Behind the Siren


It’s lunchtime on Nov. 11 and Ladder Company 165 just got back from the grocery store with several pounds of chicken breast, bags of sandwich buns and a pineapple. On the menu are buffalo chicken sandwiches. Today, they will actually have time to eat their meal instead of shoveling what they can before the bell rings.

The men on duty relax in a line of recliners facing the two flat screens in the kitchen, rubbing satisfied bellies. The general laidback atmosphere between calls makes the firehouse seem more like a gentlemen’s club than a day at the office.

The life of a typical firefighter isn’t always heart-pumping drama like television shows often portray.

Inside the “St. Albans Sleepless Knights” firehouse in Queens, N.Y., the men on duty chat about their families, joke about the upcoming Thanksgiving Turkey Bowl and watch the 1970 classic war film, Patton, silently playing on televisions.

“It’s a lot of boredom punctuated by extreme excitement,” said New York Fire City Department Battalion Chief Bradley Walls.

Around 9 a.m. the whole geared-up fleet ran a false alarm from a residential fire down the block from the station. The next few calls were for the Ladder 165 crew meaning minor situations for the trained medical staff—not the full-blown cavalry.

The big event of the day was repacking the rope-rescue system. One of the probationary firefighters—probies in their vernacular—removed the twined, thick rope, checked the pulley by anchoring it to a secure object and then repacked the rope. Meticulously winding each loop around aerosol cans, he answers questions from the captain about hypothetical situations. The whole process took approximately an hour.

“We never really know what’s coming or when it’s coming,” said Walls. “The computer could go off right now and give us an assignment or we could be just waiting around. That’s why we stayed ready. That’s why the guys drill.”

The hour checking the rope that hasn’t been used in weeks could mean the difference between life and death when the call does come in. Testing the system means when they do have to use it in life-threatening situations, its not a frayed, tangled mess.

“When the bell rings, it becomes all business,” Walls said.

But, joining this club is not an easy process. Each and every member of the FDNY goes through extensive training starting with a series of exams. Every four to five years New York City allows applicants to take the first step by applying for the exam.

After a computer-based exam, a qualified applicant goes on a long list until he or she is called to take the physical portion. The last part of exam involves a medical and psychological evaluation as well as a drug test and a background check.

The whole process takes two to four years.

Walls has been fighting fires since his twenties when he joined the Fire Department of New York in 1987. The longtime veteran of the FDNY wasn’t the kid who told his kindergarten teacher he wanted to be a firefighter when he grew up.

By pure chance, he stumbled into the profession that has become his life. While pursuing a law degree, a group of friends convinced him to take the FDNY exam.

Walls was the only one to pass.

26 years later, the extremely fit 53-year-old is the man in charge. Moving through the ranks, Walls was promoted to Battalion 47 Chief in 2007. He resides in the heart of Queens, N.Y. in Middle Village.

As a battalion chief, Walls does not have a set firehouse he is assigned to. Instead, the bat phone tells him which men he is responsible for getting home to their families that day.

“Responsibilities are what make life interesting,” said Walls. “If we didn’t have responsibilities, what good would your day be?”

Another call came in the following week at Ladder Company 160 on Springfield Boulevard in Queens’ Bayside neighborhood.

Across the borough, defining sirens echoed through Franklin Square, N.Y. on a normally quiet Saturday night in as Engine 326, Ladder 160 and Battalion 53 cut through tight residential streets to answer the call. H. Frank Carey Junior-Senior High School screeching school alarm drowned out the sirens.

Blinking lights, the men all-geared up with axes in hand, the only thing the company saved that night was neighbors’ eardrums.

“You never know what’s going to happen on the way there or when you get there or what kind of situation you’re going to be in,” said Ladder 160 Chauffeur Brian Banks.

Banks, driving the large ladder truck, listened to his radio as he follows directions from Walls, a man he met four hours prior but has to unquestionably trust in the field.

“Its all about taking orders. Its all about when I right, you turn right. When I say stop, you stop,” said Walls. “When I say go, you go. That’s what its all about.”

Walls’ newest overnight assignment with Ladder 160 or the “Taj Mahal,” a nickname given to the company along with the slogan “What Me Worry” started with yet another false alarm.

They had very little to worry about on this slow weekend night.

“The calls usually come in around three or four in the morning,” said Banks. “When all the bar crowd goes home, that’s when we start hearing the bells.”

While they wait, the crew sits in the commons room while dinner is prepared by the probies.

Again, firefighters, lieutenants, captains and the chief all sit down for a family style dinner. Chicken is served.


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