The Sitdown: Raul Ochoa, Chicago firefighter

SHARE The Sitdown: Raul Ochoa, Chicago firefighter

As an 18-year veteran of the Chicago Fire Department, the 41-year-old second district relief lieutenant has rushed into burning buildings, saved lives and been badly injured. He has also witnessed a lot of suffering and death. At this point, though, it doesn’t faze him like it once did. Ups and downs, he says, are all part of the job — one that’s open to applicants (until Sept. 16) for the first time in a decade.

I didn’t grow up in a neighborhood with firefighters. I didn’t know any.

A guy I knew from high school, his father was a lieutenant on the fire department, but it wasn’t until I saw that they were hiring [in 1995] that I showed any interest.

There were 35,000 applications returned and around 25,000 actually showed up for the job. So the chances were slim.

I was lucky enough to get called in the second class, which was a year later.

I thought initially you wouldn’t get tossed into the fire right away, but no. As soon as you hit the street, you’re doing the job.

The first few calls you get are your most nerve-racking. After that, you kind of get comfortable. And even though your adrenaline still pumps when you see that fire or you see that call that you have to be on, you’re able to overcome it and just perform, do the job, do what’s necessary.

I remember my first fire. We were a single engine company. I had been on the street probably for three months. I started out in a slower area. We had done quite a bit of other work like car accidents and train derailments and hazardous materials. Plenty of medical runs. But I hadn’t seen that first fire yet.

So three months into it I catch my first fire. Flames, heavy smoke, single engine. We’re waiting for that [other] truck to make it in and ventilate for us.

[It’s] pitch black, we came around the corner and all you see is red.

[There’s] a lot of adrenaline, a lot of excitement. You want to perform. You don’t want to make mistakes, and you just want to get the job done. And once it’s over, you’re on a high for at least a couple days. You did your work. You feel like you earned your paycheck.

After the fire’s out and it’s done, you feel good. Nobody got hurt; you saved somebody’s property. If you were able to get somebody out of the fire, that’s also a natural high and you feel good about yourself.

You can have some good fires and then you just come up short on another fire, where you feel fatigued and you can’t work any longer; you’re looking for relief.

For the most part the effort is there. And sometimes, just physically, you fatigue faster than other times. But you always strive to give 100 percent.

Every day that you can come here and go back home to your family — that’s a good day.

Back in 2002, I was at a high-rise fire. And when we forced entry, we were on the 14th floor. The wind was pretty strong that day, and it was a wind-driven fire that roared down the hallway. There were about 8 of us on that landing, and I was at the front. I was the one that forced entry. So when we [did], there was someone behind the door. We were trying to get this person out the door. Well, the fire roared down the hallway like a torch and we basically had to abandon the floor, otherwise more of us would have gotten seriously injured and some of us might have not made it out. So I ended up jumping on the line, trying to put it on the fire. But the wind was too strong. It was a lot stronger than the hose line.

I had second- and third-degree [steam] burns from roughly just above the knee to halfway up the thigh on both legs and ended up getting skin grafts and ended up being in the hospital for ten days, off the job for about three months.

That was probably the worst day on the fire department.

I can still remember just about everything that happened that day. I can remember the date, the time, everybody that was in that hallway.

There was a never a doubt [about] going back to it.

When I went back to work, the first fire I saw after that, there was a little bit of having to get over that mental aspect of what had happened.

It’s just something that’s in my past. I don’t think about it. I know what happened. But I’m not as leery as I was initially coming back. I’ve overcome it.

I like to think that in many aspects it helped me, because now I knew what could happen, so I was able to look for the signs of danger. Whereas in the past, it was nothing I ever thought about.

I thought nothing could ever happen. I thought I would never get hurt. But after that happened, I was a little more cautious.

A lot of times you find someone and they don’t make it. But there’ve been times when I’ve brought people down ladders or I’ve gone into a unit where there’s heavy smoke but the fire’s elsewhere and you’re able to bring them out to safety.

In your mind, you feel like you did something good. But I don’t feel as if I did anything extraordinary that any other firefighter couldn’t have done. It’s just part of the job.

I’ve seen people under trains. I’ve seen people in horrible accidents. I’ve seen drowning victims. So I’ve seen a lot of sorrow.

In a way, you get desensitized to it.

Sometimes I see these young guys come on the job and they see their first horrible accident and you can see it in the look on their face that it’s bothering them. And I always thought that the best way to get over that is to come back and talk about it. It’s kind of a way to do stress debriefing in an informal setting.

Before I was married and before I had kids, I would see stuff [involving kids] and it didn’t impact me as it does now, because now I have a 6-year-old and a 4-year-old. So if I do see a child — and I have seen children, unfortunately, not make it out of some fires — I think back to my kids.

I remember the first time I did CPR on somebody. I would always ask, “Did they make it?” And I was surprised that they didn’t make it.

But that’s just the way the job is, that’s the way life is. You’re not going to be able to save everybody.

I truly love coming to work. If you can do a job and you don’t feel like it’s work, I think you’ll live a pretty good life.

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