As a firefighter with the New York Fire Department, one of Jay's first days on the job after finishing the academy was September 11th. After spending the evening of September 10th doing night training, he made his way into New York and down to the World Trade Center site with other first responders to deal with the unfolding disaster. He worked through the rescue and clean up operations and is still a firefighter with the FDNY.
Interview conducted on May 18, 2015 in Long Island City, New York
Present: Richard Hayden and Jay Cascone
Transcribed by Richard Hayden
Richard Hayden: What is your full name?
Jay Cascone: Jason Cascone.
RH: What is your current position?
JC: Captain, New York City Fire Department.
RH: How long have you been in the fire department and how long have you been at the current rank?
JC: July 15th, 2015 will be fourteen years.
RH: How long have you been a Captain?
JC: Three and a half years.
RH: What is your station?
JC: I’m in Ladder 11 which is located in the East Village section of Manhattan, East Second [Street] between [Avenues] B and C.
RH: What motivated you to join the fire department?
JC: I guess sort of a childhood calling. In high school, a member of the White Plains Fire Department came and spoke to my class. I was taking a high school forensics class and a guy named Jim Feeney who is now a retired White Plains Firefighter came to class and spoke in Miss Gunning’s senior year forensics class. He just made a big impression on me and had a lot of nice things to say about the fire service and I think that was my first idea about becoming a firefighter.
From there, when I was in college there was a small volunteer fire department in the town that I was going to college, where I was living during college, so I joined the local volunteer fire department there and it just reaffirmed my interest and it led me then to take the exam for the New York City Fire Department and I got called.
RH: Great. Why the New York City Fire Department?
JC: I think it was kind of just a widely held belief that that was kind of the biggest, busiest place to do it. If you grew up in the New York area, New York City has got this great tradition and great history and it was this widely held belief that that would be the most intense place to be a firefighter. In my view, based on what I knew and read and heard, and based on conversations and intuitively it made sense. All the stories going back to the sixties and seventies about the war years, they refer to it as, in the Bronx when they would go to fires every night so I knew at that age it appealed to me. It was something that I was interested in, being in a department that was going to be busy, active and intense.
RH: How did your family feel about your decision?
JC: Not good. [laughs] I think I met some resistance, particularly with my dad. I don’t think he was too happy about it but I think he also knew that I had to find my own way. I was in college at that point and I was in an accounting program doing a business degree at the time. I don’t think he really saw the connection between a college business degree and the fire department. So I think we had a couple of conversations where he tried to maybe steer me away from the fire department and where I was headed but in the end, once I had an idea in my head that was it. There was no convincing me otherwise.
RH: What was the training for the fire department like?
JC: The academy was held here at Randall’s Island. I began the academy in July of 2001. At the time it was a different program. It was pretty intense. Luckily I was young enough. I was twenty-one years old and I was in good shape so that was probably the best time of my life to go through it but even then it was intense. I was always into fitness and stuff – I was big into running and working out – so I was physically prepared. I didn’t struggle all that much but it was intense. There were a lot of daily runs. The evolutions were intense. You’re carrying a lot of weight, the gear is heavy, the mask. Learning how to advance a charged hose line, those two-and-a-half inch hose lines, is a pretty physically demanding thing to do.
I wasn’t in the military so I don’t know but I think that same type of military, boot camp, drill instructor-style academy thing where you’ve got some former Marine – we had a DI, drill instructor – they usually try to pick former military guys. In some cases I think guys that were actual drill instructors in the military so these guys had the same sort of act. You had to learn to play that game like you did in the military where you just get screamed at and you don’t say anything and you have to maintain your cool. It was a little bit of a psychological game just like boot camp. But it was good. It was excellent. The training was excellent and you learned your job. You learned the evolutions and the skills that you needed to be a firefighter. It was cool. It was a lot of fun.
RH: Nice. When did that occur?
JC: That was from July 15th ‘till early September of ’01.
RH: Can you describe your current job, specifically?
JC: I’m the Captain of Ladder 11. I’m technically what’s called UFO which means Until Further Orders because the Site Captain of Ladder 11 is in a union position right now. He’s on the executive board in an offline union role. I’m basically filling in for him but I’m there long term. I’ve been there since September and I’ll be there, basically, for the next couple of years. He’s offline for three years so I’m pretty much the Captain for Ladder 11.
You’re kind of running a company. I could have up to twenty-five guys on my roster and three Lieutenants and you’re kind of just overseeing the management of the company. A lot of it’s routine stuff: payroll and vacations, making sure guys are getting their training and going for their training dates. That kind of thing, administratively. And then you’re obviously there doing the day to day emergency operations. You’re going out on all the runs and still on the rig. So it’s cool. You’re still right in the thick of the action basically going to fires and emergencies and stuff and that’s the fun part of the job, it’s what we all enjoy doing. It’s a cool role.
And then you definitely have a cool mentor role. Especially now, there’s a lot of new guys and a lot of young guys. We call them “probies.” We’re getting a huge influx of probies now. So that’s fun. You have young, eager guys who are really hungry and eager to learn. It’s cool being there with them on a day to day basis. Some of these guys are in their early to mid-twenties so they’re young guys. I’m kind of one generation ahead of them, basically. So it’s cool being in a mentor role and teaching these guys the nuances of the job and about life. Just getting to help these guys out, that’s what we do.
RH: So let’s go ahead and let’s shift it up a little bit. Where were you on September 11th?
