Firemen Go Through Hell for John Romero and That's Just How He Wants It
Vulgar, insulting, sulfuric, Romero, 48, is a retired Tampa fire captain who feels his leather-lunged urgency is required by his mission: to teach fire-fighters to survive under deadly conditions. "Ninety percent of all firemen have claustrophobia when they first put on face masks," he says. "We teach them to function anyway. At the crucial moment they have to have that extra shove." Dennis R. Dewar, chief of Florida's Bureau of Fire Standards and Training, points out that contemporary dangers demand special preparedness. "Fighting a grass fire is one thing," he says. "Qualifying to save lives—including your own—in a high-rise disaster is something else."
The Fire College solution is Romero's grueling, week-long Smoke Divers course, which since 1972 has attracted students from all over the U.S. The centerpiece of the course is the 46-foot-high smoke tower, whose tangle of ropes, doors and movable walls is intended to represent a warren of tenement rooms. Nearby is the hellish "burn building," where temperatures range from 250 degrees at ground level to 1,400 degrees near the top. "We've had some dropouts," says Dewar. "The word has gotten around that you'd better be in shape for this course, or you'll never make it."
At every step, Romero and his team of instructors goad students to the limits of their endurance. "Go in low to protect yourself, search, make rescue, and get out," he commands before ordering a group of men into a smoke-darkened room to retrieve a 115-pound mannequin. "The most dangerous fire-fighting is in the ghettos," he says, "when a fire in one little jammed-up place can lead to 15 more. That's where a firefighter has to get his shit together. You can't run."
Square-jawed and straight as a spike, Romero can't remember a time when he didn't want to be a fireman. Growing up poor in West Tampa, he begged his parents to take him past the firehouse every chance so he could admire the shiny equipment. He joined the department in 1955. "That was the biggest day of my life," he says. "I felt the way other men feel about their wedding day or their first child." After 34 days on the job, he inhaled a pesticide while fighting a fire in a fertilizer plant. "I got the last rites, and was told I would die," he recalls. "I said no from my oxygen tent, but I felt if I had to die doing my job, that's what I would want. Not for the glory or for mankind. I was put here to be a firefighter."
Recovering, Romero went up through the ranks, and turned to teaching in 1962. Divorced and remarried, the father of three children, he still savors the rough pleasures of his trade. "The fun," he explains, "is in all the harassment and the joking among us. If you goof up, you're ribbed mercilessly. You take it and smile and say, 'My turn next time.' This is the joy—your friends, enemies, subordinates, peers rubbing it in and getting it back. The hotter the station, the happier the crew."