by guest blogger George DeVault, author of FIRE CALL! a volunteer firefighter’s memoir
“How often do you get a fire call?” people ask all the time.
There’s no easy answer. A week or more may go by without a fire call. Then we’ll get two within 30 minutes. The timing of fire calls is wildly erratic, totally unpredictable. But the pager on my belt goes off often enough for my grandson, Forest, to use it as the perfect excuse to leave the dinner table whenever he felt like it when he was 3.
“And where do you think you’re going?” his mother (our daughter, Ruth) asked as little Forest started to slither out of his chair halfway through lunch one day.
“I have a fire call,” Forest announced. Melanie, my wife, and I instantly choked.
“Don’t laugh!” Ruth whispered with a hand over her mouth. We couldn’t help but lose it. “You stay where you are. We’re not done eating yet.”
Forest was indignant. He planted his hands firmly on his hips then bellowed, “I have a FIRE CALL, Mama!”
The kid has real potential. He may make a good firefighter someday because he already knows that when duty calls, volunteers drop whatever they’re doing and rush to help. Doesn’t matter when a call comes in or what you’re doing at the time. Nights, weekends, holidays, mealtime, bedtime, or the wee hours of the morning…you scramble!
In my 30 years as a volunteer firefighter, I responded to some 5,000 emergency calls. That’s an average of 167 fire calls a year, or nearly one every other day. That often creates what psychologists call “dynamic tensions” in a marriage, because there’s simply no escape from fire calls.
Melanie and I managed once to go on a rare after-work date at TGI Fridays. I’d spent the weekend in a 16-hour vehicle rescue class, freeing trapped “victims” from “wrecked” cars.
“What are you thinking?” Melanie asked as I gazed out over the parking lot and pensively sipped a pint of Guinness. It was the perfect opening for a romantic line about how lucky I was to have a wife who let me spend all of Saturday and Sunday cutting crumpled cars apart. It was obvious I wasn’t thinking the minute I opened my mouth: “Oh, nothing…just the best way to cut the roof off of that new Beamer out there.”
On one fire call, I searched a burning house for two trapped people and later removed their bodies. I was hunkered down in the front yard with a hose when I felt a hand on my shoulder. “Hi, honey,” said a petite blonde bombshell in a trench coat and designer sunglasses. “How are … you?” Funny question for a reporter to ask at a three-alarm fire with two deaths.
Just then a cop ran into the yard. “Lady, don’t bother the firemen!” She gave the hulking cop “the look” and stopped him in his tracks with three icy, well-aimed words: “He’s my husband!”
Melanie didn’t usually worry when I was out on a fire call. Then her car got rear-ended. The ambulance took her to the ER with a moderate concussion. The next day, Hurricane Floyd blew in. “Water rescue,” the dispatcher said. “Man swept into a drain pipe.” I was gone again.
“He’s been gone a long time,” she told friends. “I don’t have a good feeling about this call.”
Then, through the pelting rain, she saw a man at our door. She was still nauseous, disoriented, but instantly recognized the uniform. White shirt. Gold badge. It was…the Fire Chief.
“Oh, my God!” she gasped. “No!”
She didn’t see me in the passenger’s seat, soaking wet, shivering, and wrapped in blankets after spending about 30 minutes in a frigid pond to free the man’s leg from a drainpipe. She didn’t see the chief was grinning from ear to ear because we got the man out alive. A look of complete horror covered her face.
So I started yelling, “I’m OK. I’m here! I’m OK!”
One year to the day later, a florist dropped off a huge arrangement of flowers at our house. In the bouquet were four big rolls of Life Savers. “You’re a real Life Saver!” the card read. I kept the candy, but the flowers rightfully belonged to Melanie. Like the man from the drainpipe, she remembered that date as the worst—and best—day of her life.
All of that, to paraphrase Nora Ephron, makes me a truly “lucky guy.”
Retired fire chief George DeVault recently chronicled the highs—and lows—of his 30 years on the hose in his award-winning memoir, FIRE CALL! Sounding the Alarm to Save Our Vanishing Volunteers. George and his wife, Melanie, live on a small farm near Emmaus, Pennsylvania, where they’ve raised organic vegetables, flowers, and blueberries since 1984.