JC: I was home. So we got pretty lucky. I was just in-between assignments where we finished the fire academy that Friday before September 11th and I got assigned to these field training roles, basically. I was assigned to Ladder 9 in the East Village. It’s basically in the same neighborhood that I’m working now. And that week, the week of September 11th, we had a couple of little extra days of training that were what we called medical training, what we called CFR-D training – Certified First Responder Training. We had night training so Monday night and Tuesday night I had this night medical training at Fort Totten. So we were sort of in-between. We were out of the academy but I wasn’t on the chart in my fire company yet which was very fortunate because nine members of that firehouse were killed. That was a big deal.
So that morning of September 11th I was in bed because we had slept late because I had had this night training. I think I had gotten home at twelve or one o’clock in the morning or something like that the night before. My mom woke me up and basically told me, I think her words were, “there’s a fire in the World Trade Center.” She hadn’t even mentioned that it had been hit by a plane. I got up and ran into the bedroom where the TV was or downstairs or something – wherever the TV was – and I’m watching this thing and I’m seeing this. Ironically – this sounds ridiculous now to think about it – but ironically I remember some of the first thoughts I was having was, “shit. I missed it.” This company that I was assigned to is there. They’re definitely there. I know they’re there without a doubt. I’m like, “shit. I wish I was there. I wish I was working,” you know?
RH: I know exactly what you mean.
JC: You know. Exactly.
JC: That was one of the first things that went through my mind. I was just like, “shit. What do I do?”
RH: So as the day progressed did you eventually go down?
JC: Yes. So now I’m watching the television and the second plane hits the, I guess it was the north tower, right?
RH: Tower Two was hit first, I think, and Tower One was hit second. I believe that’s how it went.
JC: Yes. I got it confused now. The second plane hit and that was the game change. Now it’s not an accident, this is purposeful. It’s now a much, much bigger deal and I just knew instantly. I knew that I needed to go to work in some capacity. I didn’t know where that was going to take me but I knew all of sudden – I think on the news they were making announcements, “all police and fire report for duty” – I think that was already being said on the air. I remember hearing that that day, for sure, either on the radio or the news or whatever.
But I knew instinctively that I had to go to work or at least check in or call someone. I pick up the phone and I called the fire academy and somebody answered the phone and you could tell that they were in a rush hurrying. Everybody was probably doing the same thing and they were given the same message, “just report to your closest firehouse.” That’s what they told me. No other instructions. Just, “hey. I’m calling in, I’m in the academy.” Just, “report to your closest firehouse.” OK.
So with that, I had my gear with me because of the fact of this weird thing where we were in this in-between stage. I finished the academy so my gear was in the garage. I just ran out to my car, jumped into the car, threw my gear in the back of the car and made contact with another kid, a buddy of mine Rob Lopez. He lived in the Bronx close to this firehouse that we ended up going to in Co-op City. So I picked him up quick and then we raced over to this firehouse in Co-op City – Engine 66, Ladder 61 in Co-op City. And as we pulled up there the members of that firehouse had commandeered a city bus, an MTA bus, and they just kicked all the passengers off the bus and they were now using these as personnel carriers.
So as Rob and I pulled up to the firehouse they were loading equipment and stuff onto this bus and guys were all jumping onto the bus and we got there right as that basically was happening so we just jumped on the bus. One of the interesting stories that I’ve told people before is that there was a Catholic priest who was literally standing by the door of the bus. As everyone was getting on, he was giving absolution to everyone on the bus so it was almost like sending a message, “alright, you guys are going somewhere dangerous.” That was a message right off the bat that I’ll never forget. I get on this bus and we’re going to the site and you’re getting absolution before you go because it’s going to be dangerous.
From there the bus took off and I remember the route. I remember just the chaos on that bus and the conversations and just how fired up everybody was on the bus. Guys were militant, angry, yelling, “let’s go!” I think everyone kind of knew it was an attack so people were pissed, you know? And I also remember the knowledge that I think everyone knew unofficially that lots and lots of firemen had been killed. So guys were pissed. They were angry. They were fired up. They knew this was an attack and we knew that lots of firemen were dead. There was no doubt because of the way the buildings collapsed, we just knew. I didn’t know at that point yet but the way we operate, they knew there had to be lots of guys inside the building. They would have been on the upper floors or on the way to the upper floors. So there was just this feeling of anger and this gung ho, “let’s go.” Not that there was any way that we were going to fight back or anything but it was just this mentality of, “let’s go.” It was crazy. It was very amped up, very emotionally charged sort of atmosphere on the bus.
We could see the plumes of smoke and the dust. Even from – I think we were going down the Bruckner Expressway – I remember absolutely seeing this monstrous plume of dust and smoke and craziness. It was hairy. It was scary, for sure.
RH: Did you eventually get down to the site?
JC: Yes. So we went across, I think we went across 125th Street or something and got over to the West Side Highway and went south on the West Side Highway. I just remember it was ridiculous, at some points caught in heavy, heavy, heavy traffic. This poor bus driver, everyone is screaming at him, “get through! Get through the traffic!” And he’s honking his little horn on the bus or something. Nobody knows that it’s a bus full of firemen and at one point the police had stopped us once or twice. They didn’t know who we were. Somebody jumps off the bus moving cars out of the way and we finally made our way through.
The West Side highway had been shut down and it was all open so we went pretty fast down the West Side Highway. And once we got down there, at some point we just got blocked. There were cars and emergency vehicles and stuff that were just stopped so at some point we just stopped and off-loaded the bus and started walking down the West Side Highway. But we didn’t have to walk that far.
