- Cullman, Alabama

March 31, 2013

Firefighting and baseball

Bryan Cain: I sure didn’t want a desk job

By Loretta Gillespie
The Cullman Times

— When you look at Bryan Cain you can tell that he was a baseball player. There’s just something about his posture, a laid-back, rangy demeanor that reminds you of all the baseball movies you’ve ever seen, Kevin Costner, Dennis Quaid, people like that. He’s one of those people who can probably reach up and catch a flyball with one hand while holding an ice cream cone in the other and toss it back in one fluid motion without missing a beat.

He did, in fact, play baseball for Cullman High School, Gadsden Junior College and the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). Oddly enough for a jock, he was also a music major at UAB.

After college he worked at ABM Graphics for three years but his heart just wasn’t in it. It was a co-worker at ABM who suggested that he apply for a job as a firefighter. It was a good call — he’s been at it for almost 24 years now.

“Firefighting was the closest thing I could find to baseball,” he mused recently, while sharing a cup of coffee. “I’m drawn to this kind of work. It’s like baseball in that no one guy can make a ball team, and no one guy can make up a fire squad — and I sure didn’t want a desk job.”

He married his college sweetheart, Michele Moses, a volleyball player from Ft. Walton, Florida. She was the best thing that ever happened to Cain. The couple wed in 1986. But in 1988, when they decided to have a family, they returned to Cain’s hometown. “We didn’t want to raise our kids in Birmingham,” he said. “I’ve never worried about my kids here in Cullman. This place has a real community mind-set. People watch out for one another.”

Michele Cain is a registered nurse. At one time she worked in an intensive care unit, so she understands the stress of her husband’s job.

The life of a firefighter's wife is not an easy one, but Michele Cain says, "I know that he is well-trained, and that he is exceptionally competent in his job. I know that he takes care of himself and his men, and because of our faith, I know that God has his back."

The Cains have two children, Chris, who is now 23 years old and in his last semester at Bethel University in Tennessee, on a baseball scholarship. Daughter, Amanda, 20, is a junior at the University of North Alabama, majoring in accounting.

Cain attended firefighter “rookie school” in Florence, and was certified as a Firefighter 1, in May, 1989. He fought his first major fire even before he was out of school.

Now a captain in the Cullman Fire and Rescue Department, Cain credits Captain Johnny Heinl with teaching him to become a real firefighter.

Others who played a huge part in Cain’s career are Sergeant Richard Nixon, engineer/apparatus operator.

“Larry Bowen, and Don Miller taught me how to be a captain,” he said. “They showed me how to handle a fire scene and a crew.”

Chief Junior Reinhardt helped Cain to see what he calls “the big picture” which is, in his words, “being able to prioritize what is necessary in order to help the most people in the most efficient way.”

An example of what exactly the big picture to which he is referring, is the sudden ice/snow storm of 2010. His crew had responded to a wreck on Highway 157 near Highway 31. “The road was blocked by the wreck, it was rush hour, and people couldn’t get up the stockyard hill because it got iced over so fast.”

Cain knew that the situation was going to get worse. Traffic was backed up and weather conditions deteriorated as darkness quickly approached. If the rescue workers and firefighters couldn’t get the road cleared and traffic moving, they would have bigger problems ahead. “I knew that we had to get the wreck cleared, the roads sanded, and the traffic moving because that is a major route to Cullman Regional Medical Center. We had to clear a way for ambulances and emergency vehicles to get there,” said Cain.

As tension and traffic mounted, Captain Cain and his crew literally, physically, pushed each westbound vehicle up the iced-over stockyard hill. In the opposite lane drivers brave (or crazy) enough to have attempted the downhill side of the highway were slipping and sliding sideways, presenting a very real danger to both themselves and the team of men who were pushing cars uphill only yards away.

It took a while, but as soon as the wreck was cleared, making way for the sand trucks, the roadway was prepared for the brunt of the coming storm.

More recently, a fire truck was stuck in a ditch. “Anderson Hill was jammed. There was a Street Department front-end loader there with a supervisor. They cleared a lane for us so we could get traffic cleared off Childhaven Road. Four ambulances used it to get to the hospital,” he said. “It was a real team effort.”

Captain Cain has worked both those winter weather events. In each one, all the city and county volunteer fire departments worked well together, sometimes going into each other’s normal jurisdiction when emergency situations called for it. “Technically, the interstate is covered by the local volunteer department nearest to the emergency, but in severe cases like these, we all help each other when and wherever possible.”

