me. I wish I would've been mature enough and listened twice as hard back then to those who wanted to warn me about the dangers of what I was wearing. I was too focused on "the look" rather than the big picture.
The best advice I can give is this: "Think of your family." Once you do that, you know what you have to do. As for me, I want to live and grow old with my family, and as long as I can, keep doing the job I love so much with the brothers and sisters who push me to be a better person.
I dedicate this article to those who have died from job-related cancer and those who are currently battling it