Once we got down close to the site it turned into a hurry up and wait type thing. We raced to get there and once we got down there, there were some Chiefs there that had started to gain control of whoever was coming in because there were hundreds or thousands of off-duty firemen now that were responding. They stopped everyone and they basically restricted us from going into the site because it was so chaotic and they didn’t want to lose more guys. They said, “walk, stop, slow down. Let’s get some control over the situation.” They didn’t want five thousand off duty firemen crawling on top of the rubble unsupervised with no plan. And that’s what happened.
So we ended up getting held up for a few hours, basically, at that point. They stopped us and that was a tough thing because everyone was all amped up and nobody wanted to sit there and stand there and wait for things to happen but that’s what had to happen because it was just too dangerous. There were too many hazards and there wouldn’t have been any supervision. You just would have had guys freelancing and crawling over piles of rubble. The conditions there were just so dangerous at that point that it would have been totally unsafe for thousands of guys to go freelancing.
RH: In the days that followed, what was the immediate aftermath like?
JC: I finally went home that night. This little task force that I was with – it wasn’t little, it was a huge number of guys – but we ended up getting assigned, I think, it was five firefighters to one officer. Later on in the day we finally got sent into the site. We did some void searching, looking around, looking under cars and stuff and just looking to see if we’d find anybody who needed to be saved or rescued or helped. That was actually one of the big surprises not just to me as an inexperienced person but, I think, even to the more experienced members of the department. I think the biggest surprise was that there was nobody. There were no injured people. There was no one there that needed to be rescued – none that we saw. I think there might have been a couple isolated cases but the really crazy thing was that you would think with all this chaos that there would be hundreds or thousands of injured people and people that needed to be rescued and that was not the case. The victims were either killed or they got away relatively unscathed. You didn’t have a lot of injured people. And I think initially we assumed that there would be. We’d be going in there and dragging people out of voids or God knows what. But that was kind of this eerie thing, that there was nobody there who was alive. So that was kind of weird and that was a surprise.
So in the days after, the next day I reported to the firehouse that I was assigned to, Ladder 9, in the East Village on Great Jones Street between Bowery and Lafayette. I reported there to a place where I didn’t know anyone. I had only been there once. I had been there once the previous week on Thursday. I showed up when I got my assignment and met some of the guys. They didn’t know who I was when I showed up Wednesday morning. So I had to now come into this new situation of being in this new firehouse as a probie, as a new guy, but also dealing with the aftermath of the collapses and the event.
That day would have been Wednesday the 12th. Immediately we went to a schedule of twenty-four hours on, twenty-four hours off. It was just morning to morning, twenty-four hour shifts, twenty-four on, twenty-four off. That went on for at least two weeks, maybe three weeks after 9/11. That was the deal every day. Wednesday I remember at some point, we didn’t even have rigs because both of their rigs had been destroyed in the collapse. They were heavily damaged. I don’t think they were fully destroyed, they were extremely damaged – windows broken out, covered in dust, mangled. So we didn’t have fire trucks, we didn’t have rigs. At some point whenever the officer was able to arrange it, we got picked up. I remember getting picked up, I think, that day in a school bus or something. It was like a bus and we got bussed down to the site and then just did digging. Just climbing on the pile.
That first day, that Wednesday, I particularly remember, vividly remember that day. Things were still really fresh. Everything was still fresh. It was still in its pristine state of destruction. As things went along, the more time that went on it seemed like it started to turn into more of a construction site whereas in the beginning it looked like a disaster site. Later on, as months and months went by, it just looked like a big construction site but at that point it still was pretty crazy. We walked through the World Financial Center to gain access because the pedestrian bridge had fallen across West Street so it was hard to access it from where we were. It was like that West and Vesey corner. We had to walk through the – I guess that’s the World Financial Center there – up an escalator and then there was a broken out window with a ladder. So the way we were able to get access was to go through this broken out window and climb down this ladder and then you were in this main debris pile area.
I don’t know if they had set up the bucket brigades. A common practice there was this thing called the bucket brigade where one small area where people were digging, maybe fifty or a hundred guys were standing there passing buckets to each other of debris. There was just a procession of buckets that would go on for hours at a time. But the first day what we were doing with my company Ladder 9, we were just climbing over debris and i beams and dust and all sorts of stuff and just digging.
That Wednesday, particularly, I remember that particular day a kind of unnerving thing. I physically found a pretty intact body. It was a pretty powerful experience. It was crazy because I kind of knew. I was digging around in an area and I kind of knew. I could smell something so I kind of knew I was in the right area. I started uncovering stuff and I found a guy. He was laying face down and he was in a business suit. He didn’t have a jacket on, he just had pants and a white collared shirt, I think it was. He was laying face down and once I kind of had him uncovered to the point where I knew it was a person, then everyone crowded around. There were a bunch of guys digging and then it took us an hour or something like that to get his guy uncovered. It was pretty crazy.
So here I am. I was just there and it was one of the first days. It was basically day two of the operation so it was just unnerving. I’ll always remember, it was kind of fucked up because it was almost like, here I am, young, I really hadn’t experienced – who has? – something of that level and I almost felt embarrassed. It was one of those things where I realized how tough these other dudes were at that moment. These guys, these firemen, are tough dudes because when we got this guy uncovered and we turned him over, he was ripped open basically. I’ll never forget, at that moment here I am, I kind of flinched a little and these other guys didn’t. They just got in there and I almost got pushed out of the way because these guys got in there and just picked this dude up and put him on a stokes basket and just ran off with him and carried him out of there. That’s when I remember one of the million moments where I realized, “these are tough dudes, man. These guys are no joke.” I’m like twenty-one, twenty-two years old and these guys are a few years older than me and they’ve been around a little bit and they’re just tough dues, man, you know? They didn’t even hesitate for one second. They were just in there and just got it done. I remember when they turned this guy over I was just like, “holy shit!” because I had never seen that.
