Tuesday, May 31, 2011

From Chapter Twenty - Coming of Age for the Third Generation

“Lets go, I’m low on air,” I said.

He followed me out the front door and onto the snow covered lawn. We both knelt down and removed our helmets and face pieces.

My son and I, together.

I looked over at him as he stared at the house, now only light smoke was coming from the top of the front door.

“Did you enjoy it?” I asked.

He just nodded back at me, a satisfied look on his face.

I always thought it would be great to be there for his first time inside, but I never knew if it would actually happen. I had just lived a dream. Emotions welled up inside me, flowing through my system. I thought I was going to cry. He wasn’t my little boy anymore.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

From Chapter Nineteen - Billy the Kid and Uncle Mike

In just a few years, Little Billy has developed into an excellent, well-trained firefighter, officer, and a degreed engineer. He’s now mentoring another aggressive and smart kid and watching the development of a young man he watched grow up–my son Mike.

The similarities between the two of them are striking, and they’ve developed a close relationship. I like Mike having someone from a younger generation that he can go to for answers and
someone who understands the state training bureaucracy from having experienced it firsthand. The fact that I trust him and the answers he’s giving my kid also helps. They now scuba dive together, and Mike does odd jobs for Billy around the house he’s building. It will be fun to watch how it turns out.


A chimney fire had extended to the wall and the construction was a bit unusual. The decorative false walls around the mantle created concealed spaces for the fire to run through. We were having a hell of a time chasing the fire down, and figuring out all the possible avenues of travel. Mike was sent in to give us one tool or another and then stood back to watch. Guido and I were working on opening up while having the standard, reserved, business-like discussion that takes place in such situations.

“What the fuck? You think we should open this fucker up?” Guido asked. “Goddamn this fucking thing is running. We gotta get ahead of the son of a bitch.”

On and on went the typical back-and-forth that goes on when we get frustrated digging out a fire like this. After a half hour we were satisfied we had it all, and we picked up to return to service.

On the way home, Mike was quiet. He asked a couple of questions, trying to learn about the tactics and methods we had employed. Finally the comment I had been waiting for came: “That wasn’t the Uncle Mike I knew.”

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

From Chapter Eighteen - A Flick of the Switch

My son Mike was thirteen-years-old when his interest in firefighting developed becoming the third generation in a family of firefighters. To me, his transformation seemed instantaneous like the light coming on at the flick of the switch. He began tagging along with me on calls that I chose selectively for time of day and type of call. I didn’t want to expose him to anything really ugly–inevitably that would come if his interest remained.

He started by learning how to rack or reload hose as well as how to change an air cylinder. He picked up the names of various pieces of equipment, both real and slang. I didn’t push him. I’ve seen too many sons join because of their fathers. Either they were forced to sign up or they joined out of some sense of obligation. Most of them, the sons that is, were worthless as firefighters– they really didn’t want to be there and it showed. You can’t manufacture the desire to do this job.

Mike couldn’t wait for his fourteenth birthday which was the required age to submit the paperwork to join as a cadet. He still wouldn’t be allowed to do a whole lot but he could increase his knowledge by taking a few classes. The timing was good as I had hung my white helmet up for good. Now I could concentrate on working with him and observing him in the field. After he joined, just a few weeks went by before he got his first official lesson. He’d only been on a few calls, and none too serious. It was still all cool-looking gear, flashing lights and blaring sirens to him, regardless of the wisdom I tried to impart.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

From Chapter Seventeen - Better to Be Lucky Than Good

The old cliché–it’s better to be lucky than good–sometimes combines with–being in the right place at the right time. It was mid-afternoon, and the old farmhouse was well involved. Clifford, a department north of us in Susquehanna County, had made a good attack with the manpower they had, blitzing with the deck gun from the driveway and knocking down the bulk of the heavy body of fire. Still, a lot of fire on both floors remained. The incident commander developed a plan to simultaneously put crews on the first and second floors to complete the extinguishment and then begin the overhaul. We talked about this a bit, and decided it would be more prudent to deal with the first floor initially, so we could get a better look at the structure and make sure it was safe to put guys on the second floor. The stability of the second floor was already questionable in my mind, as the stairs going up were gone, burnt away.

I took a team of four to the first floor; two guys on the line and two with hooks and tools opening up the walls and ceiling. They were making good progress on the remaining fire and I was starting to get a look at the supporting elements of the structure when we had a bit of a surprise.

