Chasing the Flash
I like the me I was, more than the me I have become. I like the idealistic me—before I understood regret.
Jessie, pound for pound was the strongest person on the fire department. She was knocked on her ass during a training drill and my internal injustice alarm screamed through my idealistic veins.
The training chief— let me clarify—the 200 pound all muscle training chief, announced each firefighter would advance a hose with an open nozzle for 50 yards, while spraying 175 pounds of pressure. In spite of NFPA guidelines to have two on the line, the exercise would be done alone.
Jessie held onto the open nozzle and rode the hose like Harry Potter in a quidditch match until finally she was thrown five feet in the air. She landed hard on the concrete. Instead of applauding her incredible strength for avoiding serious injury, the gossip clamored about her inability to handle the nozzle.
The chatter started with facts: ‘Jessie got knocked on her ass.’
Rolling into questions, challenging the validity of the drill: ‘Why would we advance a hose alone in training when in a fire we work as a team?’
Snowballing into doubts about Jessie: ‘Would you want to go into a fire with her?’
The doubts became whispers, not only on the lips of the men, but through the confidence of the women: ‘Women aren’t strong enough to do this job.’
As a captain I made a decision I knew wouldn’t be popular, but remember I was idealistic. I would not drag the hose alone and I would order my crew to follow suit. I realized it would require me to disobey an order. And I knew, as a firefighter, following orders is sacred.
My stomach flipped as our engine turned into the driveway leading to the training tower. I had a plan to show them all—not only are women strong enough to be firefighters, we’re smart enough to do it safely.
My crew consisted of me, my driver and one firefighter. Similar crews from additional rigs filed into the classroom. The chit chat of firefighters buzzed like happy hour at a high school reunion. I sat at a long rectangular table, composing the words in my head, gathering my courage while suppressing my intensifying fear.
No regrets, I thought. My stand would not be just for the women, but it was also for the men. Mostly it was for the greater good of the fire department. The chief stood in front of the class and explained the practical part of training. His words dulled inside my mind until he reached the punch line.
“Each member of the crew,” blah blah blah, “alone.”
My confidence wavered. I changed my tactic. I raised my hand.
“Chief. Are we expected to drag the hose alone with an open nozzle, 50 yards, spraying 175 pounds of pressure?”
“That’s the drill,” he said and headed towards the door.
“Chief,” I interrupted his stride. He hesitated at the door, not yet annoyed.
“When do we advance a hose on the fireground with an open nozzle—alone?”
Now he did seem slightly annoyed.
“Just let’s go outside and you’ll see.”
“Chief. Isn’t advancing a charged hose line alone contradictory to NFPA standards?”
“It’s the drill,” he turned to the class. “Gear up and meet outside.”
I persisted, “I will not be performing the hose drag. Also, since I’m responsible for the safety of my crew, I’m ordering my crew not to participate.”
The confused faces of my crew appeared conflicted. But they both obeyed my order by remaining seated.
The training chief appeared equally confused but not at all conflicted. He went to the front of the classroom, lifted the red phone and said, “Deputy Chief, this is the Chief of Training, we need you to report to the training tower to address an issue of insubordination.”
Insubordination? I thought. The word bounced inside my chest as the reality of my decision sunk in. Just kidding, I wanted to say. I started to worry, I could lose the career I had worked so hard to get and fought every day to prove I belonged.
Today when I think back to that moment, I can’t recall the faces of the firefighters from other rigs. But the communal expression of disbelief is as clear as an emoji- wide eyed, raised eyebrows and mouths in the shape of a circle.
The chief motioned toward the door. The sound of chairs scraping the floor and firefighters obediently exiting the room seemed like a choreographed, flash mob dance.
The chief followed the group into the hall leaving me alone with my crew.
“What the fuck?” my driver spat.
My firefighter sat silent, staring at me with slitted eyes.
Minutes later the deputy, wearing his white button-down shirt complete with his tie and gold bugles pinned on his collar, flew open the door. I braced for the ass chewing. He surprised me when he slipped into the chair next to me and leaned in close.
“You know you gotta go out and drag the hose,” he almost whispered.
“Will someone be on the hose with me? And with each member of my crew?”
“The drill is to do it alone.”
I wanted to stand, don my turnout coat, signal my crew to follow and drag the damn hose. But backpedaling felt cowardly.
“I won’t drag it alone. I’m ordering my crew to do the same.”
