By Brendan Milewski
Editor’s note: In the Human Factor, we profile survivors who have overcome the odds. Confronting a life obstacle — injury, illness or other hardship — they tapped their inner strength and found resilience they didn’t know they possessed. This week we introduce you to Brendan Milewski, who bravely served in the Detroit Fire Department for over a decade before one act of arson ended his career and changed his life forever.
(CNN) — When people find out you’re a firefighter, the first question they ask is: “What made you join the fire service?”
This is typically followed by: “My dad, grandpa, or uncle was on the job.”
That wasn’t the case for me. Instead, interest in a career in public safety came in waves throughout my adolescence. I assure you, I am a first and last generation firefighter.
It first started at age 13, when I was spending the night at a friend’s house in the neighborhood where I grew up. After seeing an ambulance race down the street, we went outside to find the house two doors down on fire. The closest fire company hadn’t arrived yet.
I had a front-row seat to the entire scene. I heard the sirens, smelled the smoke, saw the rigs arrive, and watched as these courageous men entered the house and pulled three people out of the fire.
They performed CPR on the victims right on the front lawn. Unfortunately, two of them didn’t make it. For months afterward, the distant wail of a fire engine’s siren would cause my heart to race with fear. To witness such a chaotic and tragic event at a formative age left one hell of an impression on me.
After high school, I began taking classes at a community college in pursuit of a career in the fire service, but there was only one municipality I wanted to work for, the City of Detroit. So in 1998, I submitted my application, along with over 13,000 other hopefuls. In July 1999 I hit the proverbial lottery and was hired into the Detroit Fire Department.
Landing a career in the world’s best and busiest fire department at the age of 20 was a dream come true, even if it meant making only $725 every other week in my first year.
I wasn’t yet 21, and still had my first driver’s license, issued to me when I was 16. Imagine the look on everyone’s faces when I had to present my ID to my superior officers. The baby-faced mug shot earned me the nickname “Doogie.” I cemented it for eternity by letting the guys know how much I hated it.
As I started to get acclimated to my career within the DFD, the opportunities to prove myself to the brotherhood came quickly. Early in a firefighter’s career, he waits anxiously for that next fire run to come in, so he can hone his craft and show his contemporaries he is trustworthy.
The novelty soon wore off for me, as we were often summoned five or six times a night. It didn’t take long to see the devastating effect fire has — an effect that resonates throughout the community.
The fire academy trains you to put out fires, but it doesn’t prepare you to witness firsthand when a family loses their home, possessions, or a loved one. There is also no training to prepare you to see your fellow firefighters injured or killed. Both circumstances I’ve become all too familiar with.
But these were the realities of my chosen profession, and like a good Detroiter I forged on. I had taken an oath to save lives and protect property and I never looked back.
Less than two months after my 11th anniversary on the job, one fire changed my life forever.
Only minutes into my shift on August 13, 2010 — Friday the 13th — we were called to an arson fire in an occupied commercial building. While we were performing ventilation operations on the exterior of the structure, the burning two-and-a-half story facade collapsed into the street, raining tons of concrete and debris onto seven of us. I was among four firefighters critically injured.
As I lay face down on Jefferson Avenue, trying to figure out what had happened, I attempted to slide my knees to my chest to get myself out of harm’s way.
The only thing that came off the ground were my shoulders. I realized instantly I was paralyzed. Those terrifying moments were the first realities of my new life as a paraplegic.
After weeks in the hospital, multiple surgeries, medically induced comas, ventilators and near-death infections, I began to wake up. One of the first things I recall telling my friends is that I’m still here to tell my story. I still have a voice.
I didn’t know then, however, that only a few months later I would have the opportunity to use that voice. Thanks to Tom Putnam and Brenna Sanchez’s documentary “BURN,” I began to share my story only two months after being discharged from the hospital.
My participation in “BURN” was instrumental in my ongoing recovery. I realized sharing my story and using my voice could help others realize the dangers and grim realities firefighters face on a daily basis.
Before “BURN” was released, few people outside the fire service were aware of the extent of Detroit’s arson problem. The city has 10,000 fires annually; of those, an estimated 80% to 90% are caused by arson. Hard numbers are difficult to come by, as only 7% to 8% of these fires are investigated because of the limited budget and staffing of our arson division.
Two men were convicted of setting the fire that injured me. Because firefighters were injured in the commission of their crime, the case fell into federal jurisdiction, and Detroit Arson was assisted by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the FBI.
The convicted arsonists received 8- and 15-year sentences. They will be released this decade. I will still be in this chair.
Today I spend most of my energy trying to rebuild my life, physically and mentally. I continue to use my voice to advocate against budget cuts to firefighters’ pensions and health care benefits, a trend that is familiar in municipalities across the country.
I always accepted death as a possibility, given my profession. The fire service puts on one hell of a funeral. Flag-draped coffins, parade processions of fire apparatus and men in uniform, bagpipes, drums — all haunting images of farewells to our fallen comrades. Never did I consider suffering a catastrophic injury and being around to talk about it.
Unfortunately, circumstances beyond my control led me to be one of those voices in this unique situation. I’m thankful for the opportunity to tell my story, and even more thankful that people will listen. Without the support of my wife, family, and my brothers and sisters in the fire service, I would not have made it this far in my recovery.
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