I was kneeling in the living room when a massive crash occurred. Visibility instantly turned to shit. Initially, all I could see was that a portion of the second floor had let go. I ordered an immediate evacuation and started counting heads. “Everybody out!” I yelled through my face piece. The radio mic on my shoulder started screaming with officers outside calling for status reports. I ignored that, at present, pushing guys out the door until I was sure they were all out. About then, the smoke started to lift a bit, and I looked over about two feet to my right. There was a freezer sitting there, which thirty seconds before, had been in a room on the second floor. I exited the building and told the incident commander and the other officers outside what had happened. My hands shook a bit, and my heart still pounded. I was more relieved than scared; relieved that everyone got out alive.

If I had knelt two feet over to the right, I would have been just another line of duty death statistic. Maybe it’s not a cliché after all.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Outside the Covers

Far from every funny or tragic incident from fifty years of three generations can make it into a single volume, the amount of material between the covers limited by practical considerations. This means that many interesting stories—told in fire houses for years—could not be included.

One which has been repeated hundreds of times involves the first time I met my friend Russell. We were both assistant chiefs—he located two departments to the west. One day, a car wreck in Fleetville brought the rescues from both departments as well as the two of us. Crews from both departments went to work removing the roof and popping doors; the usual tasks, but the kid driving was still pinned. The crushing impact had brought parts of the dash and fire wall down onto his feet and lower legs.

Looking at it, Russell determined we could get a tool in next to his legs, but it would take four hands to properly position the tip and move the boy’s feet once the operator began to spread the jaws of the heavy equipment. Space in which to accomplish all this was at a premium. There appeared to be access for only one person, which left us one set of hands short, but never lacking ideas ideas, Russ proposed a solution to me, someone he had never met.

Russ, the larger of the two of us, laid down, his head toward the spot where the tip of the jaws had to be placed. I laid on top of him, oriented in the same direction, and held the victim’s legs, prepared to move them as soon as they were free. With Russell guiding the spreader tips, they slowly opened and I could move the boy’s feet, allowing additional firefighters above us to slide him onto a back board and remove from the car.

Being on top, I crawled out first, followed by my partner from below. He stuck his gloved hand out.

“Russ,” he said as I shook it.

“Gary,” I responded. We’ve been friends ever since.

Friday, May 20, 2011

From Chapter Fifteen - Take the RIT

“Would you take the RIT for me?” he asked. The rapid intervention team on the incident was a rescue company from Carbondale.

“Sure, just get me a portable,” I said and he immediately handed one to me. I went over and met my crew. They seemed like good guys, and they had the right equipment with them.

At that point, we decided to take a look at the underside of the second floor to see if it would be safe to put a full crew up there to overhaul. Following the stairway back to the first floor, we entered the main room beneath the bedroom. We shined our lights on the underside of the floor above, evaluating the extent of the fire damage. It was significant, and with the amount of damage to the carrying beams, it became evident that a full company could not be safely accommodated on the floor above. Then we started to look around and evaluate how much fire remained on the first floor and how extensive the overhaul operations would be. Still in the back of our minds was the possibility that the owner’s body was still somewhere in the building. We knew it was impossible that anyone could have survived that fire.

As we worked our way toward the door to the rear hallway, our hand lights passed over and quickly returned to a form partially lying against the wall next to the door. Unfortunately, we now knew the location of the owner. Apparently he had come downstairs and found the fire. As conditions deteriorated rapidly, he collapsed before making it out the back door.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

From Chapter Fourteen - Not Your Call

The crew from the rescue was there, trying to decompress a little the way we normally do, by talking about it. Not about feelings or emotions but how things went on the call itself. You relive every second and go over every minute detail; not necessarily to second guess, although that happens, but to get the stress out. I’m not sure why it works, but it does.

One of the guys was second guessing himself in this case. The victim had third degree burns over about eighty percent of his body. If he lived, he would be horribly disfigured and probably lose some limbs. “Maybe we shouldn’t have…” he started. I stopped him right there.

“We don’t get to make that decision,” I told him. “It’s not your call. That’s for somebody else to decide, whatever your beliefs are. We go out and do the best we possibly can and let the chips fall where they may.”

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Abington Journal

The Abington Journal
May 18, 2011

Three generations of stories
by Shauna McNally

SCOTT TWP. - Gary R. Ryman said it is pretty cool to be the “center of the Oreo.” He is the second generation in three generations of firefighters.

