Stealing Fires

As a trial firefighter, I was assigned to learn truck work at Ladder 9 in the 5th Battalion. This is where I learned the fierce intensity and pride of workmanship displayed by most firefighters. Ladder 9 shared its quarters with Engine 12.  The drivers of both rigs were fast. The Fire Engine Operator was Jack VanTien. When the bell rang for a run, it was a mad race to climb aboard the rig before it left the engine house. Jack was determined to beat other fire engines to the scene of the fire. There were two other hot-shot drivers in the 5th Battalion, John Corey at Eng 31 and Harvey LaPriese at Eng 10. If any of these drivers could steal a fire from the other it became a mark of pride for his Firefighters. The mood and tone set by these FEOs was infectious and created a sense of camaraderie among the men.

What follows are the words of FEO Nelson Kreimes of Engine 17. It is a story of pride and accomplishment.

I had been transferred to Engine 17 as Senior Fire Engine Operator in August 1980. The morale at my new quarters wasn’t what I was used to. The guys were rather laid back and didn’t seem to care if they got a fire or not. That puzzled me, because rumor had it that Engine 17 was the a very busy outfit but they were sometimes the second arriving company at a fire.

Well, I had a reputation of being a fast but safe driver. In my opinion they made governors on rigs to be used to the max. I was a peddle-to-the-metal kind of guy. We had a Ward LaFrance Engine and it was fast. I had just been transferred from Engine 57 with the swing to Engine 55 which had one of the sister rigs to Engine 17s apparatus. I knew what she could do and how she handled.

On the first run we had, I told Lieutenant Panagos (God rest his wonderful Greek soul), “Have everyone hang on.” I actually left rubber on the apparatus room floor. It surprised me as much as it did with the Firefighters riding with me.

The improvement in morale became noticeable. The guys were enjoying the race horse runs we were on. We started stealing fires from Engines 5, 35, and 39. I really got a kick out of stealing fires from Engine 5, because Captain Joe Kelemen, the rough tough boss of Engine 5, didn’t like it one bit.

One morning we had to take the rig out shopping for supplies and groceries. We were away from our quarters when a box alarm came in. We were returning when Central Office sent out the box for Cass and Amsterdam. We were just turning onto Mack Ave. and I asked Lieutenant Panagos if he wanted to call Central Office and give a bogus location so we could respond to the fire. He smiled, that wonderful Greek smile of his, and told Central office we were at Mack and Woodward , which was closer to the alarm location. Central told us to take the run. When we arrived at the scene, we heard Engine 5 calling in smoke showing at the location.

Damn, I thought, Engine 5 stole one of our fires. It was the first time since I had been assigned to Engine 17 that this had happened. Well, when we got to the scene, Engine 5 was parked in the middle of Cass Avenue, right in front of the building. I saw smoke coming from the bottom of a commercial garage door. I looked to my left and there was an empty hydrant with no engine hooked up to it yet. I took the opportunity and nosed my rig in and proceeded to hook up. Captain Kelemen came rushing out of the building and yelled, “Stretch.”  My guys did as the Captain ordered, and began taking our lines into the fire.

After the fire was knocked down, the Chief left the fire with the first Engine, Truck, and Squad. Captain Kelemen told My boss, Lieutenant Panagos, that he could go home. That is when Captain Kelemen found out that Engine 17 had stolen the fire from Engine 5. From where I was standing near my rig, I could see Captain Kelemen come storming out of the building. Smoke was still clinging to his fire gear but I also thought I saw smoke coming from his ears. He stomped over and went nose to nose with his driver. I couldn’t hear what was being said but it seemed the captain was growing in size as his FEO started to shrink. There was a lot of arm waving and hollering. I smiled because my company had once again earned bragging rights by stealing another fire.

We continued to steal fires and when I retired in 1993 I was proud to be a part of Engine 17. We had pride in what we did and we did it well.

Stay safe my brothers and sisters.

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"Fire Horses" book authored by firefighter R.J. Haig.


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