A Blog By PJ Kellam – Firefighter/Photographer

History, Not Just A Graduation Requirement


It was probably the class in school that I avoided the most. Every time someone started talking about the history of our country or the history of ancient civilizations, I would immediately involve myself… in something completely unrelated. It did not seem to interest me at all because it already happened. I felt I couldn’t gain anything from it because I’m not the president, I’m not a mighty warrior, and I’m not a mad scientist or astrophysicist.

It wasn’t until my involvement in the fire service became the primary focus in my life that history really hit home for me.

Sure, there are all the famous stories like the Great Chicago Fire (started by Mrs. O’Leary’s cow) and the stuff “from the old days” portrayed in the hit TV series “Emergency” (Can You Hear Me RAMPART?) but what about actual history? Facts. Events. Advancements. All of that information is the basis for the modern fire service, and as proficient firefighters, we have to recognize the happenings of the past and learn from the history.

This article is inspired by the anniversary that occurs today. Known in the history books as “Black Sunday”, January 23, 2005 was one of the most influential days in “recent” firefighting history. To make a long story short, six FDNY firefighters were forced to jump from a number of 4th floor windows when conditions became unbearable for them. Two of them died as a result of their injuries and the other 4 were never the same. At a separate incident on the same day, two more FDNY firefighters were lost in the Line of Duty.

When I was a young child, my interests were focused on the fire service. I was always pointing out fire trucks as we passed them in the car and visiting firehouses everywhere we went. The encouragement I received from the firefighters I met in my travels was tremendous. The list of pieces of advice I was given was long but it’s roots were firmly held within several key points:

Get An Education
Work Hard
Never Stop Training
Know The History Of The Job
Remember Where You Came From

I took an huge interest in fire service history when I became an explorer (junior firefighter) at a combination department in 2006. I was 14 years old so I was not allowed to fight fire, but I was allowed to train, respond to calls, and act in a support role for suppression personnel. My job on the fireground was to bridge the gap between the door and the rigs. Pull hose, grab tools, relay messages when the radios wouldn’t work, etc. It was a rule in our department the explorers had to pass a written test as well as a practical test before they were allowed to ride on the trucks. The practice test included several skills, one of which was being able to know where every piece of equipment on the first out rigs was without opening any compartment doors. While studying for this test, I found myself browsing not only the first out rigs, but the antiques and reserves as well. If I came across a tool I wasn’t familiar with, I would ask about it.

It was in these moments where I learned such things as the history of SCBAs, forcible entry tools, ladders, and other tools as well as different strategies and tactics to go along with each one.

Over time I found myself studying fire department history and learning about where the modern fire service came from. So what’s the point?

The point is in the business of fighting fires and responding to emergency incidents, it is important to know why we do what we do and how it is to be done because every bit of it is for a reason. Every single firefighter in the Fire Department of New York City wears a harness and carries a hook, rope, and descent device in order to give them a chance to escape a hostile environment so they don’t end up facing the same fate as their brothers did 8 years ago. When new probies complain about the added weight, I’d imagine they’re given a history lesson in hopes of eliminating their complaints with a dose of reality. Along the same history lines, Why is FDNY written with the “NY” last vs. NYPD or NYPA? It’s because the Fire Department had it’s roots BEFORE the city of New York was officially incorporated. (another bit of history I picked up once).

History can teach us many valuable lessons. It is an important thing to study no matter what profession you’re into. A lawyer should have a basic understanding of why the laws were made just as a fireman should have a basic understanding of why he is wearing that big heavy cylinder on his back. While we cannot change the fate of those who have perished in the Line Of Duty, we can learn from there stories, as well as the stories of those who continue to serve in order to make the foundation of what we do make sense…

…because if that little kid comes into the firehouse and asks “why are fire trucks red?” or if the probie asks “why are they called ‘The Irons’?” you better be able to tell them that red is a tradition color in the fire service that makes the trucks easier to see, and that firefighters who responded to a fire in a bank following a break in decided that the IRON tool used to break in could work to their advantage if it was good enough to break into a bank.

You never know whose life you’re going to change by sharing a bit of history.

2 responses

  1. Hey I am so thrilled I found your site, I really found you by accident, while I was browsing on Askjeeve for something else, Nonetheless I am here now and would just like to say cheers for a incredible post and a all round entertaining blog (I also love the theme/design), I don’t have time to read it all at the minute but I have saved it and also added in your RSS feeds, so when I have time I will be back to read more, Please do keep up the great work.

    January 28, 2013 at 10:17 pm

  2. thanks for sharing such great article. i appreciate the post. keep posting more. lista de email lista de email lista de email lista de email lista de email

    January 29, 2013 at 8:21 am

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