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Changes were made during 26-year firefighting career
Local author recalls the good and the bad, the highs and the lows

By KEVIN PASSON - Special to TimeOut

April 17, 2014

OCONOMOWOC - Sights and smells of soot, smoke, flames and charred furnishings will forever be with Rick Ornberg. After more than a quarter-century of fighting fires full time, how could they not?

Ornberg started his career with the Des Plaines (Ill.) Fire Department in 1971, literally hanging onto the back of a fire engine as it weaved its way through traffic on its way to his first fire scene. It wouldn’t end until 26 years later, but by then, he and firefighters everywhere had seen more changes in their departments than in the previous 100 years combined.

“I wanted to put down my firefighting experiences from start to finish and write about all of the different facets of a fire service career,” said Ornberg, author of “10-24: A Firefighter Looks Back” and an Oconomowoc-area resident the past eight years.

The book is more than chapter after chapter of flames and smoke destroying one house after another.

First, Ornberg is an accomplished writer, having run a successful public relations business and written extensively for Firehouse magazine and other trade publications. His words convey the reader to the scene, where the imagination takes over and you can see yourself there.

Second, Ornberg offers insights into how firefighting changed during his career, which ran from 1971 to 1996. He touches on training, equipment, paramedics and EMTs, women joining the department and more.

Finally, the author shares a few pieces of his previously published works on the crash of American Airlines Flight 191 in 1979, the deadliest aviation accident to happen on American soil, and the Chicago firefighters strike of 1980.

“I think it will appeal to the general public as well as firefighters and paramedics,” Ornberg said. “My favorite story in the book is the first chapter, ‘Fire at 3 a.m.’ It sets the stage for the entire book.”

Ironically, it was a Lucky Strike cigarette that first exposed Ornberg to the larger-than-life firefighters who appeared fearless as they entered a burning home. At age 4, he noticed the smoke curling from under his parents’ bedroom door and ran down the stairs, yelling, “Mommy, moke! Mommy, moke!”

The firefighters contained the damage to the upstairs, with the exception of some water running from the hoses down the steps and the smell of charred wood still in the air. As far as he recollects, the home was repaired and life resumed its normal pace. But, still in the back of his mind, the memory remained.

Oconomowoc Deputy Fire Chief Glenn Leidel said the book offers a realistic view of what a firefighter goes through in his career.

“I think it really accurately portrays what being a firefighter is all about,” he said. “He does a nice job of covering the good and the bad, the highs and the lows, and the satisfaction that comes with doing a very difficult job, and the toll it can (have) on people doing the job.”

Any book on firefighting wouldn’t be complete without a few words on post traumatic stress disorder and the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, even if the attack were a few years after Ornberg’s retirement from the force. Close calls on the job are also detailed.

“Any firefighter with that many years is going to have those stories, being trapped inside a residence without an air pack,” he said. “It caused some realizations to come to me about myself, and again, the side effects.”

The book’s title comes from the radio code that means, “Assignment completed; ready for next response.”

Above all, the book offers unique insights and reflections on a career that offers a special bonding experience among firefighters. Whether from a volunteer department or a full-time service, whether in a small town or a large metropolitan city, sometimes even from one precinct to another, the men and women may rib each other, but when it comes down to it, they will all put their lives on the line for each other - and for us.