RH: What were the weeks after September 11th like?
JC: For two to three weeks we were on these twenty-four hour shifts – twenty-four on, twenty-four off. It was grueling. It was a lot of time in the firehouse and the firehouse was really crowded and for those weeks we didn’t even have rigs in the house. You would just go to work. Your whole twenty-four would revolve around waiting to get transported to the site to go down there and go dig. So some days, I think we got to the point where we were just taking our personal vehicles. We would go to the firehouse and somebody would just drive in their own car, pile into their car or something like that, and guys would just drive down onto the site.
So we’d go and work in shifts basically. I don’t know what we were doing – three hour shifts or something – digging and then you’d take a break. Finally, I remember when we did get the rig back, at some point they sent us a rig. Ladder 9 is a tower ladder and it was a ninety-five foot tower ladder which is a larger tower ladder with a giant bucket. It’s useful because you can set this bucket up and use it to dump large amounts of water. Because we had this specialized rig, we were getting sent to the site and I remember several times going there just to set up the tower ladder and to just pour water onto hot spots. So that was something we were doing being in Ladder 9.
RH: How long were these hot spots burning for?
JC: Months. Literally months. There were these pockets of heavy steam pushing under pressure or smoke or things that were burning who knows how deep? It could have been a hundred feet deep. I don’t even know how deep the bottom of it was. The bedrock is pretty close to the surface there, I think. But it might have been a hundred feet deep buried so you weren’t even affecting it just pouring water onto these hotspots. It didn’t seem to be having much of an effect. But I remember huge pockets of steam under heavy pressure pushing out of voids and smoke. It was a mess. Nasty stuff in the air, for sure, which raises all those issues about now the quality of the air and what we were breathing in and the sicknesses that guys were getting years later now. It’s been happening for years – cancer and sicknesses and respiratory diseases.
RH: How did civilians respond to you and the fire department in general during this time?
JC: It was certainly an outpouring of support. The people that we encountered down there were a ton of volunteers from every walk of life. There were lots of people that were handing out supplies, handing out food. There were people there that were from local restaurants. Who was there? I think it was, there were restaurants and stuff there who were just handing out food, restaurant food, to first responders. At one point there was a boat in that little harbor there. This boat was like a rest area. They had people set up with massage tables. Anyone who had a skill to offer was there offering their skill for free. Whatever it was. Whether you were a massage therapist, they were there offering massages to weary rescue workers. People with food. They had supplies. They were handing out gloves. There were lots and lots of people.
Or on the periphery outside on that frozen zone you just had well-wishers. You had artists who were doing paintings. You had the fences and all the cards. There were lots of Red Cross people in that – what is it? – Trinity Church. Saint Paul’s is there and Trinity. In the churches they had tons of volunteers doing anything they could to be helpful. So it was totally unique and I’m sure I’ll never see it again, that many people who were that moved to want to support an effort. We’ll never see, I hope, because in order to see that something terrible has to happen.
It was unique and it was amazing to see that many people that were that emotional and that moved that want to be part of an effort like that. It was pretty incredible.
RH: Did some of the firefighters around you change at all and, if so, how?
JC: Well, if you mean, you know, I think a lot of guys were affected severely. I think that for sure, some of these guys, especially guys – I was new and I literally met the guys in Engine 33, Ladder 9 once, other than one guy who was maybe at the academy or something. So I didn’t know the guys that well. I knew people who were killed but I knew them briefly. Some other people who were in the department for years – let’s say you have a twenty year veteran, he may have literally lost fifty friends or something, or more. Guys who worked in that area of lower Manhattan, the major concentration of the members who were killed – there were a total of three hundred and forty-three firefighters that were killed – so if you worked in the First Division in lower Manhattan, you could have easily known a hundred firefighters that were killed, especially if you had been around a long time. So some of these guys were devastated. They were literally devastated. So I think you definitely saw, there were some guys, I don’t know how they handled it. There were some guys who handled it better than others. Some guys who continued to work, some guys never worked another day after 9/11. They had had it.
In general, I think as a department you saw all the typical symptoms of a traumatic event like that. You saw guys with the PTSD type symptoms. You saw an increase in alcohol consumption. The typical indicators. So it was a lot of dudes who really, really were shot. So that was hard. And it was hard to work. It made working in a firehouse hard because you had some guys who were just not in the right frame of mind and then you’re there too and then maybe at some point, especially when you’re a younger guy, they start to take their feelings out on you. Their anger and their issues and problems and all of a sudden you’re the guy who’s bearing the brunt of his problem. So it was a hard time.
RH: Were there any positive experiences that happened in the midst of all of this?
JC: I think just seeing the outpouring of support from the public. There were a lot of people that wanted to help in every way. That was nice. There were a lot of people where I was – the 33 and 9 – during a time on and off, there were periods when we would go to the site then there would be times where we would be in the firehouse basically resting or cleaning up. As a probie, junior guy, I spent a lot of time on the 33 and 9 floor greeting the visitors because we were in a nice neighborhood, a high-profile neighborhood, that lost a lot of firefighters and our firehouse got a lot of visitors. That was nice.
