AB&T

'Life Times Two' Part 1

By Brad McEwen

Note: This is the first part of an in depth sit-down with former Albany Fire Chief Ron Rowe

The first time met Ron Rowe I had been sent by retired Albany Herald Managing Editor Danny Carter to the Albany Fire Department’s downtown Station One to meet with Ron—who was deputy chief at that time—and then Fire Chief James Carswell for a story to run in the Herald’s special edition commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Flood of ’94.

I was a little intimidated as public safety was not my regular beat, and having lived in Albany during that fateful summer, when the community made the wrong kind of headlines, I knew any story about “The Flood” was going to bring up some painful memories for a lot of people.

But my fears were quickly assuaged by those good-natured men, who I believe were less concerned about having to share stories about the flood and more focused on making sure the clearly nervous reporter was put at ease and got the story he had come for.

I didn’t have many more opportunities to interact with Chief Carswell following that encounter, as he retired soon after, but in the intervening years, I’ve had the distinct pleasure over interviewing Ron on numerous occasions.

By that time Ron was promoted to fire chief, but that advancement had little impact on his willingness to always make time for me.

No matter how mundane the assignment, or how busy his schedule, the recently retired fire chief was always happy to chat and to always shoot me straight.

It’s been more than six months since Ron wrapped up his 32-year career with the Albany Fire Department to pursue another of his passions, but as I found out in far-reaching Beyond the Bank interview, he’s still the same down-to-earth Ron who was more than willing to share his thoughts on a wide array of topics.

Now, as someone who has built a career on talking to people and turning those conversations into stories, I can tell you without question that not all interviews are created equally.

Some have an easy back and forth like a couple of buddies warming up for a tennis match, while others are like pouring molasses in January.

The best ones, though, are the interviews where you just kind of get things started and the conversation flows like the Flint after a steady rainfall.

However, because I’ve always employed a conversational style—where I don’t have any prepared questions (just a few topics I want to touch on)—and essentially just try to strike up a conversation and see where it goes, you sometimes end up rambling around way out in the neighboring county when you were thinking you’d just take a quick drive through town.

Such was the case when I sat down with Ron on a recent rainy afternoon and a simple “So how’s it going?” took us off on an amazing, roughly two-hour journey where the long-time firefighter, and truly genuine man, walked me through some of the highlights of his three decade-plus career with the Albany Fire Department and his current position with the ACCG (Association of County Commissioners of Georgia)—all the while offering thoughtful analysis and commentary about leadership, family, relationships, community and more.

So here is the first part of that trip down memory lane in Ron’s own words:

On missing the fire department

Honestly I don’t think about it unless somebody brings it up. You know, you use the cliché that I miss the people and all that, but that’s natural. Any time you build a relationship, no matter if it’s work or otherwise, and you get a separation, you miss that.

But I’ve been very fortunate though, most of the people that I know I have stayed in contact with—some more than others, just because of opportunity. But, with the transition to the job I have now, I still get to see everybody.

But honestly, it’s not my focus. I don’t know how to say this. It makes it sound like I don’t care, but I told somebody this the other day; I used to play baseball but I don’t do that anymore either. That part of my life, it moved on. Bruce Springsteen had a song, “Glory Days.” I’m not living that. It’s over.

I took it as I had a lot of good experiences. I learned a lot. I try to remember the good points. There are some bad memories I have, but I don’t dwell on that.

The focus today remains on the familial bonds and connections with each other

You pick up more family in the deal. It really does mean something when you have groups that you can hang out with, work with, have things in common with that you didn’t know you had in common. But you wound up in the same place, so you do have it in common.

And then you find out—and I said this before I left cause there’s a culture in Albany that’s different than a lot of other places I’ve been—we’re more alike than we are different. And that’s what I miss.

Apply it to anything you want. We really are more alike than we are different.

I lived in a fire station long enough to know that it doesn’t matter your race, your gender, your beliefs, etc. We’re more alike than we’re different. And you kind of get over that nonsense.

You walk through cemeteries; you don’t see none of that crap out there. It’s just somebody’s loved one, dead. You don’t see any of the rest of the stuff we bicker about.

