Sunday, April 29, 2012

Firefighter or Union Member?

San Jose City Hall
I was a union member with Local 230, the bargaining unit that represents over 600 firefighters in San Jose, for over 26 years.  I never held the post of executive board member nor did I even attend many union meetings for that matter;  I guess you could say I was the typical union member. 

I don't profess to know much about labor negotiations, Skelly hearings, binding arbitration and whatever other buzz words exist for labor issues.  The only time I got involved is when it directly affected me and my family, namely when it came to vote on a contract.  I was fireman, father, husband, ex-husband, handyman, counselor, parent, nothing more, nothing less.  Like so many other firefighters, I did my tour of duty and hopefully went home in one piece.

You see, when I signed up in 1983 the pay and benefits were good, yes, but that was secondary to me;  Hell, I would have done the job for free, and I actually did for 10 years as a volunteer firefighter.  Like so many other little boys, I wanted to grow up to be a fireman except it wasn't just a boyhood fantasy for me, it was a calling.  My mother always referred to me as the kid on the block that never got over the red lights and sirens.

 I will never forget one summer night in 1965 when we were all still playing hide and seek after the street lights came on, a sign in those days it was time to come in the house.  Suddenly someone looked up in the sky and started yelling "hey look at that!"  When I looked up, the sky was lit up like an atom bomb had just gone off.  We all raced on our bicycles towards the orange glow in the sky trying desperately to find the right street to turn down on.  Little did I know at the time, I would do the same thing many more times years later, except instead of riding a bike I was riding on a fire engine.  Peddling as fast we could, a bright red pumper raced by that guided the way to the unknown phenomena we were about to encroach upon.   Our eyes must have been as big as saucers when we arrived at the scene of the chaos that was taking place on the normally quiet residential street.  A two-story house was completely engulfed in flames and I remember seeing the garage door fall down in the driveway after the heat stressed steel springs holding the pyrolized wood structure failed just seconds after we arrived. 

That was many years ago of course but I can still remember it like yesterday and that one summer night in '65 turned out to be one of the most significant days in my life.   From that time on, I would never look at a fireman or fire engine the same.  All I could think about for the next 18 years was to be like the heroes I watched with amazement as they doused the flames of that burning home. 

However, years of public service has taken away that boyhood dream and replaced it with PTSD and a host of physical ailments that just come with the job.   

Sadly the glory days of the fire service appear to be gone.  Ordinary citizens no longer look at firefighters with the same awe and envy of yester years; now instead of smiles and waves, you get the finger.  It's as if 911 and the 343 brave firefighters and the 92 police officers who lost their lives that day never happened.  For the first time in my life, I felt ashamed to wear a fire department t-shirt or display a Maltese cross on my car's rear window.   When people asked what I did after learning I was retired, I hesitated to answer.  Quite a contrast from 11 years ago when I marched in the first St. Patrick's Day Parade after 911.  Over a hundred thousand New Yorkers that day lined the streets along the parade route to cheer and wave at the over 10,000 firefighters that marched that day in remembrance of our fallen brothers.   

But now my pride is back after viewing a video of a rescue recorded on a helmet cam:

This is a rescue recorded on a helmet cam of a San Bernardino firefighter.  This is what it was all about for me and 99% of the men and woman I had the privilege to serve with, saving lives and protecting property, not 90% pensions or huge salaries increases.  Never again will I hang my head for being a firefighter.  Never again will I fear to proclaim my chosen profession, one that once again is a source of pride for me and my family.  People can say what they want, but I can sit back and feel good that I carried out God's will. 

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