Water in your boots, smoke in your hair, and danger, danger
Boston — There's not a pair of red suspenders in sight at the Broadway Firehouse, home of Ladder Company 17 and Engine Companies 7 and 26. The fire trucks aren't even red anymore: They're a high-visibility green-tinged yellow with big red stripes along the sides.
But there are still brass poles. And sirens.
And if you're there in the firehouse when the alarm goes off, you can't help wanting to jump onto the trucks with them. Even a daytime alarm likely to be just a wastebasket fire sends the pulse racing.
The men clear out almost before you know it. As the sirens begin to wail and your very body resonates with the roar of the engines, you know why children want to be firefighters when they grow up.
"Do you want to try out our equipment?" the fearless reporter is asked. Well , of course.
First the rubber coat and then the boots, which look about the right size for a circus elephant. And these are the smallm ones, you tell me?
Then come the twin tanks of compressed air and the mask, which can supply a man for about 30 minutes. "I hope you don't have claustrophobia," one of my friends remarks as he straps me in.
After getting my bangs out of my eyes I can see -- sort of -- through the scratchy plastic mask, and can adjust to breathing the compressed air shooting out in little gasps from my tanks.
Then come the hat and gloves. Total weight of all the gear: 65 pounds. With the tanks pulling me backward, it takes a conscious effort just to stand up straight, let alone move forward.
"his is the innovative, lightweight, high-visibility gear," the firemen say. "It's beautiful."
The thought of what the outmoded, heavyweight, low-visibility gear must be like is enough to set me reeling again.
"So, after you've got all this on," the firemen tell me, "you've got to climb up four flights of stairs, through all that smoke and heat, and get out whoever's up there.If you can't pick them up you just grab them by the hair and drag them off."
Bring 'em back alive, even if a bit bruised, seems to be the operative philosophy.
In thick smoke the men hold hands or hang onto one another's belts. They communicate by tugging at one another's coats, since with their packs and all the noise at a fire it's hard to hear. They stick close to the hose, which they can follow back out if they get stuck or find there's no eacy way out.
The best indicator of when it really is too hot to carry on is your ears, firefighter Steve McDonough says. "When you're all bundled up, your ears are all that's exposed, so you go by them. When it's too hot for your ears, it's too hot for the rest of you."
The men remain skeptical of some of the newer-fangled techniques. They day I visited Broadway the men were discussing some smoke-settling foam that they evidently feel is not all it's cracked up to be. "There's two things'll put out fires," says firefighter McDonough: "Water and men, and plenty of both."
"You get all bundled up to go out into the cold, and then you get into the burning building and you start sweating. So even if you're completely dry on the outside, you're all wet inside," firefighter Al Sears says.
"And then you get water in your boots. It's uncomfortable, but it's worse if you try to empty them out and what's left freezes: You can get frostbite that way," another chimes in.
As for the smell -- soke from a bad blaze can take several showers and hair washings to get out. "And the grime stays in your nostrils for weeks," another fireman says.
The Broadway Firefighters are proud of being able to get out of the firehouse fast -- sometimes in as little as 15 seconds. That's the key to getting to the fire fast, since once they're out in the street the firemen are subject to traffic delays and other circumstances beyond their control.
"And," Sears says, "we can get to any [alarm] box in our district within three minutes."
Leo Sullivan, captain of Ladder Company 17 and the officer in charge of his shift, pauses, then says quietly, "I'd like to say it's faster than that, Al."
But getting equipment to a fire is complicated by everything from one-way streets to the fact that so many streets have the same name. Washington Street crosses Lagrange in the red-light Combat Zone and an entirely different La Grange in residential Roslindale. If city dispatchers aren't sure which location is meant they will send equipment to both places.
The Registry of Motor Vehicles looks the other way when the fire trucks go the wrong way on a one-way street. "But if we hit anyone, it's our fault."
The firemen's first duty is to make sure everyone's out of the burning building. In a fire in a public building such as a hotel, this means checking each room, however thick the smoke and however hot the flames.
Once everyone's safe, the best way to bring a fire under control is to enable it to burn vertically, so that the hot gases are sent up through the roof.
"Going for the skylight is one of the first things we do. We take if off in one piece if we say. Opened in 1970, it replaced an earlier building at Broadway and Tremont. The nickname, Broadway Firehouse, has stuck, even though the new building is on Columbus Avenue, a few blocks from Boston Common and the Public Garden.
Some of the older houses go back to horsewagon days. Getting the trucks back into the station after a fire is high art at such stations.
The Broadway Firehouse doesn't have any animals around, but there's still a regulation on the books allowing each house to have a cat on the premises: That goes back to the days when the hay kept on hand for the horses created a need for mousers.