Life Times Two

I came up with this little thing at work, it’s called Life Times Two. Because firefighters—and you can say other people, paramedics and people that live like we did—you live at home one way and you live at work a different way. And the reason I say that is, the things that we’ve seen, the things we’ve been exposed to—the smells, the sights, I mean all the senses, and to be involved in some of those things—they affect you.

When you go home you have kids, a wife or a spouse or whatever, you have family, and when the news comes on you know you were there. But when somebody asks you about it, cause they know you were there, you can’t tell them the reality of what you’ve seen. You gotta go to a 30,000 ft. view.

So you live it differently. All that stuff piles up in your head and you’re talking about living in a different environment.

When we go back to the station we talk to each other on that ground zero level because we were both there. All of us were there. You can’t do that at home. Your 8 year-old kid asks you, ‘Well what happened at that wreck?’ You can’t tell them the truth. I mean you can tell them the truth, but you don’t tell them the details. You tell them the 30,000 ft. view of the truth. ‘Two cars ran together and we had to take somebody to the hospital.’

But while you’re doing that you’re seeing it; you’re smelling it again—all the nervous system is bringing back everything. I’ve been there before and been talking about it and just start sweating about stuff. It happens to everybody. Somebody tells you it doesn’t, in my opinion, I’m not clinically trained, but they may need some help.

So it’s a different atmosphere. When I talk about the Life Times Two thing, every fireman I know, unless their spouse is a first responder type, lives that way. And it makes it difficult. It’s like turning a switch on and off.

All that stuff builds up in you and that’s one of the reasons the last three years, I know for a fact, there’s been more suicides in fire and EMS than there have been line-of-duty deaths.

Now look I don’t want to confuse this and think that we’re trying to compare to the military rate by any means. It’s a totally different level. But I will say people every single day, every minute that goes by, there’s a first responder in the United States being exposed to something.

It’s real.

And some of those things remain fresh years later

August 2, 1989. That airplane crash at the airport here had six people on the airplane. Alan Johnson, we called him Captain Johnson, Pinky was his nickname, but that’s a whole different story, he was acting battalion chief that day. I just remember cause me and Walter Matthews were good friends, and we got a call to the airport.

A plane had crashed. And it had. All six perished.

But I remember that was August 2, 1989. It was Pinky’s birthday. I remember all that kind of stuff. So you don’t lose it.

I still hear conversations. I still remember when me and Walter, I called him Waldo, but his name’s Walter. I can still see us moving the first body out. Warehouse Foods was a nightmare. I tried to eliminate that one from my history.

Warehouse Foods is a grocery store. Typically when you go in a grocery store, the aisles are set up a certain way. Most aisles, you go in the door and they run this way (parallel to the door). Most places. Warehouse Foods ran this way (perpendicular to the door).

We got in there and it was burning. And I got into a situation.

We’re trained to follow the hose out if we need to follow it out. Get on the hose and you can tell by the couplings which way is out, which way is in. That’s not an issue because you’re trained. You don’t think about it. You just do it.

Well you get in a situation and you’re following the hose out and run into a pile of debris. That’s not a big deal. You just reach over. Well the debris was so tall you couldn’t. You know you don’t get off the hose. Okay, well I can’t go any further, can’t off the hose, you have to do something…

So you get off the hose.

Then once you realize how far you have to go, you know, you have to make a decision. Well you get to the point where you say, ‘Okay, I gotta get over this pile.’ Well, you don’t know how high it is because you’re never supposed to stand up in a high temperature environment. Hot air rises.

It was a situation, and I’m not telling you everything, but it was a situation where eventually you see a light, like the outside, something, and your body changes. It’s like, ‘If I can just make it out…’ kind of thing.

I shouldn’t have been by myself. My partner his air ran out and I said, ‘Just go get a bottle and come back.’ I didn’t plan on doing anything you know. I had plenty of air. Well on the other end of the building—we didn’t even know each other was there and he’s one of my best friends—he’s having the same exact issue.

He was following the hose out and all of a sudden he ran into something. He figured out he didn’t have the hose, he had a pipe. He had, somewhere, gotten conduit or something. He’d gotten off the hose and was on a conduit and essentially lost in the building.

So you know, those kinds of things, it’s scary sometimes.

It takes a while to get your brain right after that. So you know, that plane crash, the Flood of ‘94, the Lowe’s fire of ‘96, the flood of ’98, you remember certain things.

