“Brighton KEC603, testing for home receivers. Clear at 18:28.”
When I was growing up, that was the message that boomed out every single night, seven days a week, from the fire radio in my parent’s bedroom, or clipped to Dad’s belt. The Brighton Fire department dispatcher rang in every night at that precise time to make sure that the radios of both regular firefighters and volunteers were working properly, would summon the men to wherever a fire broke out, whether it was a commercial building, a school, a home. We took about as much notice of that announcement as we did the hum of the refrigerator or the sound of the vacuum. It was just background noise.
My dad joined as a volunteer when I was very young, was hazed in a ceremony that may have involved Limberger Cheese and riding around in the back of an ambulance, but that could have been something I misremembered or misunderstood. I was only five. Once he was in, cheese or not, Dad was part of a brotherhood of men who heard that radio call and immediately stood up from the dinner table, from bed, from parties, to go to wherever the fire was.
There were a lot of false alarms. So many that, in summer or on the weekends, Dad might say, “Do you want to ride along?” and we hopped in the car with him to see where the action was, especially if we had a friend living on the street who we could visit while Dad checked to see if the there really was a fire. My sister was old enough to make herself useful when she went. She’d walk up and down the street to the cars that the firemen had parked pell mell in their haste to get to to the address the dispatcher provided, turning off the ignitions that had been left running.
She also had the glamor job of wearing a cute little red uniform and white ankle boots and, together with another teenager, carrying the banner for the Brighton Fire Department in the summer parades in neighboring towns, like Pittsford. Irondequoit. West Webster, which you will have heard about in the news last week. Dad and his fellow firemen marched in the parades in their sharp navy suits with white hats and gloves, engineers and restaurant owners and realtors transformed by their uniforms and their dedication into a crack team of firefighters. Mom drove us to the parades and we waited on the sidewalk, bored until the BFVD turned into sight. Then we’d shout and wave, making sure Dad and my sister saw us, before heading to the carnival or cookout that waited at the end of the parade route.
I could always tell when Dad had gotten up to fight a fire in the middle of the night. As soon as I pushed open the back door that led into the garage, the acrid smell of smoke would hit me in the face, even before I looked to the left and saw Dad’s turnout gear and helmet airing out on the oily concrete garage floor.
Other than the smoky smell, my father’s volunteerism was something that receded into the background of my childish world, to be taken for granted as much as I took for granted my parents’ love and daily presence. What? He’s a firefighter. Mom works at the high school. You don’t see me crying over that either, do you?
Then one night when I was a senior in high school, my buddy Kriegs and I were out driving around aimlessly, as you do when you are seventeen and ready to start your independent life but can’t because you’re seventeen. We were listening to the car radio somewhere near the famous-in-Rochester “Can of Worms” interchange when the announcer interrupted and mentioned a three alarm fire in a warehouse in our town.
Kriegs said, “Shit, that’s my uncle’s warehouse,” and he turned the steering wheel to make a path for it. We were so close that we probably would have seen the flames a minute or two later anyway, even without the radio cue.
My friend pulled the car up to a nearby empty lot and we watched in silence as orange flames bit the warehouse in two, curling around it in sinister fury as black smoke billowed against the navy sky.
I went hysterical.
“My dad’s going in there!” I sobbed.
It was the first time I felt the full impact of what it was my dad did, of his own volition, two or three nights a week. A guy who could have been sitting home on the couch, who instead went to training sessions and read fire magazines and drilled with his friends so they’d be ready to help when there was a need in their community. Sure, it was an incredible time suck and there was a social aspect to it that sometimes caused family tension, tensions that I understand better now as a wife and mother than I did as a child. But in the end, my dad eagerly fought fires, even giant fires like this, until he retired. And even though he and Mom have moved from my hometown, my dad still keeps a finger on the pulse of what’s going at the BVFD.
When I heard of the shooting of four firemen in West Webster on December 24, that warehouse fire was the image I saw. Try to picture it with me: a structure being pulled under by orange and black flames so big they don’t even look real. Next, station wagons and family sedans with blue flashing lights on the dashboard pull up, driven by volunteer firefighters who were probably watching tv or wrapping Christmas presents ten minutes earlier. Who maybe don’t even say goodbye to their families because they consider the call so routine. Who arrive even before the fire trucks, because the fire is in their own neighborhood.
It’s sufficiently scary. Even without a madman with easy access to an AR-15 assault rifle waiting nearby.
If you haven’t already, please join me to Demand a Plan to end gun violence.
Read this thought-provoking essay by the San Francisco Chronicle’s movie critic about how violent media contributes to the problem of gun violence.
And in honor of the West Webster firemen who were killed or injured last week, please consider a donation to help their families.