There’s nothing funny about being a firefighter… well, mostly

My cubby, complete with mint gum to wake me up for those late-night calls.
My cubby, complete with mint gum to wake me up for those late-night calls.
Anyone who has read my “About” page knows that, in addition to being a humor columnist, I’m also a volunteer firefighter — a subject I have purposely avoided in my columns because, let’s face it:

Entering a burning structure with someone who writes about glow-in-the-dark mice isn’t exactly reassuring.

For this reason, I have tried hard to separate my two pursuits. As I’ve discovered, this is a little like trying to separate marshmallows using a blow torch; the longer you keep at it, the more they blend together.

The truth is, once the emergency is over, firefighters are funny — which is why, after three years, many are still asking, “Why haven’t you written about being a firefighter yet?”

So to all of you, I say:

You asked for it.

Before we get started, let me clarify that I set some ground rules for myself. For example, in order to preserve anonymity, I will not use names like Sean Connor, Boa Warren, Adam Borg, Tim Snapp or Bill “Single-Lay” Schelpendorf.

And just to clarify, a “single lay” is when a water supply line is hooked to a hydrant from an engine.

For any of you who thought otherwise, while disappointed, I think it illustrates why I should cover some basic firefighter terms before we continue — and why I might need to seek a higher class of readership.

Here are some actual terms we use which, in spite of how they sound, have nothing to do with Internet searches:

Reverse lay, cross lay, double female, minute man, hard suction, straight stream and flashover lap dance.

Ok, I made that last one up just to see who was paying attention.

Apparently, everyone was.

Now that we’ve established some basic terminology, and potential grounds for my termination, we will quickly move on to the next subject.

In fact, the quicker the better.

A lot of people have asked me why anyone would want to run into a burning building?

The simple answer is that firefighters are just like anyone else: Unless we are trying to avoid going to a “Twilight” movie marathon, we don’t want to run into a burning structure either.

However, there is also a deeper and more complicated answer, which involves a trait all firefighters have in common:

Really cold hands and feet.

I should probably mention they also share an inherent need to respond to a crisis and help people, even if it means putting themselves at risk for the protection of others.

But mostly, we’re just trying to get our hands and feet warm.

Which isn’t to say the only time the engines roll is when something is on fire.

Particularly for firefighters here on the Oregon coast, search and rescue emergencies such as car accidents, ATV injuries, boating accidents, lost hikers and mushroom pickers, and Bigfoot sightings by “other kinds” of mushroom pickers, account for more than half the calls we respond to.

To ensure we are trained and physically capable of handling any type of emergency, such as an ATV accident involving a mushroom picker and Bigfoot, firefighters must complete a special academy designed to teach the skills they need, as well as test their physical agility and endurance.

This is accomplished through nine days of intensive hands-on training, live drills and nearly 100 hours of class time studying all seven seasons of “Rescue Me.”

Ha Ha Ha! Just kidding, chief!

(On a COMPLETELY unrelated note, if anyone at the station finds season five in the training room, it’s mine.)

So far, we’ve covered basic terminology and training, which brings me to another question people often ask:

What’s it like being IN a fire?

To simulate the experience, grab all the dried out Christmas trees within a two-block radius, light them on fire, then jump in the middle wearing pot holder underwear.

[Official disclaimer: Do not do this].

While the protective clothing we wear, called “turnouts,” certainly helps, it’s still fire we’re talking about, which means you still feel like a Ball Park Frank. To complete the experience, crawl around on your hands and knees wearing a blindfold (since it will be too smoky to see) while carrying a 30-pound bag of dog food on your back to simulate the weight of your air pack.

To re-cap: If feeling like a blind, backpacking Ball Park Frank is something you’re interested in, then firefighting might be for you.

Sometimes, in a pinch, we fight fires with bottled water.
Sometimes, in a pinch, we fight fires with bottled water.
All kidding aside, as I mentioned earlier, I have avoided writing about being a firefighter because it’s something I take seriously.
However, as I’ve learned, sometimes its the humor that gets you through the bad stuff. When our pagers go off in the middle of the night, and we are buckled up heading to a scene with lights flashing and sirens screaming, you’re never sure of what you’re going to find — which is part of why we do it.

The other part is knowing, every time we buckle up, we’ll find people next to us in the engine who are there for the same reasons, and willing to put themselves in harm’s way to help others.

The only exception to this, of course, would be if there’s a glow-in-the-dark mouse involved.

(You can write to Ned Hickson at, or at the Siuslaw News at P.O. Box 10, Florence Ore., 97439)

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Ned's Blog

I was a journalist, humor columnist, writer and editor at Siuslaw News for 23 years. The next chapter in my own writer’s journey is helping other writers prepare their manuscript for the road ahead. I'm married to the perfect woman, have four great kids, and a tenuous grip on my sanity...

46 thoughts on “There’s nothing funny about being a firefighter… well, mostly”

    1. It definitely takes certain kinds of people to do it with commitment. We have a paid crew of about seven, the rest — including myself — are all volunteer. I’ve been at it for three years now and have become the senior engineer at my station (we have four in our town). I also just earned my Fire Scene Investigator certification from the State of Oregon and am entering officer training this weekend. In short: I LOVE being a firefighter and hope to go full time in a year or so 🙂

  1. For any of you who thought otherwise, while disappointed, I think it illustrates why I should cover some basic firefighter terms before we continue — and why I might need to seek a higher class of readership. hahahahaha! You know me too well.