I met a lot of really nice people. There were people who came from all over the country. Hundreds of people just showed up at the firehouse to either to say that they were sorry and to tell us they loved us and to tell us that they were supporting us and dropping off food. The amount of food and cakes and goodies and cookies, it was a pile on the kitchen table higher than anyone could ever eat. There were wealthy people that were coming in and donating money, just obscene amounts of money that we didn’t know how to accept. Wealthy people were coming in and writing checks to the house watchman – not to him personally but to the firehouse commissary fund or something – the guy was like, “I don’t even know what to do with this.” After the fact now, there are all sorts of legal issues with that now but at the time none of that mattered. If somebody came in today and tried to donate money to the house watch it wouldn’t be – not that it’s illegal but there are other procedures for donations. At that time none of that mattered. It was so enormous, so many things were happening, and there were no mechanisms in place to officially handle any of the donations or any of that. It was just insane.
One of the nice things, interestingly, this was a positive thing that happened, was that one day while I was there on the 33 and 9 floor hanging out a guy walks in with his daughter and he’s there and he’s telling me that he’s a retired firefighter and he’s just there to pay his respects to the people in the firehouses that lost guys. I start talking to him and I kind of recognize him and I’m talking to him and he tells me he’s from White Plains. Then I make the connection that it’s Jim Feeney. He was the firefighter that came and spoke to my class in high school, who was the guy who basically inspired me to become a firefighter. So here I am, now this is five, six, seven, eight years later or whatever it is and Jim Feeney, the guy who inspires me to become a firefighter, now walks into the firehouse and I get to talk to him all this time later. We’re still in touch even now, these years later. We’ve been in touch ever since. I see him from time to time. That was just a really wild, small world type of chance.
RH: So before we move on, anything else?
RH: OK. What are some of the changes that the fire department has enacted since 9/11?
JC: I mean, so much has changed and it’s hard to make a blanket statement. I think a lot of them are just procedures, tactics and procedures that have changed. We’ve gotten a lot of new equipment. I think after 9/11 there was this huge, just this monster amount of this post-9/11 terrorism response where billions of dollars were spent at a federal level where all that money started to trickle down and the department just got inundated with grant money. So as a result we got new radios after that. During 9/11 not even every guy on the fire truck had a radio. Now within a year or something after that everyone had radios.
We got lots of new equipment and they came up with communications procedures because of the communications problems that they had at the Trade Center with issuing maydays that may not have been heard. That sort of thing. They came up with some solutions to some of the communications problems that we had, some interoperability between the fire and police departments talking to each other on the radios and that sort of thing which I don’t know that we’ve still worked it all out. I don’t know if we’ve perfected it yet. I think we still have a long way to go in terms of communications. But they’ve been working on solving a lot of problems. I think that 9/11 and the operation definitely exposed a few of the problems that we had in our operating procedures.
Some of them were written about in the 9/11 Commission Report. I think they devoted a chapter to the fire and police response. They talked a lot about the communications and stuff, one of which having to do with the police department having a helicopter up there that was seeing indications that the building might collapse and the fact that that message didn’t make it to the fire department side of the command structure. So those are the types of communication problems that we had. I think we’ve gone a long way to probably solving them and I think we’re doing a lot better with that sort of stuff in the big picture.
RH: How does the fire department continue to evolve in response to emerging threats?
JC: One of the things, you now have an entire counter-terrorism division basically now that didn’t exist pre-9/11. That was spearheaded by Chief Pfeifer who was – he’s the assistant Chief now – he was first responding battalion chief on 9/11 to the Trade Center and lost his brother in the collapses. So I think 9/11 profoundly impacted Chief Pfeifer for obvious reasons. He literally created this counter-terrorism center and now runs it. He’s the Chief of Counter Terrorism. They’ve gone a long, long way and it didn’t exist pre-9/11. They’re doing a lot of work now and I think their role is to just get access to some intelligence and figure out ways to respond as safely as we can to whatever it is that’s coming our way.
One example of one of the things that they’ve worked on a lot is an active shooter incident. Pre-9/11 the fire department really didn’t have a procedure for active shooter. Now they doand now they’re doing a lot of training.
Recently they’ve been doing a lot of cross training with the police department where we’re having these active shooter drills and trying to figure out the best way. A lot of that came from Mumbai and the terror attacks in Mumbai in 2008. It was November of 2008, the insane terror attack there. So the question that came from that is, “if we had this active shooter with a fire – which is what they had at the Taj Mahal Palace hotel in Mumbai – how would the New York City Fire Department respond?” These are questions our counter-terrorism was trying to answer and then figure out the best way to respond. So maybe come up with procedures and ways of handling that to the best that you can. To some extent, there’s certain situations that you just can’t prepare for, in my opinion anyway. You do the best you can and you come up with procedures and you have a plan and you have the right equipment and sometimes things just don’t work out the right way.
RH: Have you been involved in any of that planning?
JC: Not really the planning but now I’m going back for my second Master’s. There’s a master’s in Homeland Security at the Naval Postgraduate School so I was able to get involved in that. So I’m doing some work in graduate school. At this point I’m not involved with working on what the plan is in the actual real world but I’m starting to get an education in that world a little bit. In the future it may lead to me working in the counter-terrorism division at some point and may get involved in the future with some of that stuff. That would be pretty cool. At this point I’m not involved in doing any of the active shooter stuff or anything like that.
RH: What do you see as some of the significant threats to New York’s infrastructure, security or otherwise?