“It’s neat because I got to see what it’s like being the son of a firefighter and being the father of one,” said Ryman.

Forty-nine-year-old Ryman just published his first book at the end of April, titled, “Fire Men: Stories from Three Generations of a Firefighting Family.” His book, published by Tribute Books, and edited by Stephanie Longo, took about four and a half years to write and publish, said Ryman.

He currently is set to appear at three book signings scheduled in the local area and New York. The first will be May 20, at Maiolatesi Wine Cellars on Green Grove Road in Scott Township from 6 to 10 p.m., in conjunction with the Justus Volunteer Fire Company Wine Tasting Fundraiser. The second will take place June 5 at Kristofor’s in Endicott, N.Y. And the third, June 24 at Tiffany’s Tap and Grill on Main Street in Eynon from 6 to 9 p.m.

The book tells the stories of events that he, his father Richard Ryman and his son, Michael Ryman experienced throughout their years with fire departments. Some of the stories are funny, while others are very tragic.

Ryman explained, “It’s a book for everyone. Everyone can get something out of it, even people who aren’t involved with fire services at all.”

Ryman is originally from Endicott, N.Y., where he started with a fire company in 1977 at 16. He then attended the University of Maryland, where he was a “live in” or “bunker” at the fire department in Montgomery County, Md. That meant he was allowed to live there free of charge, but was always on call. The fire department he worked for received about 1,500 calls per year. However, now his son is a “live in” in Maryland as well, and his fire station gets about 9,000 calls per year.

“It was tough doing that with being in school,” said Ryman. “There was probably only one night a week where I actually slept eight hours.”

Ryman has worked on the Emergency Medical Service (EMS) side of the business and on the fire fighting side as well . During his time in fire services, he served as fire chief, so he has seen it all. After graduating from the University of Maryland with a bachelor’s degree in fire science, he moved to Scott Township, where he worked for the fire department for 25 years and currently lives with his wife, Michelle Ryman, and their two children, Michael, 19 and Megan, 17. Ryman still goes on calls occasionally.

Ryman said, “I don’t go a lot anymore. It’s a lot easier for the younger guys to be on the inside of a burning building.”

On why he decided to write a book, Ryman said, “I thought there were some interesting stories, and I started." One story Ryman shared from the book was about a family friend who experienced a small kitchen fire in her house. Home at the time was a girl of 16 or 17, Ryman said, and instead of contacting the fire department she called Ryman. Luckily, the blaze did not get out of control and they later laughed about the situation. Ryman said the social media website Facebook has been useful in publicizing his book. His publisher also created a website at www.Fire-Men-Book.com.

“Fire Men: Stories from Three Generations of a Firefighting Family,” at 280 pages, is available from Tribute Books online at Amazon and Barnes and Noble for $10.95 and as an e-book. However, Ryman does not think any local bookstores have picked it up yet because it is hot off the presses.

The Times Leader - Reads

The Times Leader
May 13, 2011

Book Signing with Gary R. Ryman, author of “Fire Men: Stories from Three Generations of a Firefighting Family.” Maiolatesi Wine Cellars, 210 Green Grove Road, Scott Township. May 20, 6 to 10 p.m. 254-9977.

Fire Men: Stories from Three Generations of a Firefighting Family, a new book by Gary R. Ryman, former Scott Township fire chief, that details the experiences of his family’s firefighting careers. Published by Tribute Books and available at tribute-books.com at $10.95.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

From Chapter Thirteen - Kids Are The Worst

I walked up to the road and the kids were still watching from the car, wide-eyed, under Smackie’s supervision. Conditions were safe enough that I could take them down with me and they could stand next to the engine and watch. One on each side, we held hands and walked down. They stood perfectly still next to the engine while I dealt with the details of the fire. Soon we were able to start returning companies and began breaking down the fill and dump sites.

Both kids were polar opposites at that age. Mike was shy and didn’t talk much while Megan, like her mother, would talk to a dead man. Actually, not much has changed since then. After a while, Billy, the pump operator, took a break and bent over to talk to the kids. I didn’t hear any of the conversation but when he stood back up he was laughing. Later I learned he had asked how they were doing. Mike was silent, knowing his little sister would talk for both of them. She proudly announced in her three-year-old voice, “This is my first structure fire.” It wasn’t the last.

Monday, May 16, 2011

From Chapter Twelve - Learning the Country Style

One fine Saturday morning, we were working on an addition to Steve’s house. We all worked on each other’s home improvement projects over the years. It was free labor supervised by someone who actually knew what they were doing. I was part of the free labor portion of the crew.

