28 April, 2017

A Firefighter Abroad – By Nicholas Palatella

As I look through my google calendar at all the greyed out events of the past four months I can’t help but smile. What was at first an uncertain journey became the best adventure of my life. Coming to London as a theatre production major I was excited to immerse myself in the world of London theatre from the West End to well…zone 4. Seeing theatre was very important to me during the last 4 months, but was not my only goal.

Before flying out in January I was sitting at my firehouse back home thinking about what I would want to do in London. From the beginning, I knew that I wanted to immerse myself in the culture as much as possible. I wanted to become a local and experience as much of a Londoner’s daily life as I can through the sights, smells, and sounds of the city. I also knew I wanted to do something else. That something else didn’t hit me until the pager at the firehouse went off dispatching us to a fire alarm activation. Donning my gear and boarding the engine suddenly made me realize what that other goal was; to learn as much as I could about the similarities and differences between firefighting in America vs London.

Firefighting has been in my blood since I joined my local volunteer fire department when I was 15. Along with lighting design for the theatre, firefighting is my other passion in life. Waking up at 3am by the sound of a pager to go help someone who quite possibly you’ve never met before seems crazy to some people, but for me it’s the norm. Being on the fire department for 6 years now has taught me so much about life. There really is no greater feeling in the world than helping someone, even a total stranger on what could possibly be one of the worst, or scariest moments of their life. Being that light in the darkness for them. It is truly a hard feeling to describe.

During the summer of 2014 I got sent to the fire academy in order to receive my firefighter 1 certificate. During this 3-month certification class, I distinctly remember a lecture on the history of the fire service including major fires in the UK. As expected, the class went in depth with techniques on firefighting in America, but not anywhere else. Specifically, about London, we were taught about the great fire, but nothing else. My only other knowledge about the London Fire Brigade was that the trucks had funny sirens. That was all.

Coming here with just that knowledge along with this goal in mind drove me to want to learn as much as I could about the fire service here. Yes, one can just “google” the differences, but to immerse yourself in real life brings about experiences that will last you a lifetime; which in fact it did.

It was a cold January Saturday afternoon when I took the tube over to SoHo where the nearest firehouse to me was located. As I walked up to the firehouse, I saw the door was open as the truck had just gotten back from a shout (what they call an emergency call here in the UK). Excitement filled me as I walked up and introduced myself to the officer who had just stepped off the truck. As soon as I told him that “I’m a firefighter visiting from America” his face lit up as the rest of the crew started to gather around and introduce themselves to me. I explained to them my purpose for visiting the station, and what I wanted to learn. With open arms they invited me to stay and offered me an in depth overview of the fire service in the UK.

During the next two hours at the fire station, they showed me every nut and bolt on all 4 trucks inside. We first talked about the equipment on board, what’s similar and what’s different. Next we had conversations about the daily life, firefighting tactics, building construction, training, lingo, and gear. They even went out of their way to pull a truck outside in busy SoHo, blocked off a sidewalk and showed me (and let me try) to connect a fire hydrant to a fire truck here in London! I was like a kid in a candy store!

The two hours concluded by them being dispatched to a shout, but not before I was able to express my gratitude to the crew for taking time out of their day to show me around. Sitting on the tube on the way home made me think about this unique experience and how thankful I was to have had this opportunity. Although UK firefighters think American firefighters fight fire with axes rather than water, the main thing I took away besides the difference between tactics and equipment is that what remains the same; the heart behind the job. 

11 April, 2017


Now that I’m leaving soon, I’ve become increasingly worried about reverse cultural shock. Why is it that just when I’ve started to feel comfortable, things have to change again?

Coming to live in London changed my life – not in a cheesy or very vague way, like when people say, “Wow, that ice cream changed my life”, or not even, “Wow, this song changed my life”. This changed my life in a real, tangible way. I have become more daring, more able to find my way alone and solve a crisis that’s thrown at me. For the first time in my whole life, I have been able to figure out new foreign cities, airports, train stations – in fact, the city of London’s transportation system – and not be afraid. I learned to have confidence and trust (in the way of the world, in the good will of most strangers, in myself).

I’ve found myself thinking about the fact that after so much excitement, my sleepy suburb will probably be unimaginably difficult for me to live in this summer. It in no way compares to living in a city as alive as London.

When I am home, I am not constantly academically, physically, and mentally stimulated like I am here. I don’t have to put as much of myself or my hard work into things. I feel like I’ve gained some momentum here – I feel stronger, not only physically, but emotionally too. I don’t want that progress to be erased by me sitting on my couch all summer.

I just hope that I can take what I’ve learned here and try to keep doing it so I can ease some of that reverse culture shock. I want to make sure I don’t revert back to my old self. I need to avoid becoming too cautious again. I need keep up that sense of spontaneity that I’ve gained here. I hope I can still find it in me to actively seek out new experiences, to go places, to do stuff, and to continue to be amazed by even small things.

Some things that I wish I could take with me but I physically cannot: the accent, the prices at Tesco, Hyde Park in full bloom, my flat in Earl’s Court, the relative cleanliness of the tube, the old and beautiful architecture, the pub food, the proximity to the rest of Europe.

The one thing I can take back (actually, that I pretty much have to take back) is myself. I think the whole point is that I got to see Hyde Park in full bloom and I got to live in that flat. And I got to see a lot more of the world. So hopefully I’m better for it. I hope I can carry those things with me for a really long time.

And above all, I probably need to remember to just enjoy what’s left of this. I keep thinking about how little time I have left, but that only turns it into a negative feeling. I just need to remember to look around me and to be thinking about this moment, not about May 6th.

Part of the sadness about leaving comes from the fact that I feel like I just got comfortable here, but maybe that's how it’s meant to work. Maybe if we’re trying to grow, we are not supposed to be comfortable for too long.