Luckiest Firefighter in the World

To be more precise the above title should read “ex-Firefighter”.  That would be me and I would like to tell you why!
As a young man with minimal direction, I was lucky to find many different types of work which I found to be relatively unimportant and not very satisfying.  Yes, I said “lucky” because I learned what I did NOT want to do for the rest of my working life.  Although I didn’t know what career path to take, I knew it had to be something important.  When the opportunity arose to apply for the position of Fireman in the FDNY, I took it because protecting lives and property is very important.  I must admit, I didn’t have a clue as to what I was getting into.

In June of 1968, I took the written exam in the high school from which I graduated six years earlier. The next steps were a medical exam and a physical agility test and before the end of the year, I was sworn in and attending the Probationary Firemens School on Welfare (now Roosevelt) Island.  I suppose it wasn’t so lucky to be taking outdoor classes during a cold New York winter, but it was also good training because fires do not care what the weather is.

After graduating Proby School, I was lucky to be assigned to a busy ladder company in Brooklyn.  At the time it was doing more than 5000 runs a year and was consistently in the top 25 units for hours of fire duty.  Not only were there plenty of fires to quickly gain firefighting experience, I was under the wings of some of the toughest, bravest and humblest men I had the good fortune with whom to be associated.  Many were veterans of World War II and Korea.  Among them was a Navy Seal, a Green Beret, a Fighter Pilot and a soldier who was a body guard for General Patton.  I even knew a guy who died at a fire. That’s right, after taking some smoke, his heart stopped but a FDNY Medical Officer jabbed a needle into his heart and brought him back.  Shortly after, he was back to full duty.  Did I mention they were tough?

In 1971, FDNY began a policy of mandatory use of the Scott Air Pak in order to reduce smoke related injuries and time lost due to medical leaves. Until then, it was basically voluntary and because it weighed 30 lbs. and the mask reduced visibility considerably, very often a member would forego donning it and take his chances without it.  As with all changes, there was some resistance but it was a good policy and also lucky because without it, I (and many other retirees) might not still be around.

After a few years, I was asked to be a Battalion Chief’s Aide because his current Aide was soon to be promoted to lieutenant.  The job was mostly paperwork and driving the chief to fires and elsewhere but this particular chief was one of the greatest bosses anyone could have, so I accepted.  Luckily, I learned a lot about paperwork which helped a great deal later on when I eventually got promoted.  After a relatively short while, my chief got promoted to Deputy Chief and I went back to ladder company duty.

Eventually, I transferred to Ladder Company 153 which is located in the Brooklyn neighborhood where I grew up.  How lucky was that?  Sharing the quarters was  Engine Company 254 and, like the first firehouse I was assigned to, all the members of that house got along just great and I felt privileged to be among them.

In 1979, I finally got promoted to lieutenant.  Although I dreaded the increased responsibility, it was among my greatest accomplishments. After the promotion ceremony, I was assigned to midtown Manhattan, which I found to be somewhat different than working in Brooklyn.  I was also lucky to work several tours with Rescue Company 1.  When I was in Proby School, one of the instructors said “Them Rescue boys are the Green Berets of the Fire Department!”  I’d say that was a fairly accurate description.

After a couple of years, the Division of Training sought volunteers to teach an influx of Probationary Firemen as there had been no hiring for more than six years. Being a Fire Instructor was a hoot as well as richly rewarding, for obvious reasons.  Alas, my stint at the Division of Training was short lived because I had submitted a transfer to several Brooklyn units and a lieutenant’s spot had opened up for me in the same division as my old company, Ladder 153.

Except for a couple of light duty assignments, I spent the rest of my time fighting fires in Brooklyn and was lucky to be able to retire long before 9/11.  September 11, 2001 was not a good day to be a New York City firefighter.  If you weren’t killed, you were destined to suffer emotional scars forever. And many sustained physical injuries, as well.  The destruction and loss of lives was devastating and overwhelming.  And that is why, even after all these years, the support group, Friends of Firefighters is essential for FDNY members, retirees and their families.

The most overwhelming fire during my FDNY career occurred on August 2, 1978 when six firefighters died in a supermarket fire. Two of them were from my company, Ladder 153.  It was the worst roof collapse in FDNY history.  At the time, I saved every newspaper article and photo I could find.  I thought about compiling all the material collected into a book, but I never was able to find the time to do it until after retiring.  So, I went to a library and taught myself how to publish a book and worked on it almost every day for two years.  After hurtling many obstacles, it finally got done by the 15th anniversary of the fire. The title, “FIRE: A War That Never Ends” was inspired by the words inscribed on the rear of the Firemens Monument at Riverside Drive and 100th Street in Manhattan.

I’m happy to say it was well received and sold as well as other books in its category.  That number is a lot lower than you might guess, but I was lucky to almost break even.  Self- publishing a hardcover book is costly, but that’s another story!  Lessons learned from that fire, particularly of roof construction, subsequently saved many firefighters’ lives.  And it should have been the last tragic multiple loss to FDNY by collapse …… but it wasn’t!

I wasn’t too happy to be stuck with a bunch of unsold books but it turned out to be a lucky thing because when I heard about Friends of Firefighters, I was able to offer the books to help them raise money.  For ten dollars (less than half the cover price) you can get my book and FoF gets a well deserved donation.  You can use it to level a wobbly table or you can give it to a young person considering a career in firefighting.  It may help him or her decide either way.  As I mentioned earlier, knowing what you DON’T want to do is important, too!

I could have recounted many more “lucky” incidents, but my goal was not to write another book.  Nor was it to make you think I sleep on a bed of roses.  Unless you were born in one of those countries with no food and no hope for a better life, everybody has luck … mostly good but sometimes bad!  For example, I can prove that you are lucky right now!  You are lucky if you do not need the services of Friends of Firefighters and if you do need them, you are lucky that they are here for you.  Kindly support them in any way you can!  Thanks!

Ernie DiMaria
*Ret. Lt., FDNY

*(Should have made Captain, but that’s another story!)