Upon retirement, Bob Dombrowski wrote a book about his 38-year career as a firefighter in Detroit. (Marney Keenan / The Detroit News)
In 2010, when Bob Dombrowski was about to retire after 38 years with the Detroit Fire Department, his fellow firefighters would goad him: “What are you going to do in your golden years?“
Dombrowski would feign all manner of pretense. “I’m going to write my memoirs.”
They’d laugh on cue.
“After all, I’m a Cody High grad,” Dombroski says. “Not a Rhodes scholar.”
The funny thing is, he actually did sit down and write his memories. “38 Years: A Detroit Firefighter‘s Story” by Bob Dombrowski (Page Publishing) is a narrative of Dombrowki’s rise through the ranks from his first day as a trial man in 1972 to decorated senior chief.
As Kevin Dombrowski, youngest of Bob and wife Linda’s three sons, says: “I tell everybody my dad took 45 three-by-five cards and then typed 70,000 words with two fingers.”
The book is an account of the highs and lows of Dombrowski’s near four decades, giving an insider’s look at a profession that is said to be the most dangerous job in America; the close camaraderie unique to a firehouse; and the frustrations of a dwindling work force forced to make their own repairs on dilapidated, outdated equipment in a city with one of the highest fire rates in the country.
“We really are put together with duct tape and chicken wire and shoelaces,” Drombowski says. “We have the worst equipment. Rigs are falling apart and yet we go to the most fires.”
In the epilogue written not too long after July 18, 2013, the date Detroit declared bankruptcy (not so coincidentally, it was also Dombrowski’s 63rd birthday), he spares no anger toward the downfall that will deprive many of their pension and health care.
“When I retired, we were told we’d have health care forever,” Drombowski says. “We gave up raises for this stuff. Pensions are clearly written in the constitution. And now we’re being called greedy?”
He shakes his head at the indignity.
Dombrowski says the reason for the city’s high fire rate is arson.
“In the late sixties and early seventies, a lot of cities — Boston, Chicago, New York — were having arson problems. That gradually stopped. But, in Detroit, it never did. Our squads are the busiest of the busiest. ”
When Dombrowski retired, the city was running with 264 guys on duty.
“Today, they are running with about 170 guys on duty and that’s just in four years. We average 16 working fires a day — that doesn’t count the car fires the garage fires, the fire alarms, the smell of smoke. You divide that by around 40 fire trucks and you’re stretched pretty thin. And yet, we have a lower death and injury rate than other big cities. ”
The book is full of incredible stories: Dombrowski being suspended 85 feet in the air while fighting a church fire, the safety belt the only thing from keeping Dombrowski from falling to the ground; how, back in the day, the old pros would turn off the new guys’ air tanks in the middle of a burning building since air tanks were for sissies.He recalls with painful detail the 1987 fire in the vacant three-story former Ace Cloth Company building that took the lives of three firefighters; the time he carried an unconscious teenager down the ladder from a two-story home and told her grandmother, “I think she’s okay,” all the while knowing she was near death; responding to a car wreck on the train tracks and having to jump for his life; testifying in an arson case in which evidence was planted.
Through the years, Dombrowski, a native Detroiter, was offered firefighter jobs all over the country. But he never left. “I loved the job. I was always proud to tell people I was a Detroit fireman.“
That’s, in part, why the pension cuts are such a brutal blow. “It’s not so much that I’m being screwed as it is I feel bad for my wife,” he says. “It’s unfair to her. All those 24-hour shifts. All that worrying about what could happen to me. We always thought (pension and health care) would be our reward at the end.“
Even so, Dombrowski says he’ll vote to accept the “grand bargain. (Dombrowski says his cost-of-living increases will be scaled down from 2¼ percent to 1 percent. He says he’ll completely lose his health care.)
“I just want to put it behind me,“ he says.
And yet, when you ask would he do it all over again, Drombowski doesn’t skip a beat.
“If you ask: Would I want a Detroit fireman responding if my home was on fire, I would say absolutely, yes! Without a doubt. In fact, I wouldn’t trust anybody but the Detroit fire department with my family. Despite everything, no matter how bad it gets — they can take their pension, cut their pay, take their health care — those guys are still going to jump on that broken rig and they are going to do 100 percent 100 percent of the time.”