  2. I may not be a volunteer firefighter, but I have burned a lot of things in my kitchen, thus contributing to the continued employment of those that do. Have you guys thought about selling some of that pot holder underwear to the general public. The singed hairs around my rear could sure use them. Thanks!

    1. Hahaha! Unfortunately, only trained professionals are issued pot holder underwear, although I’m sure there are some available on the black market, i.e, previously burned.

      1. You know… In chemistry class in high school there was this guy that ignited his fart with a bunson burner… my lab partner and I died laughing when he asked if he had a hole in his pants… then (underwear), and yes a seared behind that was blackend by fire. Iggy are you out there?… You gave Brandon and I a laugh I will never forget… and our teacher sending you home and coming back in the room unable to stop laughing. Some in public might need them:-)

  3. Humour is definitely the way to deal with the bad stuff. I live next to my in-laws, I have an amazing sense of humour! 🙂

  4. “Reverse lay, cross lay, double female, minute man, hard suction, straight stream and flashover lap dance.”

    :: fans self ::

    No wonder women think firefighters are hot. Erm… Hawt. H-A-W-T.

    (Um, you DO realize, of course, that posting about the hawtness of Ball Park Frank {and Sean and Adam and Bill} is NOT going to help you entice a higher class of readership… Right?)

  5. I volunteered for 23 years….found the fire service to be a small family…you always met someone who knew the same guys you worked with. My best years were in Woodland, Ca. Working for a Fire Chief…we called ” Bucky”. Im retired now…with good memories and no regrets..the fire service is not just a job….its helping others, on their worst day.

    1. That’s definitely the truth, Rick. I’ve only been at it three years now, but it’s something I wanted to do most of my life. This weekend, I’m going to officer training for three days, which I’m really looking forward to. I just became our station’s senior engineer about three months ago. I’m hoping to go full time in another year or so. By the way, our fire chief is from California — in the valley somewhere. His name is John Buchanan — I’ll ask if he knows “Bucky.” Thanks for your service, Rick.

    1. Thanks much, Miss Kitty. And as for the calendar, my wife asked me the same question. I think it was a test, so I answered “Only for your wall.” I think I passed 😉

  6. You know all of your readers have a soft spot for fire fighters (you guys don’t get paid enough by the way).And now you give us……words to think about……I hate you……lol

  7. Ned, you may be a fire fighter, but you are also a writer… on fire! Great stuff – love this line:
    “Entering a burning structure with someone who writes about glow-in-the-dark mice isn’t exactly reassuring.” And, I love how you circle back to it at the end! Also love how you mention, supposedly, the names of people you won’t mention again! Great fun! Great writing! Engaged this writer. – More! More writing. More fire! – Renee

  8. What a brilliant post! I appreciate the humor and the writing. Of course, it leaves a reader with the burning question: exactly where does one buy potholder underwear? Victoria’s Grandma’s Secret? 🙂

    1. Hahahaha! We have them specially ordered for us through Bed, Bath and Beyond — obviously from the “Beyond” department 😉 Thanks for reading, Traci, and for the kind words.

    1. Thanks so much, Lisa. I’m no hero, but am constantly inspired by the many kinds there are in the world — like my wife, for supporting what I do. As you can imagine, it’s not easy being the wife of a humor columnist…. Oh, or a firefighter 😉

  9. Thank you for the great reading material. It is nice to have a story that is different with humor, pathos,…humor…Kept me laughing. Glad you stopped by my blog, too.

  10. I can’t think of anything funny about my time as a volunteer firefighter. You’re right in that It’s something you take serious. It was an experience I will never forget. Love this post.

    1. Thanks, K.S. The “funny” definitely comes afterward, when you’re trying to decompress from a tense or tragic situation. It’s the way we get through things and share that common experience. And let me just say how much I appreciate your service as a volunteer.

      1. So true. I only served for about 8 months, officially. Our departments ran EMS calls and those calls proved to be too much for me. I’m grateful for people like you who can do it and even more grateful because you choose to do it. 🙂

        1. I totally understand that. There’s nothing like starting your Sunday morning giving CPR to someone who doesn’t make it. On the other hand, it is a constant reminder to appreciate every day. I just received my extrication qualification and am now teaching how to get people out of MVAs — a whole new potential nightmare. But it’s just something know I can do, and so I will. For as long as I can. I had to be on scene when the engineer who trained me was hit by a car and killed. Hard to imagine much worse than that. Some day, it will probably all catch up to me, then it will be time to resign. Or just stick to washing engines 😉

          1. Extrication! Awesome. I wouldn’t have been able to lift the jaws of life then . . . or now.

            One of our departments had a dive unit. I was at work the day they pulled my friend from a lake. Around the same time a woman wrecked on the interstate and her baby went through the windshield. Firefighters marked the child with flags. I missed that call because of work too. After that, I was done. I couldn’t do it.

            Now there’s a post: Ned washing fire engines. Let me know when the calendar is out. 🙂

            1. Wow, K.S…. I am SO sorry about your friend. That’s such a terrible thing to have to experience. I haven’t had to deal with any child deaths yet, but I know it’s inevitable. I think I could deal with it, but can’t say for sure. I’ll just have to cross that bridge and hope I don’t jump off.

              I’ll keep you posted on the calendar, Lol!

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