role fire has played throughout my life. Perhaps that should not be too surprising that fire should be my frame of reference. After all, I have made my living in the field of firefighting.
Fire itself is a study in contrasts. The substance that can cause searing burns also brings pleasant warmth. Its forms range from flickering candlelight to blazing infernos.
Its power to destroy and consume is matched only by its power to nurture and support life.
Even before I entered firefighting, I believe that the dual qualities of fire can be seen as a metaphor for my life. Like most young boys, I was confident but unfocused, like a flame spread in all directions. With the supreme confidence of one who thought he knew it all, I dropped out of school at ninth grade. Back then, I though that school had nothing left to teach me.
Instead, I enlisted in the Navy and eventually joined the Merchant Marines. My plan was to see the world and, in the process, to make a lot of money. I did not believe a formal education was important to either goal. Three months later, however, I realized how wrong I was.
I guess the main problem back then lay in my youth. Young people tend to get excited over the unbridled possibilities of new plans. Then reality sets in and the initial enthusiasm wanes, like a dying sparklers. I was among the youngest members of the Merchant Marines back then, and dropping out at ninth grade had placed me at a deep disadvantage. Overwhelmed, I eventually left the service and ended up at my grandparents' house in Michigan.
However, the time spent with the Merchant Marines was not a waste. Aside from the military training, I learned several important things about myself that helped set the course for the rest of my life.
For example, I discovered a love of the outdoors. I enjoyed working outside instead of being tethered to an office desk for eight hours a day.
Unlike many jobs where you merely show up, do some work then go home, the Navy taught me how even the smallest tasks must be completed with precision.
It was a job that taught me to push myself, to explore all my physical, mental and emotional limits. It was also an early experience in discipline and focus, two character traits not typically associated with the carefree youth.
My time in the Navy also taught me to value camaraderie and teamwork. You learn to see your colleagues as more than just people you work with. Instead, they become brothers and sisters, like a big extended family. You learn that the needs of the team are important. Conversely, you also realize the enormous responsibility of people who are depending on you, on how you are a vital part of the larger team.
I did not know it then, but this discipline, attention to detail, and teamwork planted the seeds for my future career in firefighting.
Immediately after getting out of the service, I spent some time mulling my options.
It was now a time to focus. My early ambitions to grow rich and see the world had gone from the bright but fizzling sparkler to the quiet, focused glow at the end of a cigarette.
Meanwhile, my grandfather knew the Superintendent at the Department of Public Works in Ferndale. Through his help, I managed to get a job with the city. I started with Ferndale's Sanitation Department, working the back of a garbage truck.
It was a job that allowed me to work outdoors, again playing into my preference for a non-office job setting. It was very demanding physically, but the Navy had helped me develop strength as well as discipline. In addition, the $2.11 per hour pay translated to a lot of money in 1968.
However, even though I liked my job, it was not going to be my long-term career. One of the greatest things I enjoyed about being in the Navy was the constant stimulation and challenge. I needed a career that provided that level of challenge, both physical and mental.
Around this time, I realized how limited my choices were with a ninth grade education. This was probably the time I made my decision to earn my high school diploma.
A initially viewed earning my high school diploma as a stepping-stone towards a more rewarding and challenging career. However, I soon learned that earning the GED was in itself a challenge. When I first took the GED, I found that it tested several subjects that I have never taken in school. I had to leave the test without finishing it.
To earn my GED, I realized that I had to go back to school. It was definitely a challenge to attend night school after working fulltime during the day. In addition, the going back to school posed several academic challenges as well - like Algebra. It was not a simple task to sit in a classroom and process quadrilateral equations again, after having been away from school for so long.
Throughout this time, I counted myself lucky to have the support of my family. During my younger days, my mother was a single parent who worked as a waitress to support me. My grandparents helped out a lot, providing a larger network of support. We may not have had a lot, but their love and support were an inspiration. Largely because of them, I pushed myself through night school and strived harder to earn my equivalency diploma.
After learning Algebra and after a host of other classes, I re-took the GED test and even did better than I thought I would. To this day, earning my GED remains one of my proudest achievements.
As I hoped, the GED diploma opened more options and helped me get a job with the City of Troy in 1973. Later, I learned that they had a volunteer fire department, and I felt the early enthusiasm flare up within me again. I almost felt the same excitement I had when I dropped out of school years ago to join the Navy.
Of course, there were also important differences. I was a little older now and more mature. I had earned my high school degree. Having worked both with the Navy and as a city employee, I was now more focused and had more skills. My initial enthusiasm was now tempered by a more realistic picture of the challenges ahead.
However, in many ways, firefighting embodied many of the career characteristics that were important to me. Much like the Navy, a firefighter crew is in many ways a family, where each individual member makes valuable contributions. It was, again, a job that allowed me to work outdoors. The nature of the job itself was replete with physical, mental and emotional challenges. You had to be strong, be able to think on your feet and make quick decisions.
In 1975, I enrolled XYZ School and began to take classes about firefighting. My goal was to be a full-time firefighter within a few years.
However, juggling a job, a family and classes turned out to be a little more difficult than I originally thought. Again, the schedule and classes were very demanding, but I already knew that if something was important to you, then you keep at it. It took longer than just a few years to earn all the credits I needed, but in 1985, I finally got the job as Fire Inspector.
When people think of firefighting, they generally think of brave firefighters pulling people out of burning buildings. This, of course, is a cornerstone of the firefighting tradition. There are few jobs that can match the satisfaction of helping people in times of crisis and in saving people's lives.
However, I quickly learned that firefighting is also a rich and diverse field with many challenges that I did not anticipate.
For example, in addition to directly helping people, the job of Fire Investigator requires you to be part detective, part scientist, part engineer and part law enforcer. It is a job that requires an expertise in fire science, long after the victims are safe and the flames have been snuffed out.
After the fire has been doused, the Fire Investigator is then tasked with determining and documenting the origin and causes of the fire. If the cause seems suspicious, I collect evidence and investigate what human actions may have contributed to the fire. In some cases, I have given testimony in court to help convict arsonists.
I have to chuckle now when I think of how, at ninth grade, I did not think I had anything left to learn in school. Back then, I just did not see how subjects like Math and Chemistry would apply to "the real world."
Since then, I have learned how valuable my school background and classes are in "the real world" of fire investigation. This is, after all,…