Stories From the Fireground as Told by O2X Instructors


Most memorable call? A challenging day on the job? An experience that made doing your job “worth it” or just felt really great? A few of our O2X Human Performance Instructors “tell all” and share some of their firehouse memories. Check them out below. 

Stories from the Fireground

Justin Herzog, O2X Lead Instructor

I’m often asked what’s the craziest, grossest, or most disgusting thing I’ve seen during my career as a firefighter. All of us have seen way too much of all of that, but I’d rather not relive or share that stuff. I usually choose to share the times I know for a fact we made a difference for someone. Remembering those times has actually proven to be a great way to help in processing all the calls and experiences I’d rather forget.

Fortunately for me, I had a few of those memorable calls early in my career. One of them started on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in the Rancho Bernardo neighborhood of San Diego. I was assigned to Engine 33 that day. We were down the street from the firehouse, picking up lunch, when we got toned out for a “motorcycle down.” The location was not far from the shopping center we were in, so we jumped on the rig, and a couple minutes later we arrived at the scene, with the ambulance.

When we showed up, we saw a clean looking Harley Davidson laying in the middle of the intersection, and a man laying flat on his back about 30 feet from the bike. We went into action, holding c-spine and stripping him to check for injuries. We loaded him onto a backboard, gurney, and into the ambulance. 

My firefighter paramedic partner and I rode along to the hospital. We couldn’t help but notice our patient had a Marine Corp bracelet on his wrist, labeled with the name of a fallen brother in combat, and was wearing a pair of seemingly brand new pink boxers. We liked this guy, and we were pulling for him to be alright.

We dropped him off at the hospital a few minutes later in full c-spine precautions, unconscious, but breathing on his own, and with a stable set of vital signs. We passed him onto the hospital staff and got back on the rig, waiting for the next emergency.  Usually, for us, that’s where the call, and our connection to the citizens we serve, ends.  But we were intrigued by this particular patient and the circumstances surrounding his life and accident.

A couple days later, we called the hospital he was admitted to, trying to follow up on what happened to him. And a month later he came limping into 33s to say thank you and to tell us what had happened to him.  

His name is Dave Smith, former Marine Corp Gunnery Sergeant, who at that time was working at the Marine Corp Recruiting Depot near downtown San Diego. Dave had been rear-ended by a drunk driver while he was stopped at a red light. He told us the extent of his injuries, which were many, with the most severe being an internal decapitation. That injury had already earned him the nickname “Decap” with his fellow Marines, appropriately. 

We spent a couple hours that afternoon laughing at his stories from the hospital, past deployments, and of course his pink underwear. We took a picture with him in front of Engine 33, with all the guys that had responded on the call, and he introduced us to his fiance. A few months later, a few of us were at their wedding, witnesses to not only Dave’s survival, but his recovery and resilience.

We rarely get to see the outcome of people’s lives after they dial 911, and way too often the outcome is not a positive one. The day Dave needed 911, we showed up, didn’t do anything extraordinary, we just did our jobs. His outcome has become a reminder for me that in spite of all the things we see, smell, hear, and experience that we wish we could forget, sometimes we actually make a difference; sometimes we see things we hope we never forget. 

When people ask, I share that part of what it’s like being 911.

Billy Hegedus, O2X Instructor (FDNY)

I would say about 95% of the calls we go on are not fire-related. With that said, you have to be ready for anything that comes your way. I always hate when people say we “run in when everyone runs out.” That’s movie talk. Think about it this way – if you’re calling me, I’ll bet you’re having one of the worst days of your life. We have to be problem solvers.

My story doesn’t involve fire and not even a time I was with the FDNY. I was about 24 years old, living in New Jersey, and I was about to leave to meet friends. I was a volly at the time, so the pager went off and the call came in for a person trapped in a vehicle. Now, living in Jersey we were surrounded by highways, so this was a routine call. My father was driving, and I was in the officer seat. As we were about halfway there we heard the chief call for a heavy wrecker with a crane. Something sounded off – usually it was a simple door pop or a dash roll. 

As we pulled up, I saw an 18-wheeler pulling a load with heavy HVAC systems on it. The passenger side back wheel had crushed and was still on top of a smaller car. So that was something out of the ordinary. My heart started to race, my mind got thinking, and then it hit me. A young girl was pinned in the driver seat with that wheel on top of her. This changes everything.

She shouldn’t have been alive, but she was. I remember grabbing the air bags and just watching the truck laugh at them as they wouldn’t work. I felt helpless. The crane was 45 minutes away. So we went to Plan B, and we cut the roof off around the girl so the medic could attend to her. 

I’ve learned throughout the years, when on a scene, to block things out. This time I couldn’t. I remember being at the hood of the car trying to think of a way to get her out. I turned my head towards the car and as the medics were working her up, we locked eyes. She took off her oxygen mask and mouthed the words, “Don’t let me die.”

That moment changed everything once again. I had to hold back the tears, and all I could say back to her is, “I got you.” After that, minutes felt like hours waiting for that crane. We were making plans on what to do, and I told the crew I wanted to be the one to cut when the crane got there.

