Sunday, November 15, 2009

Redux #3 - "Working Fire" by Zac Unger

Now that I'm on my firefighting kick, there will no doubt be a portion of my reading devoted to all things fire. Just tonight I was dutifully searching the internet trying to find the reality television show about the Orange County Fire Academy, and I was a little too excited when I finally found it. Definitely intense and intimidating, but I was disappointed that there weren't any women in the class. It's easier to compare myself to other women, and I wanted to see how challenging it was for them. Oh well, when I get a chance I'll search out other seasons. By now the reason I picked up Working Fire: The Making of an Accidental Fireman (2004) by Zac Unger is probably obvious. I've decided I want to be a firefighter, but my legal background has not adequately prepared me for what I might be getting myself into. I'm also afraid that I'm too skinny to ever really be a firefighter, so I'm trying to learn anything and everything that I can through any possible medium.

Working Fire appealed to me because the author, Zac Unger, is a Brown grad and the son of two Berkeley-hippieish intellectuals. He did not have a background in fire, knew no one who was a firefighter, and kind of decided on a bit of a whim to become one. But he succeeded and continues to enjoy his job today. I was somewhat relieved that someone I could relate to in many ways found success at the firehouse. Unger tells the story of how, at his mother's suggestion, he chose to apply to the Oakland Fire Department instead of going to graduate school in Biology and becoming a Park Ranger. He realized that he was suffering through Biology and animal science, something he was not interested in, just so he could have a physical, outdoor job, but that it wasn't what he really wanted to do. After an application process that lasted almost two years, Unger is accepted into the Fire Academy, which includes four months of intense physical training, EMT training, and fire training. After this training there is a year spent as a "probie" (probationary officer) at different fire stations in the city before becoming a "real" firefighter.

Unger does a lot of good things with this book. With a number of entertaining anecdotes he develops a good picture of what it's like to be a firefighter including the stress, difficulties cameraderie, and monotony. I especially enjoyed the self-deprecating stories about the often embarassing mistakes he made as a rookie. I also appreciated Unger's point of view, especially when it came to the Academy. Unger had never even called anyone "sir" before he was thrown into the militaristic, bootcamp-style academy. The instructors were yelling in his face on the first day and Unger was thinking, wait a minute, shouldn't we sit around in circles and talk about our goals and fears?

I was incredibly interested whenever the book went into what firefighters do and how they do it. I was also interested in Unger's take as someone who was something of an "outsider." However, I felt the weaker areas were near the end where Unger tries to sum-up and explain his experiences. I got the feeling that he was more enamored with the image of his job than the actual job and I sometimes sensed a lack of honesty. But on the whole, it was a quick, entertaining, and informative read.

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