JC: Just from a personal level, I just think it’s aging. The infrastructure is aging. Some of the subway lines and the gas infrastructure, water pipes and steam pipes and that stuff is old. I’m not an expert. I don’t know what the schedule is for repairing it but I do know that, at a company level, I respond to a lot of gas leaks. There’s steam pushing out of every corner in New York City, little leaks and cracks. Every now and then you have a disaster. Every now and then you have a steam explosion in Midtown or you have a major gas explosion somewhere although I have to admit that it seems like the most recent one was more tampering.
RH: That is the one in the East Village in March, correct?
JC: East Village. Yes. That wasn’t a case of an infrastructure failure, it wasn’t a technical failure. It was a human-caused accident. So just from my personal opinion, I just wonder, will there be more train derailments? Will there be more gas explosions? Steam explosions? Water main bursts? Just these wear and tear maintenance issues. The roadways. Who knows? You have these potholes and the roadways are in terrible condition. Is that causing car accidents? If the roads were in better condition would there be as many car accidents? I don’t know. I have no idea.
RH: What are some of the inherent strengths that New York City has in responding to crises such as 9/11?
JC: One of them is manpower. We have vast manpower. We have huge resources. We have eleven thousand New York City firefighters. There’s something like thirty some-odd thousand police officers so you have lots of people that are available to respond and we have department-wide recall procedures and things so that when things become overwhelming, for example a blackout, we had a blackout in 2003 – did we have more than one blackout? – I think there was just one blackout in 2003 that I was working for. But in those cases, you can have a huge reserve of off-duty guys that you can tap into which is nice. I think that was a big deal on 9/11. We had so many people that were there to help out that’s a huge advantage where if you had a major disaster in a smaller city it’s probably harder to get that support and the people you need and it’s hard to organize. It can be chaotic in terms of just organizing that many people.
So we have this huge bureaucracy in place already where we have these eleven thousand firefighters who are available at a moment’s notice, more or less. So I think that’s an advantage New York City has. Even on the rigs, our staffing on fire trucks on a daily basis is higher than the majority of the rest of the country. We ride with, on a ladder company, a total of six people – one officer and five firefighters and in an engine company with one officer and four firefighters. In lots of other cities around the country, they ride with two or three members on a piece of apparatus, on an engine and on a ladder. So we have more manpower immediately available for anything which is an advantage in New York City. You know. When you have people around to get a job done, it gets done faster and more efficiently. It’s always good to have an extra set of hands around.
RH: Have you participated in any firefighting or other security or anti-terrorism efforts outside of New York City since 9/11?
JC: I was involved in what’s called the Incident Management Team. The New York City Fire Department has an Incident Management Team. So I was involved out west with a couple of wildfires which was an interesting experience. With the Incident Management Team, we were kind of running the Incident Command Post so I wasn’t fighting wildfires, which would have been really cool and would have probably been a whole lot more fun, but I was involved in managing the Incident Command Post and that sort of thing. It was out in northern Arizona and northern New Mexico on two separate occasions. That was interesting getting some experience in a completely different setting with new people and learning how they do business out there. That was pretty interesting.
RH: Cool. So let’s move on a little bit. So let’s talk about your mid-career. As you gained experience as a firefighter, how have you grown?
JC: Well, I started at such a young age, I was just barely out of my teenage years when I started, so I think at that point in your life you haven’t really fully developed as a person, you know? You haven’t fully developed your personality, you haven’t developed as a person and you haven’t become who you’re going to become. I think coming from that point and going through all these experiences in the fire department for the last fourteen years I think that that has molded who I am. The people you’re around are your mentors. The older people that you’re around are your mentors and the things that you see, the behavior that you see, the way people react to situations and the examples that they set on a daily basis will only mold you into who you are.
So I think most of my growth has come during this part of my life where I’ve been in the firehouse and watched other people around me and seen the behaviors and the examples that people have set. So I think that in that way I have grown. And also I think being in this emergency response line of work, you learn how to be calm under pressure, you learn how to act a certain way when you’re in trouble. You get lots of training and all that prepares you. Certainly it shapes who you are. It definitely becomes a part of who you are. Like every job, there’s a culture. There’s a certain demeanor, that sort of group prototype of behavior that you just mold yourself to what that group prototype is and become who the average New York City Firefighter is. That’s the direction you grow in.
RH: What is the most challenging non-operational aspect of being a firefighter?
JC: Human relations, like any organization. I think probably in any organization human relations is probably the biggest challenge. People getting along with people. Personalities, conflicts and people getting along with people. Not to say that I’ve struggled in any particular way. I think that’s something that actually has been a great experience for me. I’ve made tons of friends and the majority of people that I interact with on a daily basis are from the New York City Fire Department. Ninety-nine point nine nine nine percent of my interactions are positive interactions so for me it’s been a hugely positive experience but for some people I think it can be a struggle. There are some people who have a hard time with it. The firehouse can be a brutal place if you don’t interact well with the people around you so thankfully it’s been a positive experience for me but I think for some people it can be a brutal place. It’s human relations, probably, and I don’t think that’s anything unique to the fire department. I’m sure the Marines can be a brutal place for certain people I would imagine.
RH: Yes, definitely. Alright. This maybe kind of piggybacks on that a little bit. What are some of the leadership challenges you’ve faced?
JC: I guess, again, dealing with people and just resolving people’s personal problems. Primarily I think, aside from issues of safety – obviously people’s safety comes first always – but then after that I think my primary concern is to make sure that the people that I work with are taken care of and that their needs and their families are taken care of. Primarily, everyone’s first concern is their families and most of the serious problems that arise are issues of family. Maybe a guy’s having a baby or maybe a guy has a family crisis or something so the most important thing is making sure that if a guy needs time off or if he needs to get off of work that we can get him off of work if he’s got a family issue or something.