We were putting up board insulation for a cathedral ceiling and not having fun fastening it in place. Each missed hammering of a nail, which was easy to do when hammering upside down at an angle on the underside of the roof, created a hole in the insulation. Misses were as common as hits, and our frustration was building.

Bang–miss. Damn.
Bang–miss. Shit.
Bang–miss. Fuck.

Our pagers all went off simultaneously, a cacophony of shrill beeps in the confined room, the dispatcher announcing a house fire in Fleetville. Tool belts clattered to the floor where they lay abandoned as we headed for our vehicles, deciding who would ride with whom.

Only a couple miles from the scene, we arrived to find an old two story farmhouse with heavy fire blowing from the windows on the first floor. It probably was on the second as well, but we couldn’t tell at this point. We put on our gear while awaiting the first engine.

Friday, May 13, 2011

From Chapter Eleven - Pennsylvania Bound

After graduating from college in 1983, I worked a few part time gigs for about a year and a half, teaching first aid and CPR and working shifts as a fire technician for a large computer company, back home in Endicott. Eventually, I got a real job as a fire protection engineer in early 1985, and moved to a beautiful rural area in Northeastern Pennsylvania in 1986. Naturally, one of the first things I did was put in an application at the local fire department in Scott Township.

A week or two after I applied, I received a call to meet with the membership committee, which consisted of about six firefighters. When we all sat down together, Nicky, one of the assistant chiefs, asked me about my background and experience, so I told them a little bit about myself. Nicky was not a big guy, but was built like a plow horse, which was not surprising, since he came from a long line of farmers.

“Are you sure you live here?” Nicky asked with an ironic smile on his face. “’Cause we get people like you walking in the door just about every day.” I assured him that I did actually live nearby and, with that, my probationary year began.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

From Chapter Ten - Firefighting 101

The station was a terrific place to live, particularly for a college student. Free room and cheap board–I could buy into the meals with the career guys if I wanted–made it more affordable than dorm living. Studying Fire Science at the University of Maryland was a great experience, thanks to the first rate professors, but maintaining the balance between school and firefighting was a challenge. It was good to be young, as I slept eight hours straight only about one night a week. The rest of the nights were either interrupted by calls or by late night bullshit

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

From Chapter Nine - A Move to Maryland

Wasted college fuck. That was one of the nicer names I was called when I moved into the fire station in Montgomery County. The career guys put the new college live-ins or bunkers through a sort of mental boot camp. The first semester, I was the only “wasted load” at the station. If you can’t take the verbal abuse, you certainly don’t belong there.

I understood it then, and to this day, I have no problem with it. Look at it from their perspective, every year or two some strange new kid shows up. After he familiarizes himself with the equipment on the engine and truck–in my case it took about forty-five minutes–this rookie is riding a jump seat alongside them. In their shoes, I wouldn’t trust a wasted college fuck, either.

I realized the best thing to do was to keep my mouth shut and ears open. I gained their trust by doing anything they asked around the station and doing a good job on my first few fires. Once they could see I wasn’t going to get one of them killed, they began to accept me.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

From Chapter Eight - Working for Dad

I made a smart ass comment about his lack of an air pack. He tapped the front of my helmet.

“What does that say?”

“Lieutenant,” I answered.

He tapped the front of his helmet. “What does this say?”

“Chief,” I answered again.

“Go back and do your damn job,” he ordered. There wasn’t much to add, so I pulled up another five feet of hose and went back to Dennis. I never did understand how he could breathe smoke like that and not cough. I didn’t buy his desire for more information; he was checking up on how I was doing, but he would never admit it.

Monday, May 9, 2011

From Chapter Seven - First Time Inside

The other firefighter about to go in with me was also new. As rookies, we had no business being inside together, but I had waited too long for this moment to complain. Taking the nozzle in my hands, we crawled inside. It was black to the floor with smoke, but there was no visible fire in the first room we entered. We worked our way in by feel, stopping so I could work on what felt like a door. Still zero visibility; the only sounds were the raspy rapid inhalation and exhalation of air through our mask face pieces. Prying for a minute or so, I got the door open and realized it was a kitchen cabinet. We pushed further in and through the doorway to the living room. This room was fully engulfed in flames. I opened the nozzle and started hitting it, whipping it in circles as I’d been taught. Damn, this is fun.

