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Why We're Still So Captivated By Firefighters

Giaco Furino for Tacoma FD
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Illustration: Ramóna Udvardi

From our childhoods spent playing with fire trucks in the sandbox, to the myriad firefighting “hero dramas” in film and television, it feels like we spend our whole lives fascinated by firefighters. But are the brave men and women who fight fires, rescue the defenseless, and get you back into your locked car always the stoic, self-serious heroes we imagine? Or do they know how to have fun in their downtime?

“When a firefighter comes to your house, we show up and we’re the good guys,” says Lt. Bill Heffernan of the West Hampton Fire Department, who also serves as creative consultant (and cousin to one of the stars of) the new truTV firefighting comedy series Tacoma FD. “We’re the ones who are gonna help you if you’re sick or hurt, we’re the ones who are gonna put the fire out, pump flood water out of your basement, or get your keys out of your car if you locked them in.”

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But heroism, courage, and helpfulness aside, firefighters are also known for another incredible trait: they’re masters of pranks. As the crew in Tacoma FD illustrate, there’s plenty of down time, and with down time comes plenty of time to think up elaborate pranks to pull on each other.

Steve, an active firefighter with the FDNY (who asked that we not use his last name), says pranking is just a natural part of the daily life of a firefighter. From scraping the creme out of Oreos and replacing it with toothpaste, to poking holes right toward the top of a milk jug so a small stream will pour out whenever someone goes to use it, getting the one up on your fellow crew members becomes a sort of right of passage. “If you forget your work duty shirt and leave it lying around,” Steve explains, “a lot of times it’ll end up in a bowl of water and shoved into the freezer.” And the prank-punishment for leaving bunker gear around is even more severe: “pants, boots, coat, and helmet all up hanging from the ceiling” requiring hauling out the ladder to retrieve your gear.

And what of the strange calls firefighters receive on a daily basis? Steve says he’s dealt with extremely drunk men vomiting on themselves, prank-pulls of the fire alarm in high schools, and of particular note, a call from a woman complaining of a gas leak. “We opened up the hallway door to the stairs above us and it’s very obviously really heavy weed. It’s almost like someone was trying to hotbox the entire stairwell. And she goes ‘Yeah, that’s it! You can smell it right?’ This is definitely not the kind of gas you’re looking for, but it’s strong, it’s definitely dank gas.”

In spite of (or maybe inspired by) all of this wackiness, Steve is still awestruck by the experience. “I get on the back of this rig every tour and I look at what I’m wearing, the things I’m doing, the codes I’ve learned, the tools I know how to use, the processes, these things floating around in my head and these pieces of clothing that I get to wear, and it blows my mind every day. It’s the greatest job in the world. I’ve loved jobs before but never like this.”

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When Kevin Heffernan and Steve Lemme set out to make their firefighter comedy Tacoma FD — about a group of firefighters with too much downtime in the world’s rainiest city — they took into account all of the above sentiments, heroic and playful. And even though their firefighters play pranks on each other and goof around, they’re competent, smart, and good at their jobs. To see them in action (and in inaction) tune in to Tacoma FD on truTV on Thursdays at 10:30pm.

Giaco Furino is Senior Writer for Studio@Gizmodo.

This post is a sponsored collaboration between Tacoma FD and Studio@Gizmodo.

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