Cain takes every aspect of his job very seriously. “My philosophy for being a captain is that it's my job to make my guys successful at what they do,” he said. “My job is seeing the strengths and weaknesses and utilizing those strengths for the benefit of the team, and in helping them to overcome the weaknesses.”

His team consists of a driver and three firefighters, and himself. “Two of those firefighters are rookies. My job is to train them successfully.”

Cain says that the drop-out rate among rookie firefighters is high. Often this is not the glamour job that television and Hollywood movies depict. “They think they know what they are getting into but when they face that first fire, some just realize that this isn’t for them,” he said.

“Our job is to come into a bad situation and get it stabilized,” he explained. “We actually see more medical calls now than we do fires. Everyone on the team is an Emergency Medical Technician, (EMT) and some are also paramedics.”

He gathered his thoughts carefully. “One of my chief complaints about firefighting is that, for some reason, people tend to have the mindset that fire is hotter in New York City than it is in Cullman, Alabama,” he said. “But a structure fire is the same anywhere.

“Most firefighters who die in a structure fire have less than five years experience, which means that they don’t know enough yet, or they have more than 20 years on the job, and they get complacent.”

Learning such things as how to judge a structure fire’s location, how to tell if a wall is stable, or read a building, can mean life or death for a firefighter.

Crew members learn to depend on one another, to trust each other with their very lives.

“Even Jesus developed a team of good men throughout his ministry,” Cain said in example. “He prepared them to take over when He left, and part of my job is to prepare my guys to function without me in the event that I am hurt or absent for some reason.”

Again, he refers to his team being a strong unit. “Firefighter Gary Mikus will make a great captain, someday,” Cain predicted. “He already has an award for EMT/Firefighter of the year, as does Firefighter Tim Richards.”

Firefighters work 24-hour shifts, then are off for 48 hours before starting all over again, meaning that every third night they can expect to be wakened at least once. "Recently retired Capt. Larry Bowen commented that he had pretty much forgotten what it’s like to sleep through the night when I ask him how he was enjoying his retirement," laughed Cain.

Not all calls result in fighting an actual fire or a serious medical emergency. Some are false alarms; others are minor situations that can be quickly resolved. However, the fire and rescue teams treat each one as if it’s an emergency. They have to wake up from a sound sleep and be able to launch into emergency-mode at the sound of the bell.

"We run medical calls to try to help supplement CEMS, and we all work to support each other,” he explained. “When we have a structure fire, the ambulance crew always responds to the scene. We also work well with the police department and provide medical support for the TAC team.”

Fire, police and medical units don’t get holidays, there has to be a unit on duty at all times. "We miss holidays with our families to keep Cullman safe."

The day of the tornado that devastated downtown Cullman, Cain was off duty. “I was watching Channel 6 weather when I saw that the storm was headed straight for Cullman,” he recalled. “We went to the basement until we thought it was safe. When we came back upstairs and turned on the TV there was no picture. Then we got ‘toned in’.”

Firefighters wear a beeper device that delivers signals assigned to each department. When they sound the alarm, each member of the various departments know their own “tone.”

Cain’s first view as he entered the city was that the old oak tree at the corner of Sacred Heart's playground was now down across the road. He swerved into Richter’s parking lot and for the first time he saw the devastation that was left in the twister’s wake.

“My first thought was that we were going to be cleaning up bodies for days,” he said. “I was shocked to learn that there had been no deaths in the city.”

It would be several days before he went back home to Vinemont. Like most other city and county rescue personnel and street department workers, Cain would log in at least 72 hours over and above his regular shifts.

The first thing to be done in all the chaos was to set up a command post. “We couldn’t get to people who were trapped because of all the trees,” he pointed out “We had to go west of town to get to the southern part of the city.”

Cain got out of the fire truck and walked, thinking that he could get there faster. “But when I got near the East Elementary area, I didn’t even know where I was — and I’ve lived in Cullman my whole life,” he said in amazement.

Later, after establishing communications with city leaders like Dale Greer and Susan Eller, Captain Cain got on a Gator and drove around the rubble and debris that had once been familiar storefronts and homes. He mapped out the most heavily damaged areas so that the different departments and agencies would know what they had to deal with.

“I was prepared by my training to handle situations like tornadoes, but nobody had any experience with how to handle something like that,” he said, shaking his head.

