George Orzech, a West Bloomfield resident and Orchard Lake St. Mary’s graduate, has spent 34 years of his life working as firefighter. Firefighting runs in the family as Orzech’s father was a firefighter and five of his seven sons followed in his footsteps. Through the past three decades, Orzech has seen many changes as a firefighter — from the advances in breathing apparatuses and the devastation at Ground Zero to the recent mass exodus of people from Detroit and the abandoned homes they’ve left behind as the Detroit Fire Department attempts to do their best with limited man-power and resources. After decades of charging into burning buildings, Orzech will now be the one making the calls outside the building as he was recently promoted to battalion chief.
SCN: You have been a firefighter for over 30 years. What made you want to become a firefighter?
GO: I don’t know that I really wanted to become a firefighter. My dad was a firefighter, and I was a junior at (the University of Michigan) when he suggested that I become a firefighter and that it would be a good job to finish school with. We’re the only family in the world that has five brothers that are professional firefighters. Out of the seven boys in the family, five of us are professional firefighters. We all worked for Detroit at one time, and then my brother John went to Livonia probably about 17 or 18 years ago.
SCN: Please explain what it’s like having to charge into a burning building. What goes through your mind? What type of judgment calls do you normally have to make in that type of situation?
GO: Should I go? Well, it’s changed quite a bit over the years — the equipment has changed, most importantly the breathing apparatuses have changed. The philosophy of running into buildings has changed in Detroit recently because there are so many vacant and abandoned buildings. The department has sort of changed the approach of entering vacant structures that have no risk of exposures on either side. The first thing you always think about is, “Is there life inside?” And if there is life inside, then you have to go inside and try to find it. If there’s life inside, people are screaming. Or people are jumping out of apartment building windows or out of house windows. Or if there’s cars, you know people are living there. What’s been a challenge is the vagrants and the squatters that are in places that don’t have any plumbing, no heating, no electricity, no windows. And the neighbors say someone’s living there because they know who lives there and stuff. So on those occasions you have to be careful, but if there is a chance of life being there, you have to push it a little bit. I had a fire not even a month ago at 3 a.m., and they said it was occupied so you had to push the guys to go in there without water and go search for life. That’s just part of the gamble you take or the educated guess you take about whether you should be going in or not.
SCN: What do you find to be the most rewarding aspects of the job? What would you say are the most difficult?
GO: Well obviously the most rewarding one is when life is found. I had a very rewarding experience saving three children and two firefighters. It’s a cool feeling. And since I’ve gotten promoted to chief, the paperwork is the most difficult.
SCN: Working in such a high-risk job, you must have to trust your fellow firefighters. Please explain the type of bond/camaraderie that develops among firefighters.
GO: This is an unique job in that you live 24 hours at a time with (people) which begin as strangers. And over time, you learn their habits. I was saved by a guy, and I ended up saving that guy. You become almost blood brothers because there’s a trust that develops — when guys and ladies are on the fire scene, they know who will risk their lives to save your life. Or you know who will go into buildings and those guys that don’t go into buildings. And on our job, there are some who won’t go into buildings, and you have to be careful. You have to be safe.
The Detroit Fire Department is so under-manned. They haven’t hired from the general public since 2004. There are no young kids. There are no young bucks dragging lives out of apartment buildings, over floors and down stairways. Up until I got promoted here last week, I was still going into buildings as a senior captain. I’m still backing up the younger guys on my engine. But the hardest part is knowing that you’re doing this without enough help. The cities, the commissioners are tied by the budget. And the city is so big. Something’s happening. There’s a social phenomenon right now that’s happening. With everybody that has left the city of Detroit — you lose 200,000 people — they didn’t take their houses and their buildings and garages with them. They just left.
SCN: You were recently promoted from a captain with the Detroit Fire Department to a battalion chief. Please explain what it took to reach that position. How does it feel to be promoted?
GO: Well, by the grace of God, I didn’t get hurt or disabled. And it took almost 34 years to become a battalion chief in the city of Detroit. We get promoted by seniority. With the amount of experience that you get in that kind of time, there are a lot of guys that trust you. And they’ll go into places and do things that risk their lives because they think that you can make the right call. That’s an honor for me to have guys that will do that.
SCN: What are your primary day-to-day responsibilities as battalion chief?
