Firefighters still answer the alarm

A number of high-profile incidents with Boston firefighters – from substance abuse, disability claim violations, and maintenance problems – have put the department under fire and tarnished the image of this time-honored profession. But veteran Medford firefighter Brian Cronin, a senior lieutenant with 30 years experience, defends his fellow firefighters. “Some people think we are lazy, overpaid civil servants, but this couldn’t be further from the truth.”

His station responds to 1,500 emergency calls a year, everything from motor vehicle to pedestrian accidents to electrical hazards, plumbing leaks, and raccoons – but more about that later. “Nothing is too trivial,” says Cronin, who says that the number of fire-related alarms has gone down since the 1980s because of smoke detectors and sprinklers, but the volume of calls has increased, since more people are making use of public services. “If you call the fire department, no matter what, we will come.”


And about that raccoon. Cronin describes the strangest call he’s ever been on: around 11 p.m., a gentleman called and said a masked critter was in his basement and needed help getting it out. “It turns out the animal was the size of a greyhound. I mean, it was enormous. I grabbed a broom and chased it out.”

Although budget cuts have left many fire departments reeling, employment of firefighters is expected to grow by 12 percent to 2012, but with keen competition for job openings. Cronin says applicants with emergency medical technician or paramedic experience have an edge, as well as those with a degree in fire science. A entry level firefighter can earn $40,000-$50,000 a year.

Q: Do you remember your very first call?
It was a chimney fire, and I was so nervous I couldn’t put my boots and coat on. The captain I was working with said, “Slow down, kid.” I did, and out the door we went. An hour later, after we returned, we got another call for a chimney fire, and by then, it was as if I was an old pro. I put on my boots and coat and was ready to go.
Q: How did you get into fire fighting?
My dad was also a Medford firefighter for 32 years. He used to come home from work just about every day smelling like smoke. Being a firefighter was something I always wanted to do, and after I took the exam and was hired, I walked into headquarters, and it all came back to me, especially the smell of the fire station, which is an unforgettable mix of exhaust, smoke, and the truck itself.
Q: What’s it like to drive a fire engine?
It’s not like driving a car. It weighs 30 thousand pounds and carries 500 gallons of water. It’s a tremendous amount of energy moving in one direction. You need to be aware of traffic changes around you, because people have a tendency to panic when they hear the siren and will pull in all directions. It’s a lot of responsibility.
Q: Have you ever been injured or near death?
Near death, no, but I have bad knees and scars from a multitude of injuries. My left knee has been operated on three times after I fell down a flight of stairs. It’s a job that wears on you physically.
Q: There’s an old joke: Why do firefighters wear red suspenders?
To keep their pants up. But we wear black ones now.

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