It was another world. 1 generation removed from myself.
Like many a kid I waited and waited through all the ads for washing powder and the medic alert tags until the claxon would strike at the beginning of an Emergency! episode. After the opening set up we’d see mighty 51 roll out the doors on a clear sunny California morning off to another amazing rescue, not realizing that the Fire Service portrayed in the show was already dead. The career I longed to follow my father into was already changed before I got in.
Roll call was first thing in the morning, dress caps and ties lined up for the Captain to read the morning’s news. He had an office just off the apparatus floor where he planned the day’s events, training, cooking and whatever else needed to be done.
The men diligently went about their morning duties, raised the flag, held discussions about equipment and learned from one another.
On emergency scenes they were well practiced professionals carrying out any task given them by the Officers safely and with pace. They never questioned the reasons or intentions of their superiors because their superiors had moved up through the ranks because of their abilities.
They don’t make them like they used to.
We are in the middle of the biggest shift of power the Fire Service has ever seen.
I jokingly referred to the hiring of younger and younger firefighters as “The changing of the guard.” The vets who filled the ranks of the growing departments of the 60s and 70s are leaving, and fast.
No longer are dining room table talks about large fires or tactics, but about certifications, degrees and disability pensions.
Morning training is reduced to making members comply to uniform regulations, tuck in their shirts, polish their boots and clean their gear.
Appreciation for their equipment takes a back seat to the TV and the internet, which seem to be on more and more and the drill book out less and less.
Officers are chosen by their scores on a test, then reshuffled based on how their outward appearance reflects that of the community. Hard to tell the race or gender of a fire officer in full PPE in a smoke filled hallway, but you sure can tell their ability level.
A passion to provide a quality service falls as personnel are required to do more with less and lose sight of their primary responsibilities.
Where did the crew of Engine 51 go? Yes they were a dramatization of reality, but what was it based on? It was based on men like James O Page and others who offered technical advice and surely added the aspects of the Department they wanted shown. The professionalism, the dedication, the pride.
I learned later these were all hold overs from the para-military structure that so many today reject.
I recall watching a young firefighter complain that he was reprimanded for not wearing his proper uniform to an accident scene. It was a hard argument to make in shorts and a polo shirt. He looked more like a delivery driver than a firefighter and it was listening to his rant that I realized he is the one new recruits will be looking towards in 15 years for advice and guidance. I shuddered.
Was it my rose colored glasses of youth that saw these things?
No, I learned when watching the show on DVD while my eldest was a baby. The hairstyles were different, the equipment educational, but the outward glow of professionalism was unmistakable.
Watching that show again takes me back to the world of my youth, when every fire had a rescue, every story a moral and every shift was another chance to spend time with friends.
To this day I have the squad claxon as the sound on my computer when a wootoff at woot.com is underway. When a new item is for sale it will tap out those familiar three tones “Beep, beep, beep, Squad 51 standby for response.”
And when my daughter, 3, says, “We’ve got a job!” it’s in response to that claxon sounding, just like I remember it all those years ago.
“Medic 99, clear.”