It’s never too late to be great

As you can imagine, my first few months with the Guilderland Fire Department have been quite interesting and exciting.

Let’s start with the basics of how it works when you respond to a call as a volunteer firefighter. You wear a pager, it goes off, then you open an app on your phone and let them know how long you think it will take you to get to the firehouse.

When you arrive there, you gear up and await your orders. At least that’s how it’s supposed to work. Now let me tell you what happened on my first two “call-outs.”

When the pager went off, I responded on the app. Then I picked out a shirt, found my wallet and keys, and left the house. That was my first mistake.

Then I sped down to the firehouse. That was my second mistake.

At the firehouse, our boots are stored with the pants rolled down around them, the theory being you can then just hop in the boots and then pull up the pants.

I got into the boots and was attempting to pull my pants up when, both times, our big hook-and-ladder truck T-29 (pronounced “tee” “two” “nine” for the benefit of radio communications) pulled out without me. That sucks!

Here is what I’ve learned since then. First, when the pager goes off, you respond on the app and then you are out the door. Don’t pick out a shirt or try to match clothes or anything like that. There are no style points for fighting fires, haha. Just get out the door as fast as you can.

When you leave your house on the way to the firehouse, do not speed or break any traffic laws. Firefighters have been killed while speeding to the firehouse.

If you drive like a maniac, there is a good chance you’ll wind up in an accident. What good is that? Play it safe and get there in one piece. That is the only way to do it.

When you get to the firehouse, you literally jump into your boots and pull your pants up. Then you grab your jacket and put that on while running to the truck (and don’t forget your helmet). You can tighten and adjust things once in the truck.

Getting your gear on fast comes with experience, but that is the gist of it: getting all your gear on in a minute or less. Now let me tell you about my third call-out.

It was a Sunday. My lovely wife, Charlotte, and I had been out all day, first to church in Princetown, then to a cancer fundraiser in Cohoes, followed by dinner with friends in Troy. We got home at about 8 p.m.

I was so tired I was about to go to bed a little after 9 p.m. when the pager went off. The dispatcher mentioned it was a smoke-alarm call.

Now here’s the thing about smoke alarms: They will “chirp” when their batteries get low. It’s their way of letting you know new batteries are needed. But many people call the fire department when any sound comes out of a smoke detector. I’ve done it myself.

Knowing this, I decided to skip responding to this call. As a volunteer firefighter, you have the right to not respond to a call if you wish (you’re tired, you don’t feel good, etc.). So I just went to bed, but I left the pager on.

At approximately 11:20 p.m., the pager went off again. This time, the call was for structure fire, which is the highest priority.

I made it to the firehouse and again missed the first truck leaving but, because of the severity of this call, a second truck was needed, which I got on. One minute, I’m fast asleep in bed; five minutes later I’m in a humongous fire truck blasting up Carman Road with lights flashing and sirens blaring. Wow.

When we got to the fire scene on Lydius Street, it was unreal. This normally quiet part of town looked like a LaGuardia Airport runway lit up at night. The people had gotten out of the house, fortunately, but you could see at least three separate fires going.

My team got assigned to fight the fire in the back of the house, by the attached garage. I ran out into the street with one end of a hose and met a guy from another fire company; there were at least five fire companies there. We hooked the hoses together.

Then the hose got charged with water and we proceeded to attack the garage fire. My job now was to move the hose around the property to give it a straight shot so my teammates could better direct it.

The problem was getting it around all the landscaping features that were there: big shrubs, large concrete urns, play sets, etc. You don’t usually think about fire prevention when laying out your landscaping, but perhaps you should.

By 3 a.m., we’d finished our job. Then I took one end of the hose, put it over my head, and walked the length of the hose to drain it out. Then another guy used what looked like a hair roller on steroids to flatten the hose and drain every last drop of water out.

After that, I got on my knees and proceeded to tightly, and I mean tightly, roll up the hose. Once that was done, I humped it against my chest — it’s very heavy and quite unwieldy — and got it back to the truck.

When we got back to the firehouse, our lower extremities were covered in white foam from the fire scene, so we took turns using a garden hose to spray each other down in the driveway. Then protocol required us to wait for the main apparatus to return to the station. Once they did and we verified all of us and the equipment were OK, we were dismissed.

I got home at 4 a.m. and had my annual physical exam at 7 a.m. My doctor said my blood pressure was unusually high. I said maybe that’s because I was up all night doing firefighting, haha

It took me two days to get my sleep cycle back to normal, but it sure was fun being part of a team and doing something very important for the community. The only real bummer was learning that there was a dog in the house that didn’t make it out. You never want to see that happen.

Now I have to embarrass two of my Guilderland Fire Department teammates. The first is veteran firefighter Don Gaitor. Don has been a volunteer firefighter for 50 years. Fifty years!

Since the only formal training I have received at this point has been about sexual harassment of all things, I have a lot of questions about how to do all that is required for firefighting, safety, and prevention. Don has been the perfect mentor for me.

I call him sometimes twice a day with questions, and he always takes the time to answer clearly and with great detail. I’m so glad to have him as a go-to resource for such a big responsibility that I take very seriously. Couldn’t ask for a better mentor than Don.

I don’t know about you but I always thought of firefighters as men, yet we actually have a few female volunteer firefighters at GFD. One of them is Elizabeth MacDonald.

I know enough from buying gifts for my wife over the years that Liz would be considered “petite,” but don’t let her small stature throw you. She is as tough as nails.

The other night, all the “Class A” firefighters — the ones who have been trained and certified to run into burning buildings — did a very physical drill. It involved seven difficult tasks, like dragging a simulated unconscious body around with a harness, and lifting heavy bags of tools up and down stairs.

These seven tasks had to be done as sets, five times each, all while wearing SCBA (Self Contained Breathing Apparatus) and trying not to run out of air. When Liz was done, she pulled off her face mask and it looked like she was ready for another round.

Not only is she very tough, but she kids around like one of the guys. The other day, we were talking about the team-like feeling around the firehouse.

“It even smells like a gym locker,” she quipped.

Liz has a great personality, is full of energy, and is beautiful as well. What an honor it is to work with such a strong, capable woman.

All I know is, when we’re driving to a fire scene and Don or Liz are in the truck with me, I know they have my back and everyone else’s as well. I truly hope that someday I can learn to be as proficient, professional, and dependable as they are. It will take a lot of training and experience to get there, but I’m up for it.

You know, superhero movies are all the rage these days. Everyone likes to see powerful heroes take down the bad guys.

But just go into any volunteer firehouse and you’ll find actual living and breathing superheroes: our friends, relatives, and neighbors, just ordinary people, who for no pay do tons of training and get up at all hours of the night to make sure we’re covered in case the worst happens. How awesome is that?

Becoming a volunteer firefighter with the Guilderland Fire Department has been an incredibly immersive and satisfying experience. While I certainly wish I had done it sooner, I know it’s never too late to be great.