Fire Department
The Brotherhood of the Job


To celebrate the 125th anniversary of the Camden Fire Department, a very limited edition history was published in 1994. The fire fighters of Camden have served the city well, often with less than adequate staffing and equipment, and have compiled an admirable record not only during the years covered in the abovementioned book, but in the years since. I doubt that anywhere in the United States have so few done so much for so many with so little.

That being said, I believe that the story of the fire fighters in Camden deserves being told to a much wider audience that the original limited edition book could ever hope to reach, so it will presented here and on other web-pages within the website.

Phil Cohen

The Brotherhood of the Job

Aspiring candidates for entrance into the Fire Department come to the job for a variety of reasons. Many are motivated by the most basic of tenets - a secure, life long career with adequate wage and benefits; free from the pitfalls of layoffs; corporate mergers; labor strikes; and the other uncertainties that have become so much a part of the contemporary work force. Some are drawn to the ranks of occupational fire fighter as a matter of personal avocation. Still others enter the Department out of a sense of personal worth or challenge in being able to perform a very difficult
job that many people are not capable of doing. For whatever the reasons, few members who enter the Department remain fire fighters without soon developing a genuine respect and fondness for the job. This personal affection fosters a sense of professional commitment that can be found in few other occupations.

Urban fire fighters labor under a host of conditions that are far removed from what the "normal" fire service is perceived to be. The hazards associated with old and substandard building construction; compacted and densely populated neighborhoods; pervasive poverty with attendant
crime, each impose the most extraordinary demands upon municipal services and fire services in particular. To be an occupational fire fighter working in the inner city affords an almost endless opportunity for acquiring and developing professional skills, not existing to any comparative degree
outside the urban environment. As practice makes perfect, urban fire fighters are the most skilled and experienced to be found anywhere.

In cities like Camden, professional expertise is readily acquired, but very hard earned. While fire services in suburban communities are certainly no less compelling in terms of preserving the public safety, the role of the urban fire fighter working in the inner city is quite different from his suburban or rural counterpart. If you ask an urban fire fighter, what do you like about your job and why do you do what you do, you will frequently hear such uninspiring answers as decent wages; good pension; steady employment. But rarely if ever, would a fire fighter admit to such less tangible interests as pride; honor; tradition; and brotherhood. These are the elements that perpetuate the fire
fighter's affection for his job. In fact, he does what he does for himself and for his brother fire fighters while upholding the legacy of the institution that is called "Fire Department".

While it is laudable to think that what urban fire fighters do, they do out of some sense of personal commitment to the community. But in the inner city, it is often the community itself which the fire fighter strives to protect from its own self destruction. Advancing a hoseline into a blazing building while being pelted with rocks and bottles, lends a perspective that is not easily understood by those outside of the brotherhood. That is not to say that fire fighters are without compassion. Indeed by the very nature of their job, it is impossible to risk one's life and health to save a stranger, without possessing the deepest measure of personal compassion for another's well being. Fire fighters are paid to perform a vital service. They are not compensated to exchange their own life or personal welfare for that of the public's. But that is exactly what they do, willingly and without hesitation.

College level studies in psychology have examined with discourse, the behavior and motivation behind what propels fire fighters to run, headlong into a burning building that every other living thing is instinctively trying to get out of. As the urban fire fighter crawls along the floor of a blazing building in blinding smoke, he is met by an onslaught of rats and roaches all running in the opposite direction. 

Such is the life of the urban fire fighter amid long hours of routine tedium in the firehouse, punctuated by recurring events of extraordinary physical engagement and personal terror. A sign that adorns the wall of the firehouse kitchen reads "This Could Be The Night". It may be seen in many firehouses throughout the cities of America but in Camden its meaning is the same. It serves as an inconspicuous reminder that the demands of occupational fire fighting are unceasing, and that the next serious challenge may be only a moment away. And that very next challenge may demand more from the fire fighter than anyone should be expected to give. This is the environment which sustains the genuine brotherhood among urban fire fighters. And this is the brotherhood that Daniel
Payne longed to be a part of.

