For D.C. firefighter Don Derner, life began at nine, whenhe first donned the uniform of a junior volunteer fireman and went sprinting across the lush, rolling hills of upstate New York, chasing after the big boys as they rode the backs of snorting red trucks, hell-bent for glory and a two-alarm blaze.
There is something about a fire, he says, something about screeching sirens and thick black smoke that pumps aman to his prime. It is Romance. Danger. Practice and instinct. To Derner and his fellows, firefighting isn't just a job, it's a tradition -- an idealized life devoted to fighting a raging enemy for the public good, even if it's only atrash fire in an alley dumpster. Someone has to do it, Derner says, and he always thought that someone should be him.
But now he is 42, and his Brylcreem pompadour has begun to go gray. After 18 years as a D.C. firefighter, Don Dernersays he's had enough.
Sitting in the den of his Oxon Hill home. Derner looks at his wife and two boys and then up at his collection of ancient metal fire helmets mounted like trophies on the walls. "I used to love firefighting," he says, "I got a drawer full of fire department T-shirts, jackets and caps. I collect all kinds of firefighting pictures and paraphernalia. My wife even paints firefighting pictures. But the way I feel now, I could walk out the door of the station and never look back.
"With the way things are in the department now," he says, his eyes going blank, "I'd rather have my son be a garbage man than a firefighter."
The frustration Derner feels is not unique. From the tidy, monied neighborhoods near Tenley Circle to the project-lined alleys in old Anacostia, many firefighters stationed throughout the city say they are angry and forgotten.
The city's 1,500 firefighters raise many issues, from low pay and medical benefits they consider inadequate, to budget cuts that have left them fearing for their jobs. White firefighters, facedwith the realities of affirmative action in a department that was only recently desegregated, feel they are being passed over for promotions they deserve. Blacks say they are being forced to be defensive and even apologetic for doing the same things whites did for years in a city that is 71 percent black. There is a sense of stagnation, a paralysis of leadership they are worried will bring their department -- now rated one of the top three in the country -- crumbling down around them.
To look into the firehouses of Washington isto look at a group of public employes in a time of crisis, middle-class men and women with $18,000-a-year salaries who share the frustrations of many government employes. Being a"civil servant" is different today than it once was, they say, and in the case of the D.C. Fire Department, the adjustment has been painful.
Morale has hit an all-time low, many say. The thrill is gone, and grumbling echoes discontent in the station house.
Lunchtime at Engine 15. Derner and his buddies lounge around the color television in the cinderblock dining room of their home-away-from home, munching with pot-bellied abandon on community prepared hero sandwiches.
They hadn't really done much that day since coming in at 6:30 a.m., just a trash fire a few blocks away that hardlyraised a sweat, Derner says. There hasn't been a "real working fire" for several days. The men are getting itchy.
"We've just had the piddling stuff," Derner says, frowning."You wouldn't believe what we waste our time doing. We're called for stopped-up sewers, cats in trees, people locked out. They call us 'cause we show up. The police won't go, the city tells them to wait till Monday, but the department goes -- we're a lot cheaper than a locksmith or a plumber or a chinmey sweep . . ."
"And when we do show up," adds JohnGoff, a piece of bologna hanging from his mouth, "they peltus with rocks and bottles. Once they threw a couple of bushels of oranges in our parking lot. What a damn mess. We're here to help these people, but they don't want us. They're their own worst enemies."
Suddendly, bells ring. A static-smeared voice comes over the loudspeaker: "1700 Wade Rd. . . 15 Engine . . . 12:10 hours . . ." The men holt from their chairs, dropping copies of Playboy and Hustler magazine on the table. Some shove the last bits of sandwich into their mouths as they slide around the corner on the slick concrete floor and run to the engine.
The garage door up, sirens cranked, the men hop in as the engine pulls way. The pumper truck, Goff driving, follows.
Donald Bryant wheels the16-ton diesel machine down Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, pausing at red lights, laboring up hills as cars pull over and startled residents look up.
Poised among scattered pieces of equipment and oxygen tanks in the three-man compartment behind the driver's cab, Derner and Gary Manders pull off their street shoes and slide into thigh-length rubber boots,water-proof coats, gloves and yellow helmets. The sirens are deafening. Veins pop in Derner's neck and forehead.
