New Md. Firefighters Discuss Drive to Serve
Just what makes someone want to go into a burning building?
An overwhelming desire to help people, the satisfaction of working with a team, the adrenaline rush from danger, and the thrill of problem-solving.
At least that's the way Michael Williams, one of the newest firefighters in Annapolis, sees it.
"(A fire) is a beast," he said. "It's a puzzle that's moving constantly and wants to consume everything in its path - and when you beat it, it's like winning the Super Bowl."
When he's not battling blazes or responding to accidents in the city, he spends his time as a captain of the Morningside Volunteer Fire Department in Prince George's County. The 33-year-old also occasionally drives a cement truck for a construction company.
Like the four other fledgling Annapolis firefighters, he rotates between stations on a 24-hours-on, 72-off, shift. And also like him, they have plenty of experience, even though they're rookies with the city.
Williams worked for four years in Washington, D.C., and five in Illinois. The Chesapeake Beach resident volunteered prior to that, and also was in the Navy for five years.
Steven Christensen, 27, of Fort George G. Meade, spent two years with the Baltimore City Fire Department.
Patrick Gallagher, 28, of Arnold, served for three years with Prince George's County.
Craig McCracken, 30, of Easton, spent four years with the Anne Arundel fire department.
Christopher Wertz, 24, of York, Pa. (he doesn't mind the commute) also served with the county for four years. He and Christensen are licensed paramedics.
All five cited the reputation of the Annapolis department as the main reason for coming here. Some also have family in the area. They were sworn in last month. "It's a progressive department," Wertz said.
His father was a volunteer firefighter, and his current career is the only one he ever considered. "It's all I've ever known and all I've ever strived to be," he said.
A desk job wouldn't suit him, or any of the others. "You can go to a three-alarm fire... and 15 minutes later, you're doing it again," Williams said.
The constant change is a big plus, but something that requires constant training. "You can never get stagnant," McCracken said.
Complacency can lead to injuries. Firefighters, Gallagher said, have to prepare for the worst, even though it might not happen. "If someone tells you they're not scared, they're full of it," he said.
Wiliams and Wertz have witnessed fellow firefighters fall through floors of burning buildings - luckily, no one died.
"If I am going to get hurt, I hope to be going in to save somebody," Williams said.
Christensen has delivered a handful of children, including one just before he came to Annapolis.
"It just was a little surprising when I walked into the home," he said. "She (the mother) was way past the point of needing an ambulance."
Within five minutes, he'd helped a baby boy into the world.
"You made the difference in that baby coming out healthy," he said. "The parents may or may not have been able to accomplish that on their own. It definitely makes you feel you did something good."
Sometimes, things don't turn out as well - and that's a part of the job, too. A thick skin is required, and the department has practices in place to assist with coping.
"Even where there's something awful, you're helping," said Battalion Chief John Menassa, and he stressed that's what firefighters have to remember.
Williams was taken with firefighting from age 2. "I liked the trucks," he said.
It took many years for him to actually enter a fire station. Once he did, there was no turning back. At one point, he was putting in 160-hour weeks - 60 in the military and another 100 volunteering with a fire department.
Williams still puts in plenty of hours. And even if there aren't a lot of calls on a shift, there's always plenty to do, courtesy of training and inspections.
On a "slow" day, it's a little easier to unwind after 24 hours on the job. On busy days, it can be a little more difficult.
In Baltimore, Christensen once handled 28 calls on a shift. Wertz responded to 20 once. "I didn't feel good (at the end of the day)," Christensen said, "but you make it work."
However many calls are involved, there's little resemblance to how firefighting is depicted on television. Especially when it comes to blazes, the firefighters said.
First of all, actors are often shown running into a building without any gear. Once they're inside, there's usually a pretty good view of what's happening.
In reality, smoke typically obscures everything, McCracken said.
It's nothing "like it's made out to be," Christensen said, "but it's still a very rewarding job."
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