By Joy Bergmann
Get the firefighters of Engine 74 talking about their work, and you’ll hear a bit about the dangers and the odd hours. But what radiates from every anecdote, every description of nozzles and standpipes? A level of job satisfaction most of us screen-jockeys can scarcely imagine.
“You tell me another occupation that gets waved at every day,” says Lt. James Kirby, a second-generation firefighter with 24 years on the job, nine at the landmarked firehouse built in 1888 at 120 W. 83rd Street.
Upper West Siders see New York’s Bravest racing to rescues — and, yes, wave upon their safe return. But how much do we know about FDNY’s daily modus operandi?
Lt. Kirby and John Keaveny, a third-generation firefighter who’s served most of his 19 FDNY years at Engine 74, agreed to give WSR a mini tour and answer questions.
The following conversation has been edited and condensed.
WSR: What’s Engine 74’s responsibility and territory?
Lt.K: FDNY has engine companies and truck/ladder companies. As a single engine company, we go on medical runs and extinguish fires. Engines have all the hoses. A truck company’s job is to find the fire, search for victims and vent the building so all the smoke can get out. We pair up on runs with Ladder 25 at 205 W. 77th Street and often train together.
Our primary area is 74th Street to 91st Street, Central Park to the Hudson River, but we go wherever we’re needed. Our rig always has four firefighters and one officer on board.
WSR: Why double-up on medical calls with EMS ambulances?
Lt.K: We can sometimes get there sooner, and many medical situations benefit from more available labor. If you’re doing CPR chest compressions for two solid minutes, you want to have another set of hands ready to take over. Or, if you’ve got a senior who’s fallen in their apartment, a door might need to be busted open. Plus, we can help EMS carry folks out.
WSR: What’s your call volume like?
Lt.K: Total? About 5500 runs a year, which averages out to 15 a day. But no day is typical or average!
WSR: With many false alarms, I imagine.
Lt.K: I’d estimate 3500 of those 5500 runs require us to provide some kind of assistance. And, even if a fire alarm goes off by mistake, we need to be there to ensure it gets properly reset before we leave.
WSR: How much do you know about a situation prior to showing up?
Lt.K: The firefighter assigned to “house watch” receives the dispatch information and calls it out to us as we get our gear and load out. The system also outputs a ticket…
WSR: It looks like a restaurant order ticket, spooling out like at Starbucks.
Lt.K: Right. It gives us what you might expect – location, cross-streets, whether it’s fire or medical and a few details like “gas odor, 12th floor” or “man hit by car.”
The ticket also shows what other units are responding, and which one has primary versus secondary responsibility. So, everyone knows their role before arrival.
WSR: And I see a little cheat sheet on there about the building as well.
Lt.K: Yes. One of our core duties, beyond runs, is conducting regular, surprise inspections of the buildings in our area.
Those visits accomplish two things. One, we assess the building for safety hazards and write up any violations that must be addressed. And two, we get very familiar with each structure and record its unique features in CIDS – Critical Information Dispatch System. Those specifics show up on the run ticket – unusual stairwells or hose hook-ups, that kind of thing.
WSR: The Upper West Side offers quite the variety of architecture to understand.
Lt.K: Absolutely. We’ve got multiple-dwelling brownstones, single-family brownstones, NYCHA developments, commercial properties, pre-war co-ops, high rises. Our hoses come in 50-foot lengths and we’ve got to know what we’ll need. Some individual apartments on Central Park West are monsters; square-footage wise, they’re bigger than my two-story house!
WSR: Engine 74’s house is itself pretty special. So much of the original 1888 detail remains.
Lt.K: Did you see the hook and pulley at the top out front? They kept hay in the attic and would lower it down for the horses. Our staircases are circular because horses couldn’t climb those. The floor where the rig gets parked is the original floor. The tin ceilings are original, too.
WSR: In 2018, then-Councilmember Helen Rosenthal helped secure Participatory Budgeting funds to replace Engine 74’s leaky, creaky windows. Is that underway yet?
Lt.K: This summer we’ll hopefully get new windows as well as a new floor and other improvements. We’ll move our rig and team over to Ladder 25 on 77th Street during the renovations – keeping the same staffing but temporarily operating from a different house.
JK: Yeah. JT’s bladder ruptured due to undetected kidney stones. He needed surgery and spent multiple days in the hospital. Thankfully he’s now recovering pretty well here at the firehouse. [In a single day, JT’s fans donated over $17,000 via GoFundMe to help cover his uninsured medical expenses.]
WSR: Keeping everyone safe – always challenging in a precarious profession. What else is particularly difficult or frustrating?
Lt.K: Traffic and the increasingly narrow roadways. Getting to the job is often harder than the job itself. It’s like driving in that video game Frogger. We have to get around double-parked cars, delivery trucks, outdoor dining sheds. There’s a lot more vehicles on the road than before Covid. You can really feel the difference.
WSR: What’s the best part of the job?
Lt.K: The kitchen table. Sharing meals, breaking each other’s chops, discussing runs, having a cup of coffee and a laugh. When I ask retired guys what they miss, it’s not waking up at three in the morning; it’s hanging out with the guys. [Engine 74 does not currently have any female members.] We’re a family here. It’s not a fire station; it’s a firehouse.
WSR: What’s cooking today, John?
JK: Meatball sliders
WSR: Who’s the top chef? I always see FDNY at grocery stores.
Lt.K: We shop twice a day every day. As for the best cook, I can’t comment. God knows what would happen to my lunch.
WSR: You’ve been at this for 24 years, why not retire soon?
Lt.K: I’ve got two kids in college. I’m only 48. But, really, what am I going to do? Go and say ‘welcome to Walmart’? Most of us stay on for 25, 30 years; we love the job. [FDNY’s mandatory retirement age is 63.]
WSR: What’s with “The Lost World” and dinosaur skull on your rig?
Lt.K: Every company has a nickname to go with their neighborhood. We’ve got the American Museum of Natural History and its dinosaurs, so that’s part of it. Our house used to have a dark grey door. Unfamiliar firefighters would walk right by and miss it, earning us “The Lost World.”
WSR: You’ve certainly found a meaningful career here. When you finish a shift, be it 9 or 15 or 24 hours long, how do you evaluate success? What’s a “good” day?
Lt.K: Any day where a fire gets put out, nobody gets hurt and we’re all going home, that’s a good day. But I always tell my guys, on our “good” day, somebody else may have just lost everything they have.
JK: We have to approach every situation with compassion – consoling people, understanding what they’re going through.
Lt.K: Like, how would you treat your grandmother? Everyone deserves that kind of care. We work very hard to try and provide it every day.