A bunch of months ago, while appearing at a book festival in Green Bay, I found myself in a bar alongside a fellow author.
An organizer introduced us, and once David Sigel told me he was a firefighter who has had a book out, well, the book part faded into dust. A firefighter? A real fight fighter? Shit—I had questions.
Over the next two hours, I listened to a genuinely fascinating, decent man talk about duty, about honor, about saving lives and giving of oneself. It was riveting stuff, and when it was time to leave I said, “So, this is random, but would you be up for a Quiz Q&A?”
And here we are.
Along with his decades of fighting fires, David is a historian whose book, Forces of Change, delves deeply into the creation and development of the Green Bay Fire Department. Today, he explains what it is to fight a blaze, why the brotherhood between firefighters is unbreakable and why he would never step into a boxing ring with Aaron Rodgers.
David Siegel, you are the Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: So David, I’m a big fan of money stories—meaning, the most memorable moments from a career. You’ve spanned the decades as a Green Bay firefighter. What’s your money story? The scariest moment? The most exciting moment? The craziest moment? In other words, what’s the story you would tell, if you could only tell one?
DAVID SIEGEL: I can’t answer this one to my satisfaction. The fire and EMS stories you’re asking for defy my ability to convey to non-firefighter/paramedics. There’s an old joke that somewhat explains this. What is the difference between a fairy tale and a fire-rescue story? A fairy tale starts out “Once upon a time,” whereas a fire-rescue story starts with, “OK, this is no shit.”
We’ve all had experiences that fit your criteria. I just can’t describe them to the point of justice. This is why so many relatives of combat veterans describe how their loved one never talked about the wars. Same with fire-rescue and law enforcement.
J.P.: How did this happen for you? Soup to nuts? Like, when did you know you wanted to fight fires for your career? Was there an ah-ha moment? A spark?
D.S.: I had a previous career after college and lived in a small town in southern Wisconsin. To impress a gorgeous woman, I joined the volunteer EMS agency. Initial “hands-on” training was done in the ER of a Madison hospital. The first patient I dealt with had shot himself through the roof of his mouth with a small caliber handgun. The bullet passed through the front and top of his brain, but was not immediately fatal. The nurse directed me to clean to blood from his face. I started to do so with a wet towel. The patient said it hurt and asked me to be more gentle. He was fully conscious and coherent. Though he later died from the damage, the first human I ever spoke to as a responder had been shot through the brain! The “spark” was when I realized just how difficult and challenging it was to do this. The bug was in my blood and within a few years I changed careers to become a firefighter/paramedic. And that is no shit.
J.P.: How do you explain the kinship of firefighters? It seems to cross geographic, age, ethnic, gender lines. Doctors don’t have it. Journalists don’t have it. What is it about firefighters?
D.S.: We’re like dogs, because we’re drawn to each other, though there’s a lot less sniffing. Much has to do with the fact that nobody else understands what we go through. Civilians just don’t understand what happens and words can’t express the reality. Additionally, our shifts are 24 hours long. We essentially live together and form a secondary family. That imparts a closeness and bond that doesn’t happen with nine to fiveers. Twice a day we eat together and that’s one of the ultimate family experiences, whether it’s blood or camaraderie.
J.P.: What’s the most misunderstood thing when it comes to your profession? What do we, the non-firefighters of the world, get wrong?
D.S.: The vast majority of our responses are for emergency medical services. Fires are much less frequent than just a few decades ago. EMS is now our bread-and-butter and this keeps us very busy.
J.P.: I’m sure you guys get a ton of false calls, unnecessary calls. Cat in a tree, I can’t find my keys, etc … etc. Do those piss you off? Do you have to handle them a certain way? What’s your approach?
D.S.: More than false calls, it’s the misuse of emergency services. A tremendous segment of the population has no reluctance or compunction about calling for complete BS. They do not need to go to the ER or travel by ambulance, but could get their problem addressed by more routine appointments. These people are without consciousness or with absurd senses of entitlement. Some people have such profound social dysfunction they ignore right from wrong. They know what they’re doing, they just don’t care. For example, I’ve been called to a home to transport a person the hospital. They tell me they just left the hospital after waiting longer than they wanted. They thought that getting brought in by ambulance would move them to the front of the line! So, they leave the hospital, go home, call 911, get transported back to the same hospital. Ultimately they go back to the end of the line and get a citation for misuse of emergency services.
It’s aggravating to be taken advantage of and upsetting to know the ambulance is busy dealing with a BS call when someone could really use our help for a legitimate medical emergency. However, we commiserate with each other because we understand. Again, this is why we are drawn to each other. I imagine many readers are astounded this happens. It does and that’s no shit.
By the way, the cat in the tree thing is a total urban legend. Ever seen a cat skeleton in a tree? Of course not. They come down when they get hungry.
J.P.: Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?
D.S.: Greatest: I saved a baby’s life. A 3-month old baby was born with brain-fluid issues and had suffered seizures. It already had surgery to address this when the mother called 911 to report another seizure. There was definitely something wrong with the baby. However, I took a closer look and realized there was something “off” from a typical seizure. I tried ventilating the baby and immediately the baby spit out a plug of milk, took a deep breath and the crying began in earnest. The baby was choking on vomited milk … not a seizure. Because of the recent seizure and surgery history, the mother had tunnel vision. However, I kept my eyes and mind open and remembered an old adage, “Nothing is as it seems.” If I hadn’t cleared the airway, that baby would have choked to death.