The mind of a firefighter is conditioned to shut off emotions when they find themselves in a situation where there is death and destruction around them. They work gruesome wrecks, horrible scenes of brutality and violence due to fire, domestic disturbances, and drowning.

“There are three types of people in emergency situations,” outlined Cain. “The first will panic, and they will always panic. The second type will follow orders because that is what they have been trained to do. The third can see what the emergency is, then do what they can to bring it under control. So when you are a policeman, a firefighter, an EMS worker, you look for that third type, because the nature of our job, those people are drawn to this type of work.”

Cain says that in all of his years on the job, he has never seen a firefighter of the first type. “We need the Type 2 people because they are trainable.”

Like most firefighters everywhere, Captain Bryan Cain does what he does because he is the type of person who can handle the stress of the job. Firefighters don’t do what they do for the glory, or the pay, which is often much less than the average factory worker makes. They do what they do because it’s in their blood. It was somehow encoded into their DNA.

Obviously a strong man, Cain’s eyes mist over when he thinks about the man who walked up in a restaurant recently and thanked him for putting out a fire in his home. When the Cain’s got up to the register, the clerk told them that the other man had picked up their tab.

Women often bring the crews cakes and cookies to show their gratitude for what the firefighters have done for them. Sometimes area restaurants will treat them to lunch. It is their way of showing that they appreciate these men and women who put their lives on the line for strangers, day after day, often dealing with death on a daily basis. They confront emergencies when other people are running the other way. It takes a toll…

“I’ve seen enough death,” he said with a sigh.

As a former college athlete, Cain, like all ballplayers, firefighters and policemen, has spent hours preparing his mind and body for the “game.”

“In the fire department you are sound asleep when a loud noise and a dispatcher’s voice tell you its ‘game time’,” he described. “There is no time to warm your body up, to do stretches, or drink a cup of coffee before you rush out into 17-degree weather. You are suddenly sprinting toward the waiting truck, and ten minutes later you are in the middle of a firefight, making life threatening decisions as rapidly as the mind can process the situation.

“You have to learn to handle the stress or get out of the game,” he said candidly. “You have to develop the stamina to learn to control the excitement — as well as the fear — or it will drain you.”

 He has learned this control, in part to his training, and in part to his faith. “A young Christian might walk into this hell and look around and decide that he doesn't want any part of it,” he said. “An older Christian has a different prospective, some things make people cry out to God.” All people who deal with death have to find a way to cope, sometimes they just have to laugh to break the tension, sometimes they cry.

In one instance, Cain’s crew worked the B&B Petroleum spill near the railroad tracks. There was a telephone pole down on a tank. The pole had sheared the valve off, allowing 2,000 gallons of gas to flow onto the surrounding pavement. It was fast flowing into the city sewer system when he got a phone call that some of the nearby restaurants wanted to fire up their generators.

Standing in the midst of a river of gas, Captain Cain recalled a training video depicting a similar situation in Mexico. “A spark caused an explosion that wiped out entire city blocks, like a major bomb blast,” he said. “Because of that video I was aware that we were standing at ground zero. Our families wouldn’t even know we were dead.”

His training kicked in. He gave orders that no generator could be started because of the possibility of “back feed.” Then he ordered the evacuation of five city blocks in the immediate vicinity. During this same event another crew was across the alley putting out a fire on the roof of the adjacent building. It might have turned out entirely differently if not for Cain’s cool head and the hard work of his teammates.

Sometimes all this happens without the notice of people going on about their daily lives. It’s somewhat of a hindrance when they are asked to evacuate. “All we are doing when we order an evacuation is saving lives,” he said, his honesty obvious.

“When people look at Cullman they see our pretty parks, and the nice buildings, but they don’t realize that the real assets are its employees, the people who keep it running so smoothly that to the untrained eye, it looks effortless,” he smiled.

He readily admits that the job also has its perks. “We eat pretty well,” he said. “Most firemen are good cooks.”

They also develop a close camaraderie. Putting your life in someone else’s hands on a daily basis makes for strong bonds. “We know who has our backs,” Cain said.

His crew consists of himself, Captain Bryan Cain, Keith Bates, driver/paramedic. Gary Mikus, Senior Firefighter and EMT, and rookies Matt Lamninack and Kelsey Taylor. They are like family.

“These guys make me the fireman that I am,” he said in a soft voice. “Jesus Christ made me the person that I am; and my wife enables me to do and be what I need to do and to be.”