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

Here in Oregon, it’s Firefighter Appreciation Day. Appropriately, this week also marked my return to full active duty as a volunteer firefighter with Siuslaw Valley Fire and Rescue following my surgery in November. To celebrate being back, and the deep appreciation I have for my fellow firefighters, I’m reposting a tribute I wrote in 2013 to the incredible men and women of my department…

image 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 Boa Warren, Ted Martin, Tim Snapp, PJ Crescioni or Bill “Single-Lay” Schelpendorf.

And just to clarify, a “single lay” is when a single 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.


Below are other posts I’ve written about firefighting. Please keep in mind there’s not always a happy ending:

Humor columnist and firefighting: Sometimes my two worlds collide

2) Playing With Fire

3) My Firefighter Fitness Test Shows I’m Getting Older aand Faster… Say WHAT?

4) Why I Won’t — And Can’t — Be Funny Today

Published by

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...

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

  1. One of my closest male friends is a firefighter and I think you guys do an amazing job. He doesn’t like talking about it, but when he has he has just nonchalantly described how he has brought out dead people from burning houses as if it’s an everyday thing… Kudos to you all… Stay safe!

  2. My neighbor called 911 when her smoke alarm started chirping. Two fire trucks came. Turned out the smoke alarm just needed batteries. But the firemen didn’t really mind because my neighbor is a blond hottie (although an aging one). Just thought I’d share that to give you a chuckle – I know how dedicated volunteer firemen really are.

    1. Lol! On the flip side of that, we had an old woman in a retirement home who used to burn toast on a regular basis about twice a week. After about two months, the staff realized she was doing it on purpose so the fire department would show up 😉 True story.

  3. My husband is a police officer, and his best friend is a firefighter. They tease each other all the time over who is more important…my husband likes to say that his friend sleeps in a recliner all day watching reruns of Seinfeld on repeat. His friend likes to say that my husband eats donuts all morning while helping old ladies cross the street. I like to say they’re both heroes. Thank you for your service!!! 🙂

    1. Haha! Our fire department has a really good — and good-natured ribbing — relationship here as well. We joke that the police pay us a little extra to keep the donut shop safe, and we pay the police to… uh… do something. Just kidding 😉 My father was actually a police officer in Santa Monica, Calif., and I have the utmost respect for them and what they do.

      Thanks for your kind words, and thank your husband for his service to the community.

    1. We don’t get much snow or ice here, but one morning last winter we got tapped out for a house fire and discovered the streets were sheets of ice. We had to stage on the street and everyone was sliding around trying to drag hoses. Later we called it the “Firefighters on Ice” show!

  4. All of us are thankful you guys still can’t get your feet and hands warm. I had the occasion to have some EMT’s from our volunteer department pick me up (in several pieces I thought) after I broke my back. I was glad for two things. 1. They knew what they were doing and 2. As a supporter I found out first hand they were a truly worthy cause. Great post.

    1. Thanks, John. The way we are set up to respond here, every ambulance call is accompanied by firefighters, so we work closely with the EMTs — many of whom are volunteer FFs themselves.

      And yes, they are a special group.

  5. trust me when i say that i do have the utmost respect for the brave men and women who are firefighters and put their lives on the line for others on a regular basis. plus, i kind of have a thing for the males of the group ) thank you for all you do. p.s. – when talking about fairy tales with my kindergarten, we always discuss – good, bad, and hero characters and someone always brings up firefighters as examples of heroes. where were you during cinderella’s troubles? )

    1. That is so sweet, Beth. One of my favorite things each year is when we go to the kindergarten classes and show the kids our equipment so they won’t be afraid. It’s always so much fun.

      And as for Cinderella, I can’t be sure but I think I might have been on a call with the ladder crew to rescue some girl with long hair in a tower that day… 😉

      1. ah, that rapunzel is always messing things up for others who need rescuing?) p.s. just so you know, the kids came up with the difference between a good character and a hero character. a good character is nice and does good things and helps people. a hero character risks him/herself to help others.

          1. people don’t always give them enough credit. you’d be amazed the conclusions they come to when they have a real discussion. and yes, i hear their teacher is awesome. she’s a good character. )

  6. A husband.
    A father.
    A jurnalist.
    An author.
    A world-class smartass.
    And to top it all off… a hero, as well?
    Save some roles for the rest of us, will, you, Ned?

  7. After having been through firefighting training for shipboard fires, I am very happy to now live on land where amazing people like you handle the job. The level of fitness required to handle the charged hoses, is far behind me. Thankfully, the very few fires we had were quickly extinguished when power was cut (electrical fires). My niece who graduated from college last spring has decided to be a volunteer firefighter. My hat’s off to all of you.

  8. First of all, let me just say I have a great deal of respect for your willingness to serve as a firefighter! Thank you for that…especially since you are a volunteer! It is my belief that firefighters and police officers do not get paid near enough for putting their lives on the line every time they walk out the door. So a little extra kudos for volunteering! I have friend who are also volunteer fireman (and paid ones) and police officers. Right along with my friends who serve this country in the military! Thank you Ned for your service!!! You do wear several hats… and apparently do it well! 🙂

  9. Thanks so much for what you do and who you are Ned. It takes a special person to put others’ lives ahead of your own. You and the folks like you are a credit to humanity Ned Thank You.

  10. I don’t think there is a more awful way to wake up than having your pager scream at you at 3 a.m. I would jump out of bed & be heading for my radio before I was even half awake! Thank goodness I was able to dispatch from home most times because I usually had the radio turned on before I remembered I was naked!

No one is watching, I swear...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s