Fighting the odds
They are New Orleans' bravest. They have to be. They're fighting fires in a city filled with abandoned homes. Water pressure is low city-wide. Co-workers are quitting, retiring or taking jobs out of town. Oh, and then there's the pay. On average, a New Orleans firefighters makes between $8-10 dollars an hour.
But driver Jason Martin and the platoon on Engine 27 aren't giving in or giving up."Most of the guys love what they do, it's not about the money," he told me. It was a point I heard again and again when I followed them for half their 24-hour tour of duty. That sentiment was fresh in their minds, given that last week the department signed a new five-year contract with the city that included no salary increase. I'd planned the ride-along before that, just to see what kinds of challenges they were facing almost 11 months after Katrina. Although I knew about their heroic role as rescuers during the storm, I soon discovered that the firefighters themselves were now in need of a rescue.
Photo caption: New Orleans firefighter Jason Martin
Riding along in the cab of 27, the guys (Jason, Ritchie, Darrin and the Captain) act as grim tour guides of their battered district. Captain points out a block that burned after the storm. Jason steers the rig down streets where he used his personal boat to rescue storm victims. And Ritchie squints out at his nearby neighborhood pockmarked with abandoned buildings. "I was born here, raised here and I'll die here. As much as I curse the city, I can't see myself living any place else," he says.
But other firefighters have seen a future elsewhere. The Times-Picayune reports the NOFD has lost 139 firefighters from a pre-storm roster of 700. They've been lured by other departments paying more or they've left because their homes were destroyed. Jason and the guys are among those staying. In truth, New Orleans is like an ex-wife of theirs. They fell in love years ago. Things changed. They changed. But somehow their connection endures. They can't let go. The comparison is hard to miss after one of the guys seamlessly moves from talking about the city to his soon-to-be ex.
Not all the talk is about the city. A lot is about their second jobs. As they drive around their district, checking hydrants for water pressure, they compare notes about where they'll be working tomorrow. Jason is a crabber. Darrin cuts grass. Through the years, the four have worked construction, roofing and retail. Despite the fact that "it's not about money," they set their jaw firmly when asked how they and fellow firefighters will pay for storm-damaged homes and lost possessions. They may complain, but they're not going to sound pitiful. Not in front of me.
We head back to the firehouse where the crews from 27, Ladder 11 and a Rescue Squad sit around and listen to static-filled radios. It's another "Katrina curse" I discover. The department's firehouse alarm system was taken out by the storm. Now they listen to every call and strain to hear the ones for their house. When will it be fixed? There are shrugs all around.
Jason busies himself giving me a once-over of the rig. His engine is one of a handful of "squirts," or pumpers with an aerial water line. "This is like a gun to me, my water is my bullets," he says as he extends the arm skyward. He promises me, we'll "make a fire" sometime tonight. It's a curious expression that means they'll fight one. And post-storm, they're "making fires" more often. Abandoned homes, cars and businesses go up in flames. Some are arson. Others are set accidentally by vagrants. All require more manpower and more water pressure. But again, both of those are in short supply. No matter to Jason. He'll do the work of two and hustle twice as hard.
Later that night, I get the chance to see him live up to that promise. The call comes in before Midnight. Truck Fire. Underpass. Engine 27. First Response. They scramble aboard the rig, suiting up in the dark. Jason steers 27 through the dark street until the flames ahead light his way. It's not a major one, but it's no less dangerous. A dump truck filled with debris is fully engulfed. Chances are no one's inside. The street's so deserted, it has to be arson.
Captain and the guys jump out and have the flames out and the truck bed flushed out within five minutes. After the adrenaline rush is gone, there's a bit of frustration. They put this one out. But the firebug has plenty of more easy targets left in this half-abandoned neighborhood. Odds are the guys will be back. Probably tonight. Definitely this week. But for how long, no one knows. The Captain is headed toward retirement. Jason is getting married and will need money to rebuild his home. Ritchie is helping his ex-wife through school and supporting his daughter. And cutting grass barely helps Darrin supplement his firefighter wages. But they survived Katrina. Surely, they can weather this storm? At least that's what they hope.
And so, as they head back to the firehouse, these bravest put on a brave face again... if not for me, if not for each other, then at least for their city.
Photo caption: Steve snapped this cell phone photo of the burning dump truck.
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