It’s like that last plane crash we had out here. I knew the guy that was flying it. He was a guy I’d been going to church with.

And then you have to be professional. This is gonna sound negative, it’s not meant to be. They had a room at the airport with the family members in it. This is talking about emotion, about the reality of an event. I wasn’t supposed to, but it turned out I had to notify the family.

I’m sitting there and I know a lot of these people. That’s tough. They haul everybody into that room and I believe—I didn’t ask anybody, this is just my perception—that they knew who was on the plane. They wouldn’t be at the airport. There wasn’t anyone else at the airport. It was just those family members.

What I’m saying is, they knew. But until I said the names it wasn’t real.

That is a duty nobody wants—to have to sit, you know, in a town our size where you know if something happens locally, it’s very possible you know who’s involved and that’s hard.

The more people you know, the higher that percentage turns out. Well, when you say their names—because there’s three of them, whatever order, it didn’t matter; nobody’s more important than the next, it was just the way it was written down—I read it all and you could feel—I didn’t look, I was reading, I had to do something—you could feel the wave of emotion every time the name was said.

Of course afterwards you have to say stuff like, ‘If you have any questions, etc., we’ll be getting back to you shortly about next steps in the process,’ but you gotta get out the door you know. You got a job to do, but you can never temporarily separate yourself from the human side.

Or from the fact that being a firefighter is a matter of life and death

It’s difficult in the beginning. First of all, you’re scared to death cause they will fire you in a heartbeat if you screw up. It’s life or death. Now I say that tongue-in-cheek, the thing about getting fired, but that’s what you’re thinking.

There’s a tremendous amount of pressure. When that tone goes off, it’s life or death.

When that tone went off in the station, til you get there and find out there’s not a serious incident, all of it was serious. The heart doesn’t know the difference between somebody’s smoke alarm with a dead battery and a house burning. You see what I’m saying?

Everything we did when we responded to the public was one hundred percent unconditional. When that tone goes off, there are no questions. We trained to react. Now we had to improvise, of course, on every call cause every call’s different—that’s one of the excitements of it; there’s a little bit of difference in everything—but you trained to react and then improvise when you had to.

And what I mean by one hundred percent unconditional is, we didn’t care where you lived, you know. The public’s often, ‘Where do you live?’ ‘Well you live on the Northwest side.’ ‘You live in the East.” Everybody has a reaction.

But we don’t care where you’re living. We don’t care how old you are. We don’t care what gender you are. We don’t care what your belief system is. We don’t care what your sexual preference is. We don’t care how much money you have.

We don’t care. It’s unconditional.

The tone went off and we said, ‘Get on the truck and you go take care of the call.’

It took me a long time to understand that cause it never really came up, we were just working. But we started to reflect on some things and it’s like, that’s one of the best things about the fire service—when that tone drops. I mean how many people get to work every day and when it says, ‘Hey you gotta do something,’ it’s one hundred percent unconditional? Very few people get that.

It takes a certain type of person to be a firefighter

The old saying you hear, ‘You’re running into buildings everybody else is running out of.’

If you could capture the look on most firefighters’ faces when they arrive, and this is horrible, but when they arrive on the scene, and it don’t matter what it is, it’s intense, that look.

I played a little baseball. Paul Eames was our coach one year. He used to tell us that every pitch your attitude’s gotta be, ‘I want you to hit the ball to me.’ Every pitch. You can never NOT have that attitude or you’re going to get caught off guard.

You have to be intentional. ‘I want the ball.’ And you’ve gotta be ready for it.

I believe if you had that picture of those people that drove up on the firetrucks, that’s exactly what you’d see.

Hey your house is burning; that’s horrible. You’re losing all your stuff, maybe even family. I mean it could be your worst day. But if it’s gonna happen, call me. I want to be there. I believe the majority of them would tell you, ‘If it’s gonna happen, I’m the one that wants to be there.’

Now that’s a different mentality.

I can tell you most firefighters don’t want to be policemen.

I don’t want to get shot at.

When you’re talking to police officers they’d say, ‘Man, I ain’t going in that building,’ you know. So it draws a certain type of individual. Each job does. Can you imagine somebody doing your job that couldn’t put five words together in a sentence?

So it draws different people.

Competitive people

It makes us better.

