Inside the fire station in Shaw known as “The Big House,” the name Kevin McRae is inescapable.
It’s on placards over doorways. It’s enshrined behind glass in the watch room. It’s on the backs of T-shirts worn by firefighters. It’s etched on the passenger-side door of Engine 6.
Lt. Kevin McRae, 44, died in March 2015 after suffering a heart attack while fighting a fire at an apartment building. This week his son, Davon McRae, started as a firefighter in the same firehouse his dad had been assigned to, at New Jersey Avenue and N Street NW.
His father was the 100th D.C. firefighter to die in the line of duty. The younger McRae’s cousin, James McRae III, was the 99th to die, in 2007. Davon McRae graduated with 20 others from the cadet program on Friday, the 10th anniversary of his cousin’s death.
Firefighting in big cities across the country is a family affair, and it’s not unusual in the District and elsewhere to find multiple generations on the force. But in the District, at least, Davon McRae’s circumstances stand out, seen as the ultimate honor to his family and the toughest mental challenge. He is riding in the very engine that carried his father’s casket from funeral to cemetery.
“Looking at it from the outside, you could say this is extremely hard to pass by all these memorials and these pictures” of his dad, said Lt. Mark Trace, a 13-year veteran who runs the Engine 6 crew. “But from a fireman’s standpoint, it’s the best thing in the world to work where your father worked. That’s a privilege that a lot of people don’t get.”
In many ways, McRae’s first day on Monday was a homecoming — he knew many of the firefighters through frequent visits to the station while he attended Dunbar High School across the street. But McRae still is a “probie,” a probationary firefighter who for the next 18 months has to prove himself. On Monday, he was drilled on procedure, razzed for grabbing seconds at lunch, tasked with filling out the daily journal of calls and assigned to wash the dinner dishes.
When McRae boasted of his high school basketball skills — “I was good” — Trace was quick to put him back in his place. “Not good enough,” the lieutenant reminded.
Just a few hours into McRae’s first 24-hour shift, Trace lined up the veterans and the newbies. As they faced Engine 6, the younger McRae staring at his father’s name on the door, the lieutenant addressed the taller, lankier and quieter version of the elder.
“You’re not going to be treated any different,” Trace told the 20-year-old McRae. “You’re going to be treated the same as every probationary that walks through the door. There will be no special favors. You’re probably going to have it worse than everyone else, you know that?”
“Yes, sir,” McRae answered.
And so a son embarked on the career of his father. He said he’s up to facing the constant reminders of his father’s death while at the same time trying to forge a distinct identity. He said his father wanted him to be a firefighter, but his heart was in sports. At 6-foot-3, he excelled as a forward for Dunbar’s varsity basketball team — not bulky enough to play center — and he also played football.
McRae said that “seeing my father go down doing something he loved” decided his career path. His closest relatives urged him to think hard about it. “Do what you want to do. Don’t feel you’ve got shoes to fill,” he said they told him. He assured them, “I’m going to be me.”
Engine 6 “feels like home,” McRae said. “I didn’t want to go anywhere else.”
The young man enrolled in the fire department’s cadet program after he graduated from Dunbar two years ago. The program offers a path to a department career for 18- to 21-year-old graduates of District high schools. His father joined the department through the cadet program a quarter-century ago.
McRae said he went into the program thinking his time spent chatting with his father gave him an advantage. “I thought I was going to become some sort of super-firefighter,” he said.
Reality set in at the academy, when he learned there is more to firefighting than rushing into flames with a hose. He learned that engines carry water and trucks carry ladders and axes for rescues. He learned there were different-diameter hose nozzles, different-length hoses and different-size picks. He learned how to treat patients injured in car crashes, suffering heart attacks or overdosing on drugs.
After the year-long academy, McRae said, “I respect the job a whole lot more.”
Then he walked in through the bay doors of the Engine 6 firehouse and discovered the training didn’t end at the academy.
Between calls, McRae and another probationary firefighter were put through the paces. They took hoses from the back of the truck and stretched them out across the back station’s parking lot, called “running the line.” The probationary firefighters took turns folding the hoses back up on the engine. They learned where equipment was stored.
They practiced holding a 100-foot hose and spraying water, their knees on asphalt. McRae inched forward, holding the nozzle trying to spray in a circular motion, at times almost losing control and sending streams of water surging through the line toward the open bay door of the firehouse.
“Whip it forward,” Trace told McRae. “Keep whipping it forward. You’re going down a hallway and the apartment at the end is burning. You got to keep the water going forward. It will kick your a--, but you got to whip it forward.”
After every call — several for people suffering chest pains, and an accident in the Third Street Tunnel — McRae went to the watch room, a small office, and filled out the daily journal. Records are computerized, but the century-old ritual of writing down details of the calls continues. A memorial to his father was just feet away from where McRae carefully recorded the diary entries, and it includes the journal notes from his father’s death:
“1330 7th St NW. Fire showing from 3 windows on the 9th floor. E-6 found fire in Apartment 908 and extinguished. . . . Searched, vented, took windows, checked roof and opened bulkhead door. . . . While exiting the fire building, Lt. McRae collapsed and became unresponsive.”
It ends: “On the above incident, Lt. Kevin McRae of Engine Company 6, #4 Platoon, died in the Line of Duty.”
Trace said he liked what he saw of the young McRae, and he privately instructed him not to try to live up to his father. “There’s no need for him to think he needs to be someone else,” Trace recalled. “He’s Davon. That’s who he needs to be, and that’s what we need.”