Contact theSOPAbout theSOPSupport theSOPWritersEditorsManaging Editors
theSOP logo
Published:October 22nd, 2005 10:12 EST
To Hell And Back--Every Day

To Hell And Back--Every Day

By Maria Marchisello

From Childhood Fascination to Career

The sirens, the flashing lights, the smell of soot in the air—as a young child, Robert Marchisello was fascinated by firefighters. This enthrallment is shared by many children throughout the world. However, very few of them actually turn it into a career, which is exactly what Marchisello has done for the past 33 years. At 57 years-old, he has gone from being an infatuated little boy to commanding respect as a Battalion Chief with the Philadelphia Fire Department.

Upon joining the department, he experienced much of the good-natured joking and hazing that every rookie receives, which included having his bed dragged through the halls at 60 miles per hour. His many years in the department have given Marchisello a deeper insight into why this joking behavior is so important in the firehouse. For firefighters, it seems, jokes are a way of coping with the ever-present danger that their job entails.

“We condition ourselves,” Marchisello says. “We joke around a lot. I always felt [it was important] that as a supervisor, when we were in a tense situation, [to] try and make light of it by saying a joke, cracking on somebody…You need that release mechanism.”

As a Battalion Chief, he now finds himself taking on more administrative responsibilities than the equipment checks that filled his younger days in the department. His daily duties include consulting logs, memorandums, and what he calls “the book,” which contains all the quotas and staffing information regarding the 10 fire companies for which Marchisello is accountable.

Further information is shared via daily telephone calls from the Deputy Chief’s aide. The Deputy Chief is Marchisello’s superior officer, and through his aide, crucial information is given concerning the number of firefighters working during any given shift.

With these routine matters taken care of, Marchisello—or “B.C. Bob,” as he is affectionately known—then takes on his daily “rounds.” These rounds consist of visiting each and every station under his command to check-up on the firefighters, as well as deliver mail. Though this may sound like a relatively simple task, rounds can actually take about 4 hours to complete.  Also, like any good boss, Marchisello takes an interest in the personal problems and conflicts of his firefighters. Sick days, overtime and inter-firefighter conflicts are just some of the issues for which his guidance is sought.

Do not be fooled by these seemingly commonplace duties, though. Marchisello’s average day is, in actuality, anything but.

Average, But Not Ordinary

Marchisello’s station receives an average of 5 “runs” per day. “Run” is the term firefighters use for the emergencies that they respond to. These runs constitute many different situations, including (but certainly not limited to) fires, medical emergencies, automobile accidents, people trapped on building ledges, babies locked in cars, and yes, cats stuck in trees. Most of the time, firefighters are on the scene within 5 minutes of the initial call for help.

Clearly, the average day of a firefighter can never be called boring. While it seems gloriously exciting on paper, the gritty reality of this line of work must not be forgotten. When interviewing potential firefighters, Marchisello always gives his own brand of blunt, but necessary, advice.

“I’ve been spit on, cursed at, defecated on, urinated on, vomited on, and was bathed in blood in my career,” he says gravely. “I’ve seen people mangled in car wrecks, run over by subway trains, [people] that fell from extreme heights, drownings. So, one of the things that I try to tell prospective employees is, ‘If you can’t take that, perhaps this is not the job for you.’”

Not All Battle Scars Are Physical

For Marchisello, one of his earliest experiences as a young firefighter is one that he considers the most personally traumatic. On August 17, 1975—the day after his 27th birthday—Marchisello was among the many firefighters battling the 7 alarm blaze at Philadelphia’s Gulf Refinery. The tragedy saw the department lose 8 firefighters, including Ralph Campana, a friend of Marchisello’s who he had last seen that very morning.

It is not the memory of the fire that haunts Marchisello, but rather the memory of just a few months earlier.

“The whole summer before, we played ball on, of all places, the refinery’s field. Ralph played third base, I played first base, and Ralph always used to throw me curve balls during warm-ups to make me chase the balls—you know, kid around with me. And I [can] still picture Ralph on third base, throwing that ball, with the flare of the refinery behind him.”

For firefighters, each new day holds an infinite number of possibilities and dangers, which are bravely faced for the safety of others. There is no doubt that it is an extraordinary career path for an extraordinary few.

And as for everyone else, even the tiniest of cubicles must seem like a luxury right about now.