Pulling onto Wade Road, the smell of smoke in the air, they check the regulators on their masks. Several small boys on chopped-down bicycles wave them on. "This way mister, this way," and engine and pumper nose down a narrow alley in a Barry Farms housing project. One hundred feet later, they pullup to the fire: a dumpster burning yellow-blue and throwingsmoke straight up into the day.
A crowd gathers as they pull down a hose and sprinkle the 10-foot trash bin. Steam rises. "Ain't nothing but clothes in here," yells Sgt. J. J. D'Amico Sr. "Guess they got money to burn."
A little boy, his eyes bulging, looks to D'Amico. "I know who did it mister."
"Who was it?" D'Amico asks "I ain't tellin'," the boy says, pedaling away.
"Just another exciting day in Southeast," sighs D'Amico to a visitor.
Back at the stationhouse, things return to normal and the television goes on.Aside from the sweat stains on their blue uniforms, it looks like they have never left. The talk resumes and turns to politics. Derner erupts:
"For 18 years I've been doing myjob as good as I can," he says, leaning forward, almost tipping his chair. "Now some clown downtown goes and screws upthe budget. Want to talk about budget cuts? You're looking at one."
On April 1, the city's budget crisis hit Dernerat home. In a belt-tightening move, Mayor Marion Barry hadasked city agencies to cut $26 million from their operatingexpenses to help close a $170-million potential budget gap. The fire department chipped in $550,000 by taking Derner and 23 other men off their coveted jobs as battaalion chief aides and putting them back on the trucks.
For Derner, an aide for 11 years, reassignment back to the ranks "was like a knife in my back." No longer would he have the comfort of his adminstrative job in the firehouse, nor his status as the battalion chief's main adviser on the scene of a fire.
Along with the ressignment of aides, the department may be forced to close at least one of its 51 fire companies and shut down one of its ambulance squads, according to Fire Chief Norman Richardson.
These cuts -- and fears of even further reduction and layoffs next year -- will not only "have a negative effect" on the department's efficiency, Richardson says, but also undermines firefighter morale.
"Specifically, the morale problems we are seeing stem from budget cuts,"Richardson says. "Our men are proud. They see things cut back and taken away and they're probably already putting forth 100 to 110 percent. They are frustrated. They think the city doesn't care about them."
"The men are frustrated," says Ken Cox, 2nd vice president of Local 36 of the International Association of Firefighters. "They see the department eroding all around them. They fear for the status of the department, they fear for their jobs. They wonder where it's going to stop."
"I'm worried about the men," says Mayor Barry. At a recent meeting with 30 of the battalion chiefs, "We talked about the budget cuts -- I told them about how the budget works, explained the congressional process. They really didn't have an understanding of how it works . . . .
"We have also told the union we would meet formally with them to discuss their grievances . . . The men are used to goodtimes that we had for years. But now it is hard times, andwe have to get people to join together and pull together. That's the way it's going to have to be."
Battalion Chief Bill Phillips is standing on the white carpet outside the mayor's office, holding his blue dress hat by the bill. Thereare tears in this seasoned firefighter's eyes, his lips quiver with emotion. He has just walked out of a recent meeting between Barry and the battalion chiefs. Soon, he says, he will walk out of the department for good.
"The mayor apparently feels there are no problems in the fire department except for us," he says. "We accuse him of discrimination and he accuses us trying to sabotage him. I've been in this department too long to stand by and watch him f -- it up any more. I'm leaving."
For the last seven years, says Phillips, 51 and a 30-year veteran of the department, he has stoodby and "watched while black officers with less seniority and ability than myself have been promoted all around me . . .There's no longer any future for white men in the department."
In a department that was racially segregated until 1954, white officers like Phillips -- who outnumber black officers 76 to 13 -- complain of what they see as the city's efforts to bring the department to racial parity overnight. It is leaving many of the whites "broken and destroyed . . . I know of at least 14 battalion chiefs who are planning to retire come October for just these reasons," Phillips says.
Mayor Barry, defending the department's promotion system, noted that of eight persons promoted to ranks of sergeant and above during the last two weeks, seven are white.
For Phillips, a slight man with a graying hint of stubble on his chin, retirement comes with the salty taste of defeat, the feeling that he has been declared obsolete in a grand racial plan over which he has no control.