And then beyond that there are the smaller issues. When a guy needs to set up his vacation for his wedding or something. These are important life events for people and I’m going to make sure that my guy has off for his wedding, you know? God forbid he has an issue with his schedule and his wedding is involved. It’s a huge event for him. It’s not something that I’m going to let get screwed up.
I think for me, my biggest concern after everybody’s safety, my biggest concern is that everybody’s personal needs are met and that their families are tended to and taken care of. I think once those couple of major issues are squared away, I think that all the other little things just take care of themselves. They’re small things. It’s just an easy fix. Just taking care of the guys and their families. That’s it.
RH: Alright. Cool. So we’re going to move onto a couple of spiritual questions. Has being a firefighter affected you spiritually and, if so, how?
JC: I don’t think so. No. I don’t think there’s any connection between my experiences in the fire department and the way I feel or think spiritually. It really hasn’t changed me. I mean, I’ve never noticed a connection between it. You think it would.
RH: Has being a firefighter changed your perception of life and death and, if so, how?
JC: I’ve experienced a lot of death and it definitely shows you how fragile life is and how quickly it ends and just how brutal the world is, you know? The world is not fair and it is brutal and people die every day who are not supposed to die. It’s really insane in just how fragile it is and just how fast it happens. Somebody who’s going about their daily business who has this really full life and full family, and all of a sudden some random event takes place that ends it [snaps his fingers] at the snap of a finger. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. It’s just so fast and so brutal, you know? It’s kind of sad and it’s not fair and it’s not supposed to happen but people die all over the world every day in a way that’s not supposed to happen.
RH: So to lighten it up a little bit, what are some of the happiest memories you have of being a firefighter?
JC: We’re a very social bunch of people so it’s just years and years of memories of socializing and making friends and being with friends. It’s great. We have lots and lots of events and family events and Christmas parties, picnics, dinner dances, boys’ nights out, trips, so it’s just a constant flow of social events. For example, today. Later on today I’m leaving for a few days to go on a fire department trip, hanging out with some guys from the union, so that’s one of the nice things. Especially since living in the city now, I’m closer to some of the guys I work with so I just see firemen more often now. That’s the nice thing. The trips, the social events, the dinner dances, we call them boys’ nights out. Every couple of months, everyone in the firehouse will go out basically and go out to the bar for a night of drinking and just hang out and have a good time. It’s another way to have fun. That stuff.
When I was younger I used to rent a house down on the Jersey Shore with a whole bunch of guys that I worked with up in Washington Heights. That was in my early twenties and it was so much fun. I met so many guys from the job and had so much fun down there just living it up. There were tons and tons of good memories with lots of great friends.
RH: Do you have any calls that ended particularly well?
JC: Any calls. [thinks about it]
RH: Maybe you went into a situation that you thought was going to be bad and it turned out to be a real positive outcome?
JC: You know, I’ve never been involved in any dramatic rescue or anything like that. That would be an easy answer to have that happen like, “yeah, I saved a person.” It’s funny. You’d think it’d happen more often. It’s rare that you’re involved. You can go twenty years without ever being involved in this dramatic rescue where you happen to be the person that finds a baby in a baby carriage and you go running out of a building with a baby or something like that. That would be a really special event.
That’s never happened to me but I think, on one hand the runs, over the course of your career you go on thousands of runs and it becomes so routine that I think you definitely lose sight of the fact that what is maybe a really big event for somebody else on the receiving end – somebody’s calling you on a really bad day, this might be one of the most scary, traumatic things that’s ever happened to them in their life maybe – and when we show up we solve the problem and we leave without really thinking that much about it. And I think that’s one of the weird things about the fire department, maybe police officers are the same and maybe even the military. You just do your job and it becomes so routine that I don’t think you even remember, I don’t think you even think about how you’ve positively affected somebody and what the impact was on their life.
And I think that’s important. I think that because, on the flip side of that – when things go wrong – when people die or when people’s lives are devastated, we try not to personify that and try not to really think too deeply about the human aspect of that because it would be painful. That maybe is some sort of defense mechanism. So on the positive side, very often we don’t think how positively we’ve impacted. Every now and then you see the stuff in the newspaper where there’s some really great day where a firefighter saves a person and maybe they have this reunite and have a photo op or something. It’s nice for the newspapers but in reality the vast, vast majority of the calls that we go on don’t end that way. It’s just we show up, do our job, if it works out well that’s wonderful and we go home and the guys are smiling and that’s cool but we’re not thinking that deeply about what the impact was to the person. I hope that doesn’t sound callous but I think it’s some sort of psychological defense mechanism that any emergency responder, I think, probably develops. I just assume that – I don’t know. I just take it for granted. I assume that that’s how every other person thinks about it. So I hope I’m not just some callous person but I think that’s how everyone feels. I don’t think that much about the people that I interact with, in that way.
RH: I know. What is the most rewarding part of being a firefighter?
JC: Well, on a big level and completely opposite of what I just said, you do know that, on a big picture level, you know you’re doing good work. I might not think about the specific person and really get into their heads and think about the impact but I know when I take a step back that, at a big picture level, I know I’m doing good things for good people. I’m having a positive impact on the world. That’s obviously really rewarding. It’s hard to think about what I do and say and think about any negative way of framing that. I’m not hurting anybody. To my knowledge I’ve never hurt a single person that I’ve ever interacted with at work. I’m there to make anybody’s life a little better and make their day a little better, mitigate their loss and do whatever I can to help and I’m not there to hurt anyone, ever. So I think it’s easy to feel good about that. It’s hard not to feel good about that. So that’s pretty cool and that’s pretty rewarding.