“Captain Moore, it’s a direct order.”
I saw the waiting in his eyes appearing more like expectation. I imagined walking through a doorway engulfed in flames and swallowed my fear. “I apologize in advance for the paperwork you will have because of this but, I respectfully decline to complete the training and I am ordering my crew to do the same.”
I thought I saw a smile tug at the corner of his mouth before he turned to my driver and
asked more than ordered, “Are you willing to drag the hose alone?”
“Hell yeah,” my driver said and bolted out of the room.
The chief turned to my firefighter and repeated the request. My firefighter hesitated and drummed the table, looked at the chief, looked at the floor and then back at me.
I felt a little guilty for pulling them into my fight and I said, “It’s okay.”
My firefighter stood and quickly exited.
The chief’s eyes remained on me. “Just go out there and do it.”
“It’s too late Chief.”
Honestly, I felt almost as bad for the Chief as I felt for my crew, but I no longer felt afraid. I could see the pleading in his eyes. His face is as clear in my mind today as it was that day—he knew I was doing the right thing but, I knew he wouldn’t—or maybe couldn’t, admit it.
My next shift I was called to headquarters for a fact-finding meeting. I slowly ascended the steps at city hall with my head down, aware that any exertion would increase the nervous sweat forming on the back of my neck. A union rep intercepted me in the hallway before I went into the meeting.
“Don’t give in when they tell you to go to the tower and drag the hose,” he said. “You’re right it goes against NFPA and we need someone to stand up for the department. Can you do it?”
I felt a surge of idealism creep back into my chest. I nodded yes and went into the room. With a microphone perched in front of the only empty chair, and a table surrounded by white shirted chiefs, I was told I had one last chance to follow the order. They were willing to drop the whole mess if I would drag the hose. Emboldened by my union I felt like I was part of something bigger than me and more, I felt like maybe, I was finally accepted into the boys’ club.
I leaned into the mic, “Respectfully, I refuse to advance an open nozzle without an additional firefighter on the hose.”
It took more than a month before I heard back. I was called again to headquarters and handed my punishment—a day off the payroll. The chief winked when I was informed which day I would miss, Saturday—the least desirable day to work at MFD. It’s rig cleaning day and IT’S SATURDAY. Plus having Saturday off enabled me to work Sunday—kick up your feet day. The cherry on top—Sunday would be an overtime day paying me time and a half.
The requirement to advance the hose alone was discontinued. Still, a day off the payroll and a mark in my file was unjust. I talked to the union guy to find out what we would do about the unjustness. He informed me that I would have to come to the union meeting and state my case in front of the membership. They would vote on whether or not I would be represented.
“You want me to convince the firefighters that what I did was right? You said the training was wrong. Why don’t you state my case? You told me we needed this and now I have to fight again?”
The days leading up to the union meeting I texted the women on the department, asking them to come support me. I practiced my speech all day. When I arrived at the union hall, I noticed a few friendly faces. I pleaded my case speaking like a brand-new politician, still believing I could make a difference in the world. As the votes were being counted one of the women I had contacted, Bettie rushed into the room. She appeared flustered being late. The union official approached her and handed her a ballot. It was easy to read his lips—”Vote no.”
I watched as she openly checked the NO box and dropped her vote in with the others. When the votes were counted, I lost. I felt betrayed by the union, but it hurt most that my sister voted against me.
I could spend time trying to figure out why or how she could vote against a female. But I recognized the flash in her eyes when he approached her. I too had felt the bliss of acceptance into the brotherhood. I too once believed I was one of them. But the flash is like a magic trick, it’s a slight of hand— Now you see it, now you don’t. We want to believe it’s real, we let the flash blind us. I have compromised my values chasing that flash of acceptance. I have remained quiet when a woman was being scapegoated, and worse I joined in. As long it wasn’t me, I thought—until it was me.
I miss my idealistic self—the one who started my career as a firefighter. The me who believed earning a badge meant I was part of the team. I miss the way I was before I let my disappointment lead me to regret—born from my pursuit of revenge. What revenge you ask. To be continued in the forthcoming blog entitled, “Siblinghood.”
Have you compromised your values believing you could be part of the brotherhood? I have heard the phrase, “She wins, we win.” What can you do today to support someone in your workplace who is the scapegoat? Comment below and inspire me.
Captain Tracy Moore is a retired Minneapolis Firefighter and author of the soon to be released novel, The Fire She Fights.