In the early ‘90s, mid ‘90s, when we were at Station One, we used to take crews out at night, like 9:30, 10 at night. We had 13 people at Station One then. We had an engine, an aero truck and a squad, four people each kinda deal. Well, we would take the engine and we had certain hose lays that we did for different things. If you had a house fire, this is what we’d do.

So we’d go out at 10 at night and say, ‘We’re gonna compete, see who can do it the best and the fastest, least amount of errors and the fastest.’ Usually the least amount of errors leads to the fastest time. And just because you were on the truck at 9:50, when we got through with all of that you may not be on the truck that night. We want to go to bed with what we thought for that day was the best four people in the truck.

The competition was friendly. But like I said, life and death. It doesn’t get any harder than that.

Or more stressful

Here’s the deal—that guy driving the truck is responsible for everybody on that truck. If he pulls out in front of car, or he runs over a car, it’s life and death for somebody.

And I talked about it earlier, the heart doesn’t know.

We found a study one time in this Harvard medical journal and it said that firefighters are 400 times more likely to die while performing their duties than any other job.

Now the reason is the heart. The heart’s the number one reason for anybody, any job, because we’ve got cardiovascular diseases. But when you stress it…

There was this call in Rawson Circle, I’m not going to give you the address, but I remember it, and in fact a guy that was there received Firefighter of the Year for this call. He actually went in and got somebody. It was an activated alarm, that’s how it came in.

Well if you lower yourself to, ‘Uh, it’s just an activated alarm…’

Well they got there and the house was burning and had someone in it that couldn’t get out. The firefighter, of course, he went in and saved the person from the fire.

Activated alarm, your heart doesn’t know the difference, because you know it could be burning when you get there.

So when you put that amount of stress, plus 50-plus pounds of equipment you’re carrying, you’re encapsulated, your body’s sweating, it really can’t regulate the heat, your core temperature’s rising, you’re heart’s pounding, until you get there and you say, ‘Well okay there’s nothing to this—cause there’s a difference when you pull up and see smoke coming out of a building or you pull up and it looks like it does now—your body changes.

The adrenaline’s been flowing, your heart’s pumping. It’s kinda like I used to tell people, and I don’t know the ages now, but it used to be that firefighters had a higher mortality rate.

Why do firefighters die early?

Well you can equate it to this—if you bought a car and you drove from zero to a hundred everywhere, when you stop at a red light and when you take off you’re wide open to the next one and everything you did was zero or on the floor, and then you did poor maintenance on it, how long’s that car gonna last?

That’s typically how, as a human race, we live anyway, but with firefighters, when that tone goes off, they’re doing what they’re doing right now. That tone goes off, they’re 100 miles an hour. So they don’t last long. That’s the hard part. You may not know it going in, but you should know going in that you’re probably cutting some time.

Despite the toll, it’s worth it to help others, even in the smallest ways

At the end of the day, you can lie down and say, or get off in the morning in our case, and say, ‘Okay, I made a difference somewhere.’ People say, ‘Did you make any calls today?’ Absolutely.

It doesn’t matter where I go, people ask, ‘Y’all still rescue cats out of trees?’

Quite frankly, if we get the cat it’s a plus. Because who called us? A distressed person.

Our job is to satisfy the distressed person and ty to take care of the cat.

If we leave and that customer of ours is satisfied, we’ve done our job and we’ve made a difference.

The most mundane call, the lowest level of service, it’s not that to that person who called.

Our guys will tell you, ‘We had a good house fire.’ There is no such thing as a good house fire, but in their vocabulary it’s kinda like waiting on Sunday to play the ballgame. You train, you train, you train, you train and now you get it.

But it bothers you, it does. You catch yourself. You hear those conversations and you can listen to them turn quickly cause they catch themselves. They try to explain what they’re trying to say. And it’s, ‘I don’t mean it’s a good fire.’ But it bothers you from the standpoint, like I said earlier, that it’s probably someone’s worst day.

But you know what, you didn’t bring back some of the things that burned, of course, but you stopped it and you saved other things.

And that peace of mind means a lot. When you see someone and they see everything that they own, in this case their house, literally, going up in smoke, it does, it bothers you.

But it’s just burning and they know they can’t unburn something. And when we get there, we didn’t necessarily prevent that damage that you’re going to see, but you know what, we can stop it.