Boston's firefighters work 42 hours out of 168 each week -- a 10-hour day shift followed by a 14-hour night shift, after which comes a 72-hour respite, and then another day shift can, but if that's not possible we break it." They have no compunction about smashing windows, either, if they can't be opened easily. "How much does a room cost?" McDonough asks rhetorically. "Thousands of dollars. And how much does a windowpane cost? Ten dollars. Better break a window than lose a room."
One of the ironies of firefighting is that a rip-roaring blaze soaring skyward -- a "well- ventilated fire" in McDonough's phrase -- is actually a lot easier to deal with than a small fire pouring forth lots of black smoke. That'sm the kind of situation that could lead to what every fireman fears most -- a hot-air explosion.
People often question the efficiency of sending what seems like an awful lot of trucks and men to deal with even a trash-barrel blaze or a kitchen fire. Their answer is, better safe than sorry. The trash-barrel fire could spread, or the kitchen fire jump up a stair- well.
Sometimes a ladder or engine company will be called out for an alarm, and then be sent back to the firehouse before it even arrives, if the fire has meanwhile been brought under control. If traffic is bad, five companies may need to be assigned to ensure that two make it to the scene in time.
They get into these most heroic jobs for most unheroic reasons: "My brother-in-law said, 'Get a city job, that way you'll at least get a pension,'" Lieut. Frank Gambadello says.
When Capt. Sullivan was just out of the service and unsure what he wanted to do, an uncle suggested he take the firefighter's exam. Twenty-three years later , he says, "I love it. I wouldn't want any other job. Sometimes you wonder what you're doing in a dark alley at 5 a.m. in the rain," he remarks, with a bit of a laugh, "but it's a lot of fun."
There are a lot of family connections in the fire department: Besides the uncle who encouraged him to take the exam, Captain Sullivan has had two other uncles and a cousin in the fire department. Al Sears's father was a firefighter , and he has a brother stationed at one of the houses in Boston's Back Bay. And Gary Stapleton, another of the Broadway Firefighters, is a son of Deputy Fire Chief Leo Stapleton.
For the second time in a row, the house team won the citywide softball championship; its trophy is proudly displayed in the recreation room. "You know , you hear a lot about racism in this twon," one of the men says, "but we won that championship with a fully integrated team, playing in South Boston [a part of the city that has had riots since court-ordered school desegregation in 1974] . Fourteen games without any incident.That's something to be proud of."
The men seem to like their square, redbrick firehouse. "It's just like home, " they and another night shift. They get two weekends off out of eight.
The men at each house are divided into four groups, and Group 4 of the Broadway Firefighters, for example, is always scheduled with all the other Group 4 crews.
"So if there's a big fire and we all get called out, after it's over and we're cleaning up, we all say hi to the Group 4 people from the other houses," one of them reports.
There are no women in the Boston Fire Department, and there doesn't seem to be much likelihood of there being any anytime soon. to ask the Broadway Firefighters how they'd feel about working with women seems academic.
The problem is the physical requirements, which include the ability to carry a 135-pound dummy down a 20-foot ladder. The men sitting over coffee and homemade banana bread in the firehouse kitchen wouldn't ever be mistaken for a football team, but they're pretty tough. They aren't all eager beavers in their twenties, either. The older men are if anything even more stoic than the younger ones. "Some of the older men will take quite a lot of punishment physically before they put on the mask," a 12-year veteran says.
"It takes all different kinds of strength. It takes ability and agility," another man says. "And there are a lot of men who can't pass the physical -- and I don't mean little guys, I mean gorillas."
"They guys here are very close," another firefighter offers. "There's no name-calling here. Everybody has to get along.
"You can't keep any secrets here. If someone's got a problem, if he's getting a divorce, for instance, we're supportive. But we don't let him dwell on things."
But it's not quite what it used to be. "Oh, I like the job. I like fires. It's fun, you get to run around, be a little kid again. But you know what's too bad? It's that nobody cares.
"Oh, I don't mean us. Wem care. But the administration - the city government -- they don't care."
The day we talked, the Broadway Firefighters had just been paid after two missed paydays; the delay had been caused by a budget flap between Mayor Kevin White and the Boston City Council. Municipal services -- including three fire companies -- are to be cut back just when members of the mayor's staff are expected to get big raises.
The firemen in particular see themselves as a likely political football; their jobs may be phased out either because there just isn't the money for them, or because someone wants to make a political point.
"I've got some seniority, and so I'm not worried. But I can tell you that some of the guys are looking around for something else.
"Me, though, I like the job. I like going out on fires, all the people, all the excitement. . . . Makes me feel like a little kid again."