RH: What are some of the funniest stories you have?
JC: Oh man. We laugh on a daily basis because it’s just all the inside jokes, the firehouse humor, the clowning around and stuff, it’s just a daily sort of routine. I can’t even, off the top of my head, think about all the things I’ve laughed about in the firehouse but it’s a very open, free environment. We are very close with each other so we talk very candidly about our lives and we say things that might not be acceptable in a corporate workplace. We talk very freely and openly about our lives and our thoughts and anything that comes into our head. The pranks and all the jokes and all the nonsense, it’s just a 24/7 sort of routine in the firehouse similar to any organization – police, fire, military. Anything like that. There’s so many jokes and pranks and funny things over the years. We spend a lot of time laughing, I’ll tell you that. If you’re a happy guy in the firehouse you can certainly spend the whole day laughing. It’s pretty cool.
RH: Alright. And here’s a big question and answer it however you want. Since 9/11, how has New York City changed, if at all?
JC: Well, it’s certainly gotten better. I’m not sure if 9/11 has had anything to do with it at all but New York City has prospered tremendously since 9/11. I don’t know if 9/11 had anything to do with that but the neighborhoods are nicer, the real estate has gone up. There’s been lots of new development. There are buildings going up everywhere. The city is beautiful. It’s safe. Lots of new bike lanes, Citi Bike, little things that they’ve done to try to improve people’s lives. I think the city in general has prospered and I’m not sure if 9/11 had anything to do with it. It may have. Maybe 9/11 created some sort of special bond in people’s hearts all over the country and made lots of people want to move to New York City and be part of it. I don’t know. I don’t know if it had anything to do with it.
RH: Alright. I have a couple of questions left. If you could communicate something to young firefighters that would be doing this work in the future, what would it be?
JC: Hmmm. I think one of the things that’s served me well is just learning to have a can-do attitude. If I have a new guy, if I have a probie in the firehouse or a young guy in the firehouse, I just want to instill – without telling him any one specific thing – I think it’s just a matter of coming in and having a can-do attitude and positively framing every situation. You can take any situation and frame it any way you want. You can look at it positively or you can look at it negatively. I try to get guys to get a positive, can-do approach to any problem and situation so that they have a good attitude. I think attitude will take you a long way. I think even if you make a mistake, if you have a good attitude about it and you want to learn from it and take a positive lesson away from your mistake, you can.
So I think what I try to do is keep guys positive, keep their attitudes positive, have this can-do attitude where we can solve any problem. There’s always a silver lining. There’s always a positive way to look at whatever the situation is and I think as long as you take that approach in your job and in life anywhere, I think that you’re going to have a successful outcome. That’s one of the big picture things attitude-wise that I want to instill in our new guys.
RH: Good to go. Alright, is there anything that I left out that you would like to address?
JC: I don’t know. What didn’t we talk about? Let’s see.
RH: You talk a lot and that’s good! [JC and RH laugh] That’s perfect!
JC: Oh man. I don’t know. There’s just so many. You can talk about 9/11 for days. I don’t know. I can’t think of anything I missed.
RH: We can always do a follow up. If anything comes to mind later that you want to put on the record, I’m all about it.
RH: Alright. My last question is, what specific accomplishment are you most proud of during your career as a firefighter?
JC: I think longevity. I haven’t made it nearly as long as lots of other guys. I was talking to a Chief recently, working with a Chief and talking to one of these guys, thirty-five years on the job. I have fourteen so it’s comparatively not a big deal but I think just being able to do the job for long periods of time and making it your life’s work is an accomplishment to me. It’s like finishing the marathon, you know? It’s like, if you can just finish the marathon, if you make it that twenty-six miles that’s an accomplishment. It doesn’t matter what your time is. It doesn’t matter if you ran a two hour marathon or you ran a five hour marathon. Just getting through the struggle, I think, is an accomplishment.
To me, I’m happy that I’ve been able to do this work for fourteen years because as fun as it is, it’s demanding, stressful and at times it can be a struggle. The day in, the day out – especially if you work in a busy place and you’re going on run after run – it can wear you out. It can wear you down and sometimes as fun as it can be being in a firehouse for twenty-four hours, it can be a difficult experience. It can be stressful, especially when you’re younger. The younger years were much tougher. Now I’m starting to get into a groove where now I’m in a sweet spot where I’ve got a little bit of seniority now, I’ve been promoted, so it’s an easier way of life. It’s an easier lifestyle. The quality of life is much better but I think just making it that far, particularly if you make it to twenty years and you make that twenty years, it’s a major benchmark because after twenty years you can retire. I think if you have that kind of longevity that’s a major accomplishment. I’d like to stay as long – we can stay until we’re sixty-five – I’d like to stay until I’m sixty-five if I can make it, if I can do it. If I can make it that long that’s what I’d like to do. It’s a great way of life and it’s a fun job and it’s a cool thing.
But I think to me, the way I view this, sometimes I think, “wow! I can’t believe I made it through this thing for fourteen years.” I’ll hopefully do maybe thirty more years. I’m hoping that that’s possible, I don’t get hurt, that I don’t get worn out, I don’t lose my mind or whatever. Hopefully I can just keep it going. I think longevity is a huge accomplishment in the fire department.
RH: Alright, good to go! Anything else?
RH: Alright man. Well, thank you very much!