GO: There’s eight fire companies within my little battalion. And my battalion is fairly large — it covers I’d say 20 or 21 square miles, at least. More than that maybe. You’re the overall supervisor for man-power, the rig, the houses, and the personnel/HR person for personal issues and discipline and all the other things like scheduling. I’m just starting all that now. It’s a whole different change of philosophy. Instead of running into buildings, now I have to stand outside the buildings and make sure everybody’s safe.
SCN: With the numerous budget cuts around the state, please explain what the most pressing concerns are for public safety responders. How is the department trying to compensate with limited funds, especially with regards to equipment and staffing the fire houses?
GO: The city of Detroit’s answer is to just close down fire houses right now. They aren’t hiring, so attrition is depleting the ranks. And they’re not filling the positions, so that money that is budgeted for positions and not filled goes back to the city coffers. I’m not sure what the future holds. I know they’re trying to do overtime, but that can only go so far. So we’re just going to be running short-handed.
SCN: There’s been some differing opinions about the fire commissioner’s decision to let some abandoned houses burn to the ground in Detroit. Please give us a firefighter’s perspective on the pros and cons of this directive.
GO: As I mentioned, that directive — we’ve had several collapses where guys have gotten hurt and killed. In fact, it was just the one-year anniversary of four guys who became disabled when a building collapsed, but that wasn’t a vacant building either — it was an occupied building. So you don’t know. But the perspective on the directive to let a building burn, I’ve had to do that for the first time in my career not too long ago. There were no buildings on either side. The dwelling that we went to already was burnt two or three times. So I’m not going to send anybody in there with the floors missing and the walls shaky because they’re burnt. And in 45 minutes, it’s gone and you never have to go back there and no one will ever get injured again. I’ve got no problem doing that.
SCN: After the 9/11 attacks, you went to New York City to help at Ground Zero. Why did you go — were you asked or did you volunteer? Please explain your feelings or impression when you arrived at Ground Zero. How would you characterize the overall experience?
GO: Oh no, we volunteered because we had cousins there, relatives there — Jack and Jamie live there. And Jamie — it’s really an interesting story. Her sister Jennifer was in her office on the eighth floor of the World Trade Center No. 1 when the first plane hit. And Jamie was giving blood across the street from the World Financial Center, saw the plane hit, jumped off the table, went to get a hold of her cell phone to call Jennifer. They got out, but they heard bodies falling from the building. They saw both planes hit, both buildings come down. We didn’t know if they were alive until Wednesday afternoon (Sept. 12, 2001) when we finally got through to them. And we, (my brother) Mark and I, went there on Thursday night (Sept. 13, 2001). We drove over and saw them, and then we worked in the Ground Zero pit for two days. We came home on (that) Sunday.
That’s a tough one. The first question that they asked us at night time was ,”Do you guys know the smell of death?” Because when we got there, they were still doing search and rescue. The fires were still burning. And once we told them we know what the smell of death is like, they split us up, tied ropes around us, gave us cans of spray paint — orange for body parts and green for airplane parts — and sent us in different directions into the big hole that was down there looking for survivors.
It was an eerie feeling. Because it was all dark, and it snowed. It snowed the whole time we were there. And what I mean by snow is “World Trade Center snow,” is what they called it. Because when those 101-story buildings came down, all the dust — it’s not like it comes down and then dissipates into the air. It comes down and gets plastered against all of the other tall buildings that are around the side of it. And the slightest breeze would release all the dust particles. And it just snowed there the whole time. All the compounds that were formed when all these compressed materials — all the fire, the jet fuel, and the heat — they just started floating down, floating around. So at night, it was eerie. This stuff just kept floating and didn’t stop. We breathed it all in. Mark and I are on the World Trade Center health registry because they’re trying to keep track of our health. We weren’t there that long that we should be getting any prolonged illnesses from that, but they just want to know anyway.
SCN: With the tenth anniversary of 9/11 approaching, what, if any, personal lessons have you gained from that day? What do you think we as a nation have learned?
GO: Personal lessons? I try to love my family more. Well, I thought they had learned that firemen and police weren’t enemies, that they were friends of the working person. But after Gov. (Rick) Snyder and all these people trying to hurt the firemen and the policemen, I don’t know what they learned. A lot of people respect firefighters. We were just human before and we are human now. We will go places where people don’t want to go. As a nation, I hope we learned something. I know I believe in the good Lord a lot more, love the family a lot more.