FIRE CHIEF JAMES SZAFARCZYK, JANUARY 28, 2007
Since the tragedy of 9/11 raised America’s collective conscience as to the genuine dangers faced daily by our heroic firefighters, it is difficult to consider any firehouse strictly as we did as children: as a fun and fascinating field trip.
Still, the profusion of hoses, gleaming fire trucks, action photos on the billboards and easy banter among that band of brothers, the firefighters, reminds us all (boys, anyway) why ‘fireman’ was the most common answer to “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
The Visionalist crew was lucky enough to film a day in the life of Hamtramck’s Fire Chief, James Szafarczyk, who carried the dream of all those elementary schoolboys to its maximum. A firefighter since 1973, Szafarczyk was appointed chief five years ago, and has maintained the integrity and safety of his personnel while protecting the lives and property of Hamtramck’s citizens. Incidentally, beside bearing responsibility for putting out all fires, inspecting the causes of all fires, identifying potential fire hazards, the Hamtramck Fire Department is also charged with responding to health emergencies and coordinating all state of emergency activities. As such, it’s members are trained in many aspects of the paramedical field.
Founded in 1857, Hamtramck’s fire department was at one time responsible for a huge portion of the east side, all the way to the river. These days, it covers only the city of Hamtramck, which of itself is no small task: In 2005, the Hamtramck Fire Department responded to approximately 2,600 emergency runs. The firefighting division consists of 24 men divided into 2 units of 12 men per unit. Of the seven men on duty at any given time, one man is assigned to the dispatch position while six men to respond to an alarm. All high hazard alarms are responded to with an engine and the aerial platform; while ordinary hazards have two engines responding. All building fires have two engines and the aerial platform responding.
As we filmed Chief Szafarczyk, his dedication to his career, to his city and to his heritage are all obvious. He recalls his early days on the job, when most of his fellow firefighters were Polish, and Saturday meals at the station house invariably meant kielbasa and Sunday’s chicken soup. “These days,” he says with a nostalgic grin, “Some of the new guys never even heard of kielbasa.”
The patron saint of firefighters all over the world is St. Florian, who also happens to the patron saint of Poland. This fortunate coincidence works in favor of the Hamtramck fire department, who has never lost a firefighter to a fire. The church of St. Florian plays an important symbolic role to the department, for obvious reasons, and on the celebration of St. Florian’s birthday the first Saturday of May, the fire department plays an important part of the parade, complete with bagpipes and fire trucks.
During the course of our interview, Chief Szafarczyk proudly displayed the holy medal of St. Florian that he wears around his neck.
Like all of us, the events of 9/11 deeply affected Chief Szafarczyk, but in his case, as a firefighter, all the more profoundly. “You are forced to ask yourself, ‘could this happen here’, and then to realize that it could. We all know what it is like to walk into a burning building, blinded by smoke, not knowing if you’ll come back out. But it’s our sworn duty to try help anyone trapped inside, so we do it. My heart bleeds for my brother firefighters who went into those Trade Towers and did not come back out. And of course, for their families.”