Finally it was there. Those guys were great. They knew what they had to do, and within five minutes I found myself between the tractor-trailer and the car. I had to make a few final cuts to free her feet. Just as I made the last cut and they pulled her out, she grabbed my arm and said thank you. 

That moment will live on with me forever. She lived, and she came out of this with no major injuries. I found out later that she was going to class to be a nurse. It’s crazy how one moment you’re making plans, going to school, just living life, and the next you cross paths with a stranger you will remember for the rest of your life . 

This job will definitely take a hold on you, but it’s the little things like this that make you come back for more. 

CJ Hilliard, O2X Assistant Instructor

Where I am, we have a few fires. Most are your “typical” residential, but occasionally we have a different kind of fire that sticks in my memory. One of these was around April of 2020, towards the beginning of the pandemic. It’s when I first realized that, when it comes to probability of people being home, time of day didn’t really matter anymore.

It was around 10am on a weekday when tones dropped for a structure fire at an apartment complex in our district. I was stepping-up to drive the engine that day, which means I was responsible for getting us to any emergencies and supplying water to the guys inside. Usually, a fire so early in the day is still fairly small because it is noticed by someone driving by or in the building itself; so that’s what we were expecting.

There was no smoke visible as we left the station, which further supported our assumption that it would be something small. It wasn’t until we rounded a curve about a half mile away from the apartment and saw thick black smoke rolling across the road that we got an idea of what we were facing. About this time, we’re getting updates from dispatch that PD is on scene saying people are trapped.

We pull up to a 2-story apartment complex with fire blowing through the roof, people gathering all around, and PD yelling about the people trapped inside. Because our first priority is always life-safety, the captain and firefighter pull our extension ground ladder and get ready to make a rescue. The police office had told us the people were just inside the window of an apartment across the breezeway from the main fire, which was filling with smoke. All the while, I’m pulling a handline and getting ready to pump the next-in crew, when PD starts yelling the people are now further into the apartment, on what we refer to as the “delta” side.

I grab our roof ladder and take it to the window the officer had been pointing to, when I feel a hand on my shoulder from my captain to let me know he’d handle the rest. The rest of the call was a blur. I remember being back at my engine as the next crew was picking up the handline and making their way to the fire. I remember pulling the backup line for another crew, getting water to the truck, and a handful of other tasks. But what I really remember is the way I felt once those tasks were completed and I had a moment to breathe. 

It felt surreal. Like someone else had been doing all of those things and I had just watched. It felt as if there was still more to do, even though there wasn’t. I went through my checklist in my head, asked others around me, and found I had done my part. The crews had their water. The rescues had been made. Everything else was set, and I could breathe. 

Scott Ziegler, O2X Assistant Instructor

It is really hard for me to pinpoint one story from my career as a firefighter to tell you. I have so many – from fire stories, to stories of things that happened around the firehouse. The bulk of my career has been spent in some pretty wild places. Some of the busier parts of the country, as far as fire fighting goes. With that comes some pretty wild stories. 

I could tell you about the time we had so many fires in a day that we were transporting hose lines and air bottles to scenes in our personal trucks and never saw the station. Or the time we fought a fire in an abandoned chocolate factory for three straight days, eating nothing but $5 hot and ready pizzas and hot dogs from a Salvation Army truck. 

Or I could share about all of the times I spent sleeping on the hose bed or in the middle of a street on long drawn out surround and drowns. I once had to leave a fire on foot and walk two blocks to another fire, passing up a building that was on fire that no one was fighting. Or that time I was advancing a hose line through a house fire and could see another building on fire on the next block through the window, one that we didn’t even know about. 

Or what about the warehouse where I spent five years working from, calling it a “fire station” that whole time. I slept in a tent for three months inside that building before I built my own room. 

We had a guy get in our rig at a fire and try to drive away with it. Someone shut off our hydrant while we were operating inside a house fire. I watched my coworker tackle an arsonist as he ran out of the building we were about to go fight fire in. 

How about all the holidays spent at the firehouse instead of with my family? Going from one fire to another, to another, to another, sometimes with just two of us and one engine. We’ve had two houses on one street four doors apart, basement fire in one and an attic in the other. We somehow managed to put them both out. Then there’s the wet gear, and nights so cold and so long that you kind of want to quit and go home. 

Sometimes when I tell these stories, I figure people probably don’t even believe me. Or maybe they think I am being braggadocious (it’s a word, I checked). And that’s okay.

Because what I’ve gained out of these stories is much more than just a bunch of stories. 

I decided to work in places that aren’t pretty, and with that came tough times and struggles. 

But those struggles were always shared with some of the best people I will ever know. We did all of it together, and shared struggles like that are the ones that form the strongest bonds. The stories are fun to tell, but those relationships are where the real value is for me. I am lucky to have taken the path I have in this career. I’ve traveled down a road a lot of people told me wasn’t worth it. It was. This is the best job I’ve ever had.