WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) — When Firefighter Bill Kirlin Jr. heard the horns and the sirens of the trucks blaring last month at Wilmington Fire Station No. 4, it was possibly the last time a Kirlin would have a traditional "blowout ceremony" for retiring firefighters.
Kirlin's son, Brandan, drove him away on his last day, just as Kirlin himself drove his father, Battalion Chief William T. Kirlin Sr., at his blowout ceremony in 1990.
Kirlin is a third-generation Wilmington firefighter. His grandfather, Deputy Chief Michael J. Kirlin Sr., was killed fighting a fire in 1955.
But Kirlin has steered his son away from a career in the fire service, perhaps ending the family tradition this year because, he argues, salaries have stalled and violence has increased in Wilmington.
"I wanted him to be fourth-generation WFD, but the money's just not there," Kirlin said. "I wanted him to learn a trade. It saddens me, but that's what he has to do for him to have more than me and struggle less than I struggled."
Kirlin said the economics of being a paid firefighter make people like him, sons of firefighters, a dying breed in the fire service. City firefighters start at about $35,000 a year and max out at $59,000.
Brandan, 17, will graduate from high school soon and has been accepted into a union electrician apprenticeship program. Brandan said he still might seek a career in the fire service if his apprenticeship doesn't work out.
City Fire Union President Bruce Schweiger wished Kirlin well and said he did a lot of good for the union over the years. But Schweiger offered a different perspective on the current state of the force. A city firefighter is still a desired and coveted position, and the tradition of sons of firefighters joining the force continues, he said.
"If we announced there was a new fire academy today, hundreds of people would apply," Schweiger said. "A recently retired officer has a son who came on the force four years ago, and another firefighter just asked me when we'll be hiring again because his son is interested in joining."
The 55-year-old Kirlin said he decided to retire while driving to work in March, a day before he would start his 30th year on the job.
"I was driving in one day and said, 'I think I've had enough,'" he said. "My father retired at 59 after 35 years on the job. He was dead at 69. He paid all those years into the pension and collected it for only 10 years. I want to collect it for 30 years. I think I have a shot."
A new schedule instituted a couple years ago that has firefighters work for 24 straight hours, then have three days off, then work another 24-hour shift had been taking a toll on him. Often, he'd go on several fire calls during a shift, then struggle to make it in to his second job as a teacher's aide at Hodgson Vo-Tech. He teaches auto body courses there and helps coach the girls lacrosse team.
After 30 years as a firefighter, which he said was filled with "trauma and drama," he laughs when people ask why he would want to deal with a bunch of high school students.
"Two years ago, I gave chest compression on a 15-year-old kid who had been shot and wound up dying," he said. "Dealing with a kid who might have a crappy attitude in a high school is easy and rewarding in comparison."
Kirlin said the first highlight of his career was getting on the job in the first place. Having a dad and an uncle in the department could sometimes be a hindrance, not a help, he said, as sometimes the decision-makers in the hiring process might not like your relatives.
He unsuccessfully applied in 1981 and 1983. He eventually was hired in 1985.
Kirlin is also proud of his time running the department's employee-assistance program, which helps firefighters with drug and alcohol problems. The program saved his career, as he once had a substance-abuse problem and has now been in recovery for 25 years.
"The leadership at the time was ahead of its time," Kirlin said. "If you came forward and said you had a problem, they would do anything in the world to get you help. Even then, they realized that those who came back after treatment were very successful."
Kirlin was also named an acting lieutenant for a year when his superior was out on medical leave. "I retired at the rank of firefighter, but I think during that time I was a good officer. I can say that," he said.
He's also proud of the fact that he worked on a ladder crew into his 50s, when many of his colleagues on the truck were in their 20s.
Kirlin said the blowout ceremony was emotional for him, which he knew in advance. It's the same station he drove his dad away from when he retired.
"How lucky I am to have something so important to me that makes it so hard to say goodbye to it," he said. "I'm very grateful."
His son, Brandan, said he's grateful that the department performed such a touching ceremony for his dad.
"That's probably the first time I've ever seen him cry," Brandan he said. "That was really nice of them to do that for him. After 30 years together, they're basically a family."
Kirlin said he was comfortable being emotional at his goodbye ceremony and thinks it's been his time at Hodgson that's helped him.
"For 30 years, I was a tough guy. You saw the worst things that don't make you flinch. If anything, you find humor in it to cope with it," he said. "With firefighters, the trauma and drama bonds us, but it's the laughter that seals that bond."
He's been more sensitive since leaving the department.
"I put people into body bags and found humor in it to cope. Now, one of my players gets hit in the mouth with a lacrosse ball and I cry about it," he said. "And it feels OK. I think I'm better off now that I don't have to be a badass."
Information from: The News Journal of Wilmington, Del., http://www.delawareonline.com
Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.