My Introduction to the Fire Service

On September 6, 1980, a fourteen-year-old girl died of smoke inhalation suffered in a house fire. Her parents were my friends and I grieved with them, but after the initial shock eased, the questions began. How could a person die untouched by the flames? Why does smoke kill? Did it really take the fire department thirty minutes to respond? How does a fire, beginning with a tiny spark, grow into a raging inferno? How come it happens so incredibly fast?

In an attempt to find answers I began to study the Science of Firefighting, but many answers were not to be found in the textbooks. I had questions that had to be answered by the firefighters themselves.

In the spring of 1981, I met with Chief William Pickford of the Shaker Heights, Ohio, Fire Department (pictured at right). I thought I would learn all I needed to know by just interviewing firefighters, but I was wrong. I was an outsider “invading” a closed society and I would have a long ways to go to prove myself before I was accepted. Chief Pickford was aware of this. Fortunately, he didn’t warn me.

During the several years I was “on duty” with Platoon One, I was patiently taught the science of fire suppression, was subjected to housework, was yelled at for a variety of transgressions, and was razzed whether I deserved it or not. Frustration, stress, burnout—these are words that now have meaning for me—so do caring, courage, and pride.

Every member of the Shaker Heights Fire Department taught me something, and without them my books could not have been written, so I thank each and every man, but especially the men of “my” platoon: Captain William Feckley, Lieutenant Willard Duns, and Firefighters Rick Ammon, Gil Clark, Tom Day, Pat Greener, Bob Hammond, Mike Krawczyszyn, Jack O’Neill, John O’Neill (Jack’s son), Tom Sanzo, John Sullivan, Bob Viezer, Terry Vodicka, and Jack Winter. Lieutenant Frank Molls, head of the Fire Prevention Bureau, made sure I learned how frustrating is the work of arson investigation, as did Inspector Neal Richter. And, I give my special thanks to Lieutenant Bill Cloonan who guided me, almost always with a smile, through my fire service education.

Finally, my thanks go most respectfully to Chief Pickford because he never doubted—or at least never let on—that I could accomplish what I set out to do.  I’m grateful that I had a chance to tell him how much he meant to me before he passed away in June, 2004.