The department had been a refuge to the Southwest Washington native, a steady, respectable home he had found after years of drift. He had gone out in the world at 12, when his mother died and his father suffered a crippling stroke. He worked at jobs with CapitolTransit and Bell Telephone, as a laborer, a delivery boy and a route salesman. But when he came to the department in 1959, things began to change.
He worked, studied and learned. The promotions started coming, the money followed and he bought a house in Landover where he raised his six children, knowing it would be a little easier for them than it had been for him.
"I busted my ass and it paid off," he says.
But then he began to realize he had reached the end of the line. Years passed and he went nowhere. Recently, he bought a retirement home in Augusta, Ga.
"It doesn't reallybother me like it does some guys," Phillips says. "I have my pension and I'll be living pretty well. What really bothers me is seeing the department go downhill because of theseracially motivated promotions.
"We are seeing men being sent to lead who don't have the experience to know what they're doing,' says Phillips, a former head of the department'straining school. "They have come up too fast and the men know it. If leadership isn't up to par, the men aren't goingto take the initiative to do anything they're told."
But Lt. Ray Alfred, of the black Progressive Firefighter's Union, says Phillips' conclusions are "absurd. The black guys who have been promoted know what they're doing. They've been around a long time, they've just been held back by the system . . . The whites never complained about the promotions system before. It's only now, when the blacks are in a position to take advantage of it that they are complaining.
Alfred says he understands, that blacks have long felt the frustration of institutional deadends. "Some people want to moveup the ladder," he says, "and promotions are the stepping stones. They mean more money -- from $1,500 to $3,000 a yearfor each step -- and they mean honor. When a man is promoted, he feels his own worth."
It is a quiet night at Engine31 on Connecticut Avenue, and Marlon Hines, 25, leans back on the hind legs of his chair, sipping black coffee and watching the Johnny Carson show.
A lean, handsome, two-year veteran of the department who came up hard in Washington's Southeast, Hines was a member of the department's first all-black training class in 1978. A former security guard who took the entry exam on a lark, Hines typifies many of the young, black Washington natives who have made what he describes as an "easy transition" into a department in which more than two-thirds of the force is white and only 277 of the 1,496 firefighters live in the District.
"When I first came in,"he says, "I didn't know what to think. At the training school there was a lot of pressure on us to do well. We were visited by all the black officers and they told us that everyone was watching us, that we were the examples for the future."
For black veterans of the department, men like Hines are the future, one that comes only after years of racism andhard times for blacks within the department.
As recentlyas 10 years ago, black veterans say, even after formal segregation of the city's firehouses was abandoned, black firefighters slept in segregated beds and drank out of segregated coffee cups. White firefighters once refused to use oxygen masks that had been used by blacks and kept them from participating in communial meals. And often, when blacks did share meals or sleep in the "wrong beds," their dishes were thrown away and their mattresses were dumped from second-story windows.
Shielded from the abuses of the past, Hines looksinstead to the irony of his own present:
"Look where I come from," he says. "When I was younger I used to pull falsealarms and throw rocks at the fire trucks as they went by.Up to the age of 18, I never talked to a white -- I hardly even saw one except on TV.
"Then I went to Engine 24 on Georgia Avenue NW, and I was the only black. I was scared toask other firefighters questions, I didn't know how to ask and I was worried whether they would accept me.
"Once, one of the lieutenants told me that if he saw me on the streethe wouldn't talk to me because I was black, but in the firehouse, he said, we're all equal . . . That was the only timeI really encountered racism."
Hines says he has also learned how much respect his uniform carries in some parts of Washington: "I tell people what I do and they get really psyched about it . . . This job carries a lot of weight, a lot ofprestige. I got a house after eight months on the job. I had no credit, no nothing, but the fact i worked for the department helped me get credit. I've gotten a lot out of thisjob. I understand what happened in the past, but this is now. Except for the complaints among the officers I hear sometimes, I haven't heard of any (racial) problems."
Steve McGugan, a white, 27-year-old Prince George's County native who used to sell business machines agrees: "The papers want to try and dig up racial problems. I guess it sells papers, but there are no problems I've ever heard of . . . What happened 20 years ago doesn't matter to us. Times have changed and so have the people."