Members of local Pittsburgh companies share their experiences as on-the-clock firefighters in the big city
By: Megan Bixler, Point Park News Service
Max Hartman, inspired by many family friends, realized when he was a young boy that he wanted to fight fires for a living, but he didn’t expect to be handling overdose calls in his career.
Meanwhile, Ryan Jones discovered after his fourth attempt of testing for the fire academy that he wanted to pursue this profession in the long run. And for Zach Mankowski, continuing his service with a fire company after five active years in the Army was no question, but bringing people back to life had him at a loss for words.
These are just some of the beginnings of many city firefighters who chose a profession unlike the average nine to five shift to help others in emergency situations every day even when they are put into what can become perilous situations.
The Pittsburgh Bureau of Fire hosts a total of 30 fire stations throughout the Pittsburgh region, giving over 600 firefighters the opportunity to serve and protect this vast community. As a paid job, the average starting salary is around $40,000 a year which can increase depending on overtime or holiday pay, according to Chief of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Fire Darryl Jones.
“I love helping people every day,” Hartman said. “There’s not many jobs where you are paid to make someone’s worse day better.”
Hartman, Jones and Mankowski currently run with Oakland Truck Company 4. Their journey’s as city firefighters began within the last few years, Hartman, 28, is one of the youngest, who just recently graduated from the Fire Academy in the summer of 2017. Jones, 33, and Mankowski, 35, have been in the field for about three years now.
The Allegheny County Fire Academy is the first step in the journey to city firefighting. While it may compare to college classes, there is more to it than lectures.
Daryl Jones, chief of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Fire, explains that before acceptance into the academy, there are a few more qualifications.
“You must first be a resident of the city,” Jones said. “From there, you take the written and physical tests, and if you pass, you are put on a list. The better the percentage you receive, the better chance you have of being accepted into the academy.”
The number of trainees attending the academy classes vary each year. The list of accepted applicants selects in multiples of four. If selected, trainees are scheduled for recruitment and enter the 32-week-long program consisting of basic firefighter training, medical response, hazmat operations and rescue training.
Once graduated from the academy, firefighters are assigned a station to be employed with and the next chapter of their careers begins.
For Hartman, it was several of his father’s friends who inspired him when he was younger that he wanted to be a firefighter. But it really hit him a few years down the road when the 9/11 terrorist attacks sparked a panic in the nation.
“I was at an age in my life where I was thinking about what I wanted to do in the future,” Hartman said. “I remember seeing all the firefighters that attended that scene that day, and they inspired me to want to help people.”
In the short time, Hartman has been employed with the city, he’s noticed a trend in some of the calls the company receives.
One night, Hartmann tended to three overdose calls from two 40-year-old men and a 22-year-old woman, but those calls were not entirely successful.
“We were able to bring back both the 40-year olds, but unfortunately, we couldn’t bring back the girl,” Hartman said. “It was hard to handle because her parents were there, too.”
For Jones, inspiration began while completing the EMT portion of the academy tests. While he made several attempts, he never gave up trying.
“I enjoyed doing it, so I just kept going,” Jones said.
Jones recalls one of his more serious encounters when he first began firefighting. Though he wasn’t directly involved, it was tough to be “on the sidelines.”
“There was a fire over on North Side, and things seemed to be going well until a wall collapsed on some of my former co-workers,” Jones said. “Thankfully, they were okay, but I remember people calling me, knowing I used to work there asking if I was okay. Immediately, I was on the phone making sure those guys were alright.”
Mankowski shares the inspiration he received similarly to the way Hartman does.
“[9/11] was the reason I initially joined the military,” Mankowski said. “I thought, ‘who was I to not serve my duty to this country, to not help people?’”
After serving fives years of active duty with the Army, Mankowski continued to help his community through the local fire department.
“Someone could be having one of the worst days of their lives, and we’re there to help the best we can,” Mankowski said.
Fortunately, Mankowski has not experienced any situation too risky in his career, but that does not mean these things can’t happen.
