My Turn: A Life Dictated By the Bell

We all remember learning about that Pavlov guy, who taught dogs to respond to the sound of a bell. For 30 years now I have been doing the exact same thing. Not so much the teaching part; I've been the dog. Way back in 1978, I received intensive training on how to respond to a bell by immediately stopping whatever I was doing and jumping onto a fire truck. Often the bell rings while I'm doing paperwork or in some form of training. That's not so bad. The time I least enjoy hearing the bell ring is when I'm in the shower. But as time has gone by (and a lot of it has), what really seems to be getting to me is the bell that rings in the small hours of the morning and forces me to jump out of bed. Many firefighters work 24-hour shifts. This requires fire crews to spend every third day of our lives away from home. In my case, that's 10 years spent waiting to produce a Pavlovian response.

Lately I've developed a cautious fear of these. It's funny, the things I've worried about as I close in on my 50th birthday. Fifty may not be that old in the private sector, but it's not the perfect age for throwing ladders against buildings or crawling through crashed cars in the middle of the night. I'm not just worried about my overall health—I'm also concerned for the welfare of my specific parts. My prostate, for instance.

Thirty years ago I would not have known that a prostate has a fairly predictable life span. Now I know that it is an organ designed to live a happy life of about 50 years until it swells up and keeps you from properly using a bathroom. I doubt that either evolutionists or creationists can account for that flaw in intelligent design.

And then there's my heart. I can't help but wonder what jumping out of bed all these nights is doing to my ticker. I have always been pretty good at waking up quickly for emergencies, but how many more times can my heartbeat nearly double in response to the bell without some kind of problem? Imagine having your spouse wake you up every third night several times to tell you that he or she thinks someone is breaking into the house. Now spread that angst over 30 years. Jumping out of bed is where some firefighters' careers (and lives) end. In all honesty—and I know this sounds both selfish and melodramatic—if I'm not going to live long enough to see a pension, I think I would rather perish following the performance of an act that at least I was proud of. Who wouldn't want to be remembered as the guy who "gave it all" after rescuing someone from a burning building? It sure sounds more respectable than "that poor old firefighter who had a heart attack trying to get out of bed."

My career has had some interesting highs and lows. I have had the honor of taking part in saving lives under dangerous and stressful conditions that I would not wish on anyone (those are the highs). I have also been injured in ways that they never mentioned in the fire academy. I have been bitten by dogs and people. I've been kicked, punched, vomited on, overcome by smoke, burned and nearly electrocuted, and I have fallen through floors; one time I was nearly hit by lightning. Those were the lows, but for some reason people seem to enjoy those stories the most. Believe me, I'm not complaining. There are plenty of firefighters not lucky enough to still be here to tell stories. It's been a great career, and I wouldn't change a thing—except maybe the guy who bit me.

It would be hard not to love being a firefighter. I appreciate the public's trust, and I'm especially grateful that I've come through the years relatively unscathed. I just hope I can continue to keep all my parts intact long enough to wrap up this career. As with everything else we enjoy in life, the trick is knowing when to stop and go home. Without a doubt, my heart has always been in my work. I just hope that the two of us are able to leave the firehouse for good someday, and in proper working order.

So until the day that I get to go home and stay there, I'll continue to arrive at the firehouse every third morning prepared for anything. In recent months I've found myself staying awake at night later and later. I don't believe it's due to fear that my heart might not want to wake up as fast as necessary when Pavlov calls. I just hope that if I become a firefighter health statistic, it's for being one of the lucky guys, who enjoys his pension for at least as long as he did his career.