A Day in the Life of a Firefighter
We pull up to Engine 39 around 10:00 am. It’s a sunny day in the Portola neighborhood of San Francisco. It’s a little chilly, but that’s just microclimates for you, right?
There’s a shiny, red rig parked in front of the station. It’s the kind of rig every eight-year old would love to climb on.
We’re here to meet Captain Michael Day, 25 year-veteran of SFFD and SF Fire Credit Union member. We being me, Joe, and Kirsten, our Media Producer, here to take photos.
When we arrive, Mike welcomes us, shakes our hands, and tells us he and his crew are just getting ready to start their day. It’s the usual, daily routine for them: getting fuel for the rig, buying groceries, maybe a stop for coffee or to pick up something at the hardware store.
Oh no, we think. Maybe we’ve come at a bad time? The last thing we want to do is get in the way of their routine.
“You guys want to come along?” Mike says, and gives us a smile that is warm and joyful. It’s a smile we’ll become very familiar with as we spend the day with him and his crew.
“Seriously?” Kirsten and I say, almost in unison. “Yes! Absolutely.”
And, like two giddy eight-year-olds, we climb aboard the rig.
When we stop to get fuel, Kirsten and I hop out, still all smiles and can-barely-contain-ourselves amazement.
I’m excited to start looking around the rig. I can’t remember the last time I was this close to one. It’s beyond cool to see the gauges, the ladders, the I’m-not-sure-what-this-is things. Mike sees me and is more than happy to start telling me about the history and purpose of those things. And I’m more than happy to listen and learn.
He starts by telling me about the different types of hoses on the back of the rig. What they’re used for, how to attach and carry them. He lets me hold one. It’s solid brass at the end, and you can believe it’s heavy.
You can adjust the water pressure of the hoses, which makes sense when I think about it. You need to do this sometimes, depending on the situation. Putting out a couch-fire started by an errant cigarette needs less pressure than, say, a building that’s in a full-on four-alarm blaze.
Mike shows me a hydraulic reducing valve that attaches to high-pressure fire hydrants. You might have seen these around the city. They’re the ones with their tops painted black, red, or blue.
The valve’s used to safely reduce the water pressure coming from the hydrant. And it looks cool. It also weighs 96 pounds, costs between $80-$100,000, and is over 100 years old.
“It’s about tradition,” Mike says. “San Francisco, and the fire department, is rich in history, rich with tradition. But we have to think practically, too.”
There’s a newer model that weighs 6 pounds and costs $5,000.
“Moving forward,” Mike says, “We’re not going to buy these anymore, because they’re not fiscally sound. It’s nice to have them though, because we like to hang on to tradition.”
The rig is fueled-up, and we’re ready to move on to our next stop. So, we climb back into a rig that’s rich with history and tradition, and, I don’t think I can remember a time when I had so much fun doing something as simple as refueling.
We stop so the firefighters can get groceries for the day. We’re at Parkside Market, even though a larger, chain-store is only two blocks away. Mike and his crew like to shop local, he tells me. It’s part of supporting the community they serve.
“Our food is very important to us,” Mike tells me.
And watching these guys shop, I believe him. Each firefighter has a list of ingredients, and they waste no time grabbing what they need. They’re focused, almost methodical in selecting fruits, vegetables. They’re working as a team here, too. Green peppers, bananas, heads of lettuce. All of these things get inspected for quality, and have to get the seal of approval from the whole unit.
If they work this well together buying groceries, this focused and cohesive as a unit, this neighborhood’s in good hands, I think.
Mike tells me that one firefighter is assigned each day to cook both lunch and dinner.
“Is there a name that everyone hates to see on cooking duty that day?” I ask.
“Oh yeah,” Mike says and laughs. “Probably more than one.”
It’s actually Mike’s day to cook, so I ask what he’s planning on making.
“Thai basil chicken pasta for lunch. And green curry salmon over greens for dinner.”
I get the feeling no one hates to see Mike’s name on cooking duty.
Back at Engine 39, it’s quiet as the firefighters unload the groceries and begin prepping lunch. It’s not exactly the kind of firehouse television and Hollywood would have you picture. Still, there’s something regal about it, something noble about it just being there.
Mike makes us a fresh pot of coffee (something I’ll never say no to), and we sit down to chat for a bit. I’ve got a ton of questions. Mike’s a very active and interesting man. He’s a volunteer with the San Francisco Fire Fighter’s Toy Program, sits on a number of committees for the fire department, and is even Chair of Local 798’s bowling team.
And even though he’s as warm and welcoming as when we arrived hours ago, I feel like I should keep this relatively short. But Mike being Mike, and me being me, we end up talking for a while.
Here’s a little bit of our conversation:
“Why did you want to become a firefighter?” I ask him. “Was it always the plan?”
“It was always the plan. I come from a long line of firefighting in my family. My dad was a retired fire chief, my brother’s in this department. Yeah, it kind of runs in the family.
So, when I graduated high school, I went directly into the fire academy. That was it. I didn’t go to a four-year college. I went right into the fire academy and then right into being a firefighter.”
“What advice would you give to young people who want to become firefighters?”
“If this is your passion, definitely pursue it. This is a unique passion and not a lot of people are cut out for the job. You have to deal with stuff. You do have to take risks. It’s not the type of 9-5 job where you check in, do whatever kind of project you have, and then go home. We live with each other here. We’re 24 hours a day.
But what’s nice about the comradery and the family unit of the fire department, is that we deal with issues together. It’s family.
So, you need to be well grounded. You have to be able to adjust to more stressful times, and maybe the calmer times too. And sometimes it’s hard, I’m not going to lie to you. It’s hard to have that work/home balance. That’s a tool I highly recommend somebody think about.
But go to your local fire station, see if you can walk around. Ask questions. Ask for a ride-along. Get some exposure.”
“Just from talking with you today, I can tell this idea of service and giving back is important to you. Where did that come from?”
“Family plays a big role,” Mike says. “My upbringing, my parents, they brought us up to be responsible and, you know, give back.
My big thing is the Toy Program. Every year, I spend a lot of time down there, because seeing the smiles on those kids faces is priceless. It’s priceless.
It’s just kind of built in me. And that would go back to a young person wanting to explore the fire department or public safety, you know, having that vision of getting into it because you’re giving back to a community.”
“Ok, one last question,” I say, “just for my own curiosity. Do you ever watch the show Rescue Me?”
And there’s that Mike-Day-smile, and a big, hearty laugh.
“How accurate?” I ask.