Career firefighter juggles responsibilities on the job

August 19, 2002|by CAILIN MCGOUGH

On a good day, there would be no fires for Rich Jordan to fight.

"I would like to come to work and not get a call every day of my life. When you get a call, you know somebody's suffering or losing their life's dreams," he said.

Now in his 29th year as a career firefighter with Hagerstown Fire Department's Truck 1, Jordan said the reward is being able to intervene in time to save property and get someone to the hospital.

"I get more satisfaction when a shift commander comes up and hits you on the back and says, 'You did a hell of a stop on that one,'" he said.


A Hagerstown native, Jordan, 52, never thought about fire fighting until he finished a six-year stint in the National Guard.

After volunteering for four years, Jordan took a full-time position with the department.

Now he calls his fellow firefighters brothers.

"Some days we're cooped up in this place 24 hours a day and we fight like cats and dogs. But as soon as that bell hits, no matter what your differences, you're here for each other," he said.

Between 24-hour shifts, Jordan also serves as chief negotiator for the department's chapter of the International Association for Fire Fighters, to which he has belonged since 1975.

The relationship between the City of Hagerstown and the union is "four-star," he said.

"Everything is based on economics, but there's always a willingness to sit down and have professional discussions," he said.

Jordan said he hopes the city will eventually add a fire tax to increase manpower in the department.

Even with nine officers, 52 career firefighters and 20 active volunteers Jordan calls "top-notch," when the bell sounds, there are never enough people, he said.

You can't put a figure on what firefighters have saved, Jordan said.

"When a building gets gutted, people say it's gone. We say 'Yeah, but we saved a block,'" he said. "We accomplish with so few the same amount of any other fire department."

In addition to fighting fires, the department does walk-through service inspections of businesses and conducts a smoke detector survey of homes.

"It's amazing the amount of smoke detectors we put out each year," Jordan said. "If it has benefited one family, it was worth it."

Smoke detectors and automatic alarms, along with education, have sharply reduced fatalities over the years, Jordan said. Child fatalities are the worst experience to go through, he added.

"When you lose one, you go home and hug your own," he said. "It's the worst feeling, the helplessness that you couldn't do anything."

Firefighters have to be aggressive but cautious, Jordan said, and even with training, things still go wrong.

"You only have seconds when things deteriorate to back up or go on in," Jordan said.

Over the years, Jordan has suffered only minor injuries. In a routine physical provided by the city, however, blood work revealed hepatitis C. Jordan believes he was exposed to the disease in 1998 when he helped treat a bleeding man who walked into the station.

Now undergoing treatment and pursuing workers' compensation, Jordan said he is not bitter.

"For at least 20 years, ambulance personnel and firefighters got exposed to blood all the time. They would come back with blood all over. Now it's all changed," he said.

Jordan said his retirement in the next two years will give him time to hunt white-tailed deer in the mountains, spend time with his wife and daughter and travel the country.

At that time, he will also retire from his part-time job selling fire-protection products for industry, a field he has worked in for 25 years.

Until then, Jordan plans to stay focused on his role as part of the team.

"That's what fire fighting is - it's a team," he said. "Instead of trying to win a game, we're trying to beat the 'red devil' and save property."

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