On Call – Being a firefighter is much more than fighting fires
Dan Garner is a juggler by default. When he’s not suited up and responding to a call, the 45-year-old deputy chief of the Pittsfield Fire Department is consistently training his squad, writing reports, checking equipment—or taking care of his two young children.
“People think that when you’re a firefighter you jump out of this big red truck,” says Garner, who has been a firefighter for 21 years. “That’s not even half of it. There’s such a broad list of duties to this job, and the list is always expanding.”
Garner and the others on the Pittsfield squad are paid firefighters—not the norm in the Berkshires. There are nearly 20 fire departments scattered throughout the county, and most of them are comprised solely of volunteer firefighters. They are held to the same rigorous standards and perform the same duties as their Pittsfield counterparts. While departments try to offer most of the training in house, it can take anywhere from six months to a year for a would-be firefighter to complete the first in a series of certifications—Fire Officer I, II, and III; Driver Operator/Pumper and Aerial; Fire Investigator; Technical Rescuer; Confined Space Rescue; Trench Rescue; Water Rescue; and so on.
Training continues beyond the certification: to be a first responder, to learn conversational Spanish, to handle drug overdose calls, to help the elderly, to use the jaws of life technology, and, of course, to tackle fires. The rigor of the physical training is a particular source of pride. Regardless of age, firefighters must be able to climb five-story towers, hoist and drag 45 pounds of hose or a 175-pound dummy, wield a mallet to dislodge a 75-pound steel beam. All this is part of the Physical Ability Test.
“I know it’s a cliché, but we’re only as strong as our weakest link,” says Garner. “Your real badge of honor for this job, really, is being reliable.”
Pittsfield firefighters, including Garner, will be testing those links in a friendly competition at Berkshire Crossing in Pittsfield on June 14 and 15. The Firefighter Combat Challenge, a globally recognized obstacle course, is a chance for the public to see how they train. Garner has competed in several challenges across the country over the last 13 years. Other local fire departments are gathering teams for the event, including the volunteer squad in Great Barrington, which has only one full-time paid staff member. Volunteer Rob Gaughran, a volunteer who also covers a few shifts at the Lenox Department (some larger towns like Lenox and Dalton have adopted a mix of volunteer and paid, on-call positions), says that as expectations and mandated standards continue to rise, the logistics of the job can push much-needed candidates away.
“The standards are going up, as they need to be. But it’s hard for people to set their time aside to keep accommodating those standards,” says Gaughran, who lives and works in Great Barrington. “There are some people who would be outstanding at this job, but who can’t manage the massive time commitment. You have to be in a unique position to make this a priority in your life.”
Although volunteers live in the communities where they serve, many don’t work there, adding strain to the volunteer squad structure. “We have 20 volunteers in the department,” says Great Barrington Fire Chief Charles Burger, “Is that enough? Yes, if everybody showed up for every call. But that’s not usually the case. We drill to do everything with the fewest people possible and make sure we’re on the same page. Always. We make the best of the resources we do have.”
One resource is an “I Am Responding” app, where, once they get a call, volunteers indicate whether they can respond and when. That gives Burger an accurate headcount. The Great Barrington department also has seat assignments on the truck that come with a designated job. These kinds of efficiency measures can make all the difference once firefighters are on the scene. However, having more hands on deck is the ultimate lifesaver.
“It used to be neighbors taking care of neighbors, but it seems like no one is around anymore,” says Burger. “Changes in society have necessitated a greater need for us firefighters to do more than fight fires. Lost hikers, life assistance calls, car accidents, helping other departments—these are all part of the job now. We get called to solve a problem. Ninety-five percent of this job is preparation for any problem that comes up.”
Problem solving also requires hours of training and self-evaluation. According to Pittsfield Fire Chief Robert Czerwinski, who recently announced he will retire in July after 32 years with Pittsfield (45 years total as a firefighter), there is a lot to consider for anyone who decides to become a firefighter: increasing occupational hazards like cancer and cardio vascular disease (a handful of Pittsfield firefighters are currently undergoing cancer treatment); fires that burn quick and hot, thanks to synthetic building materials; public ire around budget appropriations; understaffing; and continuously needing to obtain certifications in multiple fields. Recruitment efforts are ongoing—open houses, community days, showcasing events like the Combat Challenge, outreach in local high schools—in the hopes that something will inspire new recruits willing to put in the time and know that not every day is a Herculean battle with a towering inferno. It’s simpler than that.
“You need to always be a good student,” says Czerwinski. “If you think you know everything, you’re a liability to me. We’re here to serve the public any way we can.”