Lowest: You’re asking me to put into words the worst thing I’ve ever gone through. I can’t do it justice, so I won’t try. This is why firefighters/paramedics are such a tight group. I could convey to them and they’d understand, but writing for civilians would prove inadequate.
J.P.: You’re the author of a new book, “Forces of Change,” about the history of the Green Bay Fire Department. What would make someone dig deep into a fire department’s history? What was the craziest thing you found?
D.S.: I originally intended to write a short article, thinking it would be a simple, basic history. However, the early history of the Green Bay Fire Department is incredibly rich and fascinating. Most important, I found a clear trend in our history. Change never just happened. All the major changes occurred because major fires went horribly wrong. The fire department, community, newspapers and municipal authorities resolved never to allow these disasters to repeat, so the Green Bay Fire Department changed. This trend holds from creation in 1841 to the present. Most human endeavors change reactively, but with the fire service, the events are dramatic. Makes for a great story.
I discovered a previously unknown Green Bay Fire Department line-of-duty death. In February 1892, Hans Hansen died after being thrown from a horse-drawn host-cart that overturned at a corner. At that time, only those dying at the fire, directly due to the fire were considered a line-of-duty death—Hansen did not fit the criteria. Furthermore, his family buried him in an unmarked grave because they didn’t have enough money and the city provided just enough for the funeral. However, current fire department culture recognizes Hansen as a line-of-duty death and we considered the lack of recognition as intolerable. Therefore, as part of a formal fire department ceremony in July 2016, we dedicated a donated grave marker, about 124 years after he died. Hansen had no children nor did his only sibling. Consequently, finding living relatives proved unsuccessful. So the honor guard presented the folded American flag (typically given to family members) to the current Green Bay fire chief, representing his Green Bay Fire Department family. Now, Hans Hansen will never be forgotten again. Above all other aspects of this history project, I’m most proud of this.
J.P.: We spoke about the loneliness of the book signing event—four people, strange looks, awkwardness. You had some of these. What were they like for you? How’d you handle it? Because, Christ, it’s my least-favorite thing in the world.
D.S.: A total kick to the confidence and ego. When we met, you told be that because I’d been skunked at signings I’m “now officially an author,” which made me feel like I’d gone through a rite-of-passage. I’m grateful you shared that with me.
J.P.: You work a job where death is a very real possibility. When you approach a particularly big blaze, does that run through your head? Should it/should it not run through your head? Can a firefighter be successful and also fear death?
D.S.: I’ll borrow something from the military … you don’t fight for country and apple pie, you fight for the people next to you. What goes through my mind on every call is to do right by my comrade brothers and sisters … don’t screw up! It’s the benefit to having a pseudo-family, rather than a group of coworkers. This is true whether it’s a large blaze or a simple medical call. Do my job right for my people. First and foremost, I worry about their well-being.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH DAVID SIEGEL:
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Faye Dunaway, Sterling Sharpe, Chris Cornell, Oscar the Grouch, Ft. Lauderdale, raisins in your oatmeal, Tupac, Mike Pence, Bermuda shorts: Raisins in oatmeal, Oscar the Grouch, Faye Dunaway, Bermuda Shorts, Mike Pence, Sterling Sharpe, Tupac. Never been to Ft. Lauderdale and don’t know who Chris Cornell is (and resisted temptation to Google him).
• Five all-time favorite movies concerning firefighters?: Towering Inferno, Towering Inferno, Towering Inferno, Towering Inferno and Towering Inferno. All others are total crap. TV shows are even worse, except for Emergency from the 1970s. That one is great.
• Who wins in a 12-round boxing match between you an Aaron Rodgers? How does it end?: Really? A 33-year-old, 6-foot-2, 225 pounder versus a 52-year-old, 5-foot-11, 183 pounder. It doesn’t end because it would never have begun. Can we make this a one-on-one competition playing hockey?
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Never had an incident with threat of a crash. As a side note, I always introduce myself to the flight crew as an off-duty paramedic and offer my help in case of an emergency. They love it and sometimes I get an extra bag of peanuts. Yes, I have had to help with medical problems mid-flight, once over the middle of the Atlantic.
• What’s the absolute grossest thing you’ve ever seen?: On a warm summer day, a neighbor checked on a man who lived alone and found him dead. He had died several days earlier while laying on a heated water bed. The weather and bed dramatically sped up the decomposition process and basically turned him into soup. We could smell him from the street as soon as we got out of the rigs. Everybody on the crew was gagging and all of us showered and changed uniforms back at the station. And that is no shit.
• Five reasons one should make Green Bay his/her next vacation destination?: A frequent misconception is that Green Bay is a very large city because there is a professional sports team here. However, we’re actually mid-sized with about 100,000 population in the city and similar number in the adjacent area. So, rather than five reasons, I’d say a visitor would experience the uniqueness of big city life emerging from a small town. Frequently there are deer, turkeys, foxes and skunks in my yard and there even are a couple of working farms within the city limits. LA got those?
• Why would anyone live in a city that hits negative 20 in winter?: Perspective. It makes the summers that much more enjoyable. It’s a cliché, but the change of seasons is a great experience.
• What are the keys to growing a kick-ass mustache?: Eastern European ancestry, don’t shave your upper lip and keep it groomed. I spend more time on my mustache than the hair on my head.
• I never much cared for Ben Seaver in Growing Pains. You?: I have never spent a moment of my life watching Growing Pains, but I suspect I haven’t missed anything.