Friday, May 6, 2011

From Chapter Six - Characters

The emergency services are full of talented and unusual people and some of those people I’ve worked with are unforgettable. Hubie was my first ambulance captain. He was a gregarious, happy guy with a ready smile and a unique high-pitched laugh heard regularly around the squad room. He was a perfect manager for us young guys; he knew exactly how much of the reins to give us before yanking them back hard. His normal smile would instantly disappear, replaced with a cold, hard stare and raised eyebrows. You didn’t quickly forget the lecture that would follow. I learned a lot about the care and feeding of young pups by watching Hubie. He never held a grudge and after whatever stupidity we had committed was over, it was over for good.

Hubie was truly a great medic; his only weakness was vomit. Not that any of us liked it, but he truly hated it. If a patient was puking, he could handle it and work through it, but you’d hear Hubie gagging right along with them.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

From Chapter Five - Ambulance Runs Aren't Always Sad

Along with the Saturday eleven to seven shift, we would regularly take the seven to noon shift on Sunday morning so we could sleep in if we didn’t get a run. When we finally got up at nine thirty or ten a.m., we’d take the ambulance and go to breakfast at a nearby Friendly’s restaurant where they liked us. We’d take our time and enjoy a nice leisurely breakfast. There was an ulterior motive to this. If we got a run while eating breakfast, obviously we would have to leave. When we returned, they would give us a new breakfast, but we’d only be charged for one. We didn’t get the two for one every week, since we couldn’t predict our calls, but we got it often enough that we made sure we were regulars there. Cops like donut shops. We liked just about anything.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

From Chapter Four - EMS Days

Emergency rooms save people every day but that doesn’t mean mistakes don’t happen. You learn this quickly on the EMS side of the business.

One day we brought in a possible heart attack victim. He was unconscious, but had a rhythm. After we left him in the treatment room still very much alive, we went to restock the drug box, replacing the items we had used on the call. Walking back toward the front desk, I passed the treatment room again, and saw the staff doing CPR on our victim. I watched for a minute or two and then noticed one of the leads to the heart monitor had become disconnected from the pasty on his chest. Walking into the room, I tapped one of the nurses on the shoulder and pointed out the discrepancy.

“Oops,” the nurse responded as she reconnected the lead. They stopped compressions to check the rhythm and he did indeed have one. One of the first things they teach you when becoming an EMT is that doing compressions on someone who has a heartbeat is a bad thing.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

From Chapter Three - My First Fatal

One weekend morning, I heard a call come in over the scanner for a motor vehicle accident at Route 26 and Carl Street, and begged my father to take me down to it. In those days, the fire department was not automatically dispatched on automobile accidents. Initially reluctant, he relented, and we drove over, much too slowly for me. Upon arrival, I saw a car with the front end smashed and wrapped around a telephone pole. Walking over, I saw a burlap bag over the driver’s window. A man, a passerby it seemed, stood by the side of the car retching. As I approached the car, he said, “You don’t want to look.”

I know that, but I have to. It’s my job now.

Monday, May 2, 2011

From Chapter Two - The Helmet

Dad moved up the ranks from firefighter to lieutenant, captain, and then assistant chief fairly rapidly. The transition from rank to rank differs little today. There’s a helmet from back then that hangs on the wall in my office. I look at it daily as I sit at my desk doing paperwork, paying bills, etc. It’s an old Cairns from the late 1950s. There’s nothing unusual about it, other than the friction loss tables, which give the pressure loss through hoses at different flows, taped inside; not something most guys, then or now, would do.

It’s mainly a soot-stained white. Close observation reveals it wasn’t always that color. It’s not like many helmets today where the color is injection molded into the shell. You can see the yellow below through some chips in the white paint; and the black beneath the yellow. It has definitely seen a fair amount of fire.

Back in the day, when firefighters made the rank of lieutenant, they didn’t get a new helmet. They kept their old one and painted it yellow. A new leather shield with the title would be attached to the front. Moving up to captain wouldn’t change the color, but a new front piece would come.

When the owner made assistant chief, the helmet was repainted again, this time white. The owner wore it for a number of years while in that position until it was ultimately replaced with a “modern” helmet. Safer, more impact resistant, the new helmet was definitely an improvement over the old from a fire ground perspective. It didn’t have the same character, though.

The old helmet, if you found it in a flea market today, would probably cost you five bucks. It’s nothing special, except to me. Mike seems to appreciate it as well.

It was my father’s helmet.