As long time residents of Camden, Daniel Payne's family like so many others left the City for a better life in the suburbs, free from violent crime, poverty and urban blight. When he became of age, Daniel would join the local volunteer fire company to fulfill his long held avocation. But the fire
service that he experienced in his suburban hometown, was not the role that he aspired to. Payne wanted to be an urban fire fighter first and foremost, and in doing so earn a living while also making his life's interest his livelihood. Few persons of any occupation are so fortunate.

To comply with a pre-employment residency requirement, Daniel Payne and his wife made the difficult decision to leave the safe environs of their suburban community and move into the City. Payne understood that his wait to join the ranks of the Bravest might be a long one. The Department of Civil Service announces entrance examinations only once every three or four years. Unlike many other career paths with a selection process that requires some pre-employment certification, not everyone who passes the entrance examination for fire fighter, becomes a fire fighter. In contrast, every aspiring law student who passes the Bar exam becomes an attorney; likewise every medical student who passes the State Boards becomes a practicing physician. Not so among aspiring fire fighters. Only one out of every seventy-five or a hundred candidates are ever admitted to the ranks of the Department. The vast majority either fail the examination process altogether or worse - successfully pass the test only to languish for several years on an eligibility list that finally expires, thus beginning the process all over again. As old timers would say, it is often harder to get off the list than it is to get on it! 

The entrance examination was finally announced. Payne would join more than a thousand other hopefuls in filing an application for little more than twenty-five positions that would be filled during the subsequent three year period. A physical performance test followed the written examination.
After many months of long and anxious waiting, Daniel Payne's hopes and dreams were dashed when he opened the letter from the Department of Civil Service and received a failure notice. Now living in the City with the prospect of having to wait several more years to take the next examination was almost more than Dan could bear. But he would not be deterred by this [temporary] setback. Payne's personal disappointment, however severe, was far outweighed by his commitment and
desire to be a Camden Fire Fighter.

Then the unthinkable happened. Dan‘s oldest son, 8 year old Johnny Payne became the victim of a heinous violent crime. Critically injured by his assailant, Johnny was admitted to the hospital's intensive care. His assailant had also murdered another 12 year old boy. Johnny had been seriously injured, but he was alive. Like his father, the boy was quite interested in the fire service and as a young buff, enjoyed those rare occasions when dad would take him to the scene of Greater Alarms. The excitement of the fireground enthralled the boy and his admiration and respect for fire fighters became readily apparent. Now physically injured and suffering from psychological trauma, Johnny's once glowing personality had withdrawn into a doleful somber. For a long time, Johnny hadn't smiled for anyone but his mother and father.

The newspapers had carried the story of the young boy's misfortune. The 45th Recruit Class of the Camden Fire Department read of the anonymous boy, and ever compassionate as fire fighters, decided to [adopt] him. The Chief Training Officer, Battalion Chief James Nash was especially supportive of the endeavor. Chief Nash knew that the project would not only benefit a child in need, but would also serve to instill the time honored tradition of brotherhood among the new recruits while fostering a sense of professional camaraderie within the class. At the time that the group made this decision, they had no idea who the father and son were. They simply wanted to help. In the interim, Johnny's parents with the understanding of the boy's love for firemen and fire engines, decided to ask some fire fighters to visit the hospital for a few minutes. When they went to Fire
Headquarters to speak with Chief Kenneth Penn, it became apparent that they were the parents of the boy that the 45th Recruit Class had already decided to adopt. Within a half hour, Chief Penn and Deputy Chief of Department Allen Hess were at the hospital. Expressionless, Johnny only stared at
the two Chief Officers. Then, from beneath their coats they produced a toy fire truck and a get well card signed by both of them. A faint smirk flickered over the boy's face and then disappeared. The men talked with Johnny for a short while and then turned to leave. As they walked toward the door, Chief Penn stopped and turned to face Johnny again saying, "John, can you do something for me?" Johnny blankly replied "What?" Chief Penn answered, "Can you smile for me?" Johnny's face
lit up like the sun! The Chief of Department had asked him to