We’ve stopped it somewhere and now it’s ‘What can we do? We can’t go in and rebuild and all that, but what can we do to help you?’

That’s the attitude of everybody in that department when the tone goes off; ‘What can we do to help whoever called?’

That’s what we’re willing to do. I’ve never seen anybody in my whole time doing it that said, ‘No, I’m not doing that.’

No.

Whatever we have to do to make this better, that’s what we’re going to do. That’s the beautiful part.

And often they have to do things they never would have imagined

That flood in ’94 happened the first week of July. And it was the holidays and here comes the water.

Don Blackburn, he was my captain, Captain Blackburn, we were riding in a boat down Jackson Street, south Jackson. Riding in a boat!

We were riding down south Jackson, along the cemetery fence, when we saw this casket come up like a beach ball. You know how a submarine comes up, nose first? That’s the way it came up.

We kind looked at each other, speechless at first cause that’s something that doesn’t cross your mind. We’d never been exposed to it.

Now I’m sure people that have been through floods in other places are like, ‘Oh yeah, it’s gonna happen.’ But we didn’t know that was gonna happen. So we had to start improvising. We all go there, and boats came from everywhere—the Marine base, game wardens, DNR, all these people brought boats and we were in the cemetery.

And of course we were doing other things, checking houses, etc., but we had a team that was in the cemetery that’s purpose was to go and catch caskets and bring them back.

So okay, I guess this is what firefighters do. I guess.

I used to joke with people and tell them, if you’re not getting shot at, or you’re not bleeding out—cause getting shot at and robbed is police, and if you’re bleeding out or something like that, that’s EMS—everything else is the fire department. Your toilet’s overflowing? Call the fire department. ‘Can y’all come shut the water off?’ They call the fire department. Seriously.

So we’re in the cemetery and I believe the number was just a little above 400 caskets that we retrieved. You know, several days of work. The water was running pretty good so who knows if we got them all. Who knows. We got all we could. We didn’t see anymore. At the time it was just, you see one, you go get it.

Bobby Spargo, he just retired, he was a captain, Captain Spargo, he and I were in a boat and we were probably well below Oakridge Bridge and down in that area was probably the furthest we went to get some.

That’s a good ways.

But at the end of the day it’s all part of the job; you just improvise

Okay. The flood. A larger area was hit. It lasted a longer time. In fact, today we still have remnants.

But you know, if your house burns today, you’ve got just as much damage to your property. It was just that it was thousands. It was mass. The magnitude of the event was what made it newsworthy. But if you look at individual properties, same amount of damage.

If your house was burning, is it worse than the flood or the same?

It was just the sheer magnitude of everything that went on. I don’t want to minimize the flood, but I dang sure don’t want to minimize that every single day in this community, somebody has a tragedy.

You know what I’m saying? From a firefighter’s standpoint, I’d treat them the same. Now are we gonna have to work longer in the flood? Are we gonna have to do a different type of work? Sure.

That’s the difference between a car fire and a country club being on fire. But they’re both a tragedy.

I hate to say it this way, but a lady lives in the projects in a one bedroom and somebody throws a Molotov cocktail in there and burns her and her kids out, I promise you she doesn’t care if that had been flooded or burned. It’s the same.

And the reason for being there to help is always the same too

I think most people, they walk out every day and they probably don’t think about it.

You don’t walk out consciously saying, ‘I made a difference.’

You don’t think about it. You don’t say it.

But I think if you sit down like this, and try to reflect on it and say what it does mean, those are the kinds of statements.

‘Yeah I did it because I thought that maybe I could help make a difference in somebody’s life.’

……..

There’s no denying that in his long career as a firefighter Ron made a difference in a lot of lives. And when spending time with him it’s easy to see how that desire to have a positive impact just kind of comes as second nature.

That’s why I think it was shocking for some, myself included, when Ron made the decision to step away from that life and embark on a new journey.

However, after learning more about his new role, it all makes perfect sense.

So tune in next week when Ron shares a little bit about his current mission and gives some insight into his servant leader mindset.

Like I was, I think you’ll be thrilled to hear the story.

Connect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - brad.mcewen@abtgold.com - @BradGMcEwen 

Click here to catch up on previous Beyond the Bank Features