“You never know what kind of call you’ll get,” Hartman said. “You never know when that bell is going to ring.”
Even for one of the busier companies in the bureau, Strip District Engine Company 3, finds it difficult to be prepared for calls, but for some, that is what drives them to keep doing their job every day.
“What’s unknown is what draws me into it,” Gary Miller, 34, said.
Miller has been involved in firefighting for 12 years. Following in this father’s footsteps, by the age of 3, Miller knew he found his passion. Now, he serves as the engine lieutenant for Company 3.
Mike Pudup currently serves as the company’s captain, but becoming a firefighter was not a choice in his initial career path at first.
“I never really gave it a thought until I took the test,” Pudup, 50, said. “But I passed it and made it through the academy, and now, here I am.”
Pudup said his job suits him as opposed to the average 9-to-5 office job.
“You just never know what you’re going to do each day you go to work and I like that a lot,” he said.
Pudup works with Alex Wilson, 33, who’s been involved with the bureau for about five years. Originally from Michigan, he first began his career in emergency services as an EMT.
“I realized I wanted to be a full-time firefighter when I didn’t want to do landscaping anymore,” Wilson said.
Wilson recalls some of his best memories as simply being available to help in any given situation, and knowing what to do. He shares a more vivid memory where things did not run so smoothly.
“When I was in Michigan, we had a call for a pedestrian struck on the highway,” he said. “I remember hearing the police yelling on the radio as we were responding to the scene. We knew it was a pedestrian hit, but we weren’t really sure what we were getting into at first.”
When Wilson and his crew arrived on scene, what they had found was unfathomable. Wilson described the hit in detail, which unfortunately is too graphic to publish here.
For Shaun Troski, 37, being a firefighter was not something he had in mind. Beforehand, Troski worked as a prison guard for about two years, and his father pushed for him to take the test for the academy. He passed and realized the job might suit him better than being stuck in a prison all day.
A Day In the Life
A typical shift for a city firefighter is working a full 24 hours, having three days off and returning.
Commonly, the day starts out with inspecting the trucks, tools, and gear throughout the morning for rust, refills or misplaced items.
Once everything’s in order, the team sits down for breakfast and coffee. For some, basic cleaning around the firehouse helps pass the time. Once the necessary “chores” are done, waiting around for a call is the majority of the day. To keep occupied, some play video games while others read or maintain their physical fitness in the gym in the station.
After dinner, a member is assigned to night-watch duty. Rotated between members each night, the person on duty stays awake into the early hours of the night listening to dispatch.
Relaxation while on the clock is often unplanned.
“You can’t schedule yourself to sleep here,” said Troski. “You rest when you can, especially on your off-time.”
Some members average about two to four hours of sleep on the job, while others may not get any.
“It really just depends on the day,” said Mankowski, who enjoys hiking and outdoor activities on his off-time.
Family time is a significant part of off days, as some members have families with children. While on the job, Wilson, a father of three, proceeds with caution.
“I definitely think about kids and safety a lot more,” said Wilson of having children of his own.
Even for Chief Jones, children hold a sensitive spot in his career, and he has witnessed several accounts of children involved in an emergency situation and did not make it. This, to many of the firefighters, is one of the hardest experiences.
“One of the worst encounters I’ve had was handling a structural fire where there were kids trapped inside,” Chief Jones said. “When I went inside the building, I couldn’t see anything because the smoke was rolling to the floor.”
While feeling his way around in the smoke-infested room, Jones found a crib holding an infant; her two brothers who were hiding under a nearby bed. The three children died from smoke inhalation.
“You can’t unring the bell, once the damage has been done,” Chief Jones said.
After a long day of hard work and sacrifice, dwelling on the horrors is not something the members try to think about too much. Every member has their own way of reflecting on the day and preparing the best they can for the next.
“You always try to do your best,” Mankowski said.
While firefighters never know what they are going to see during their shifts, one thing is for sure: once they’ve gone to bed, there’s no way they can prepare for the next day.
“You just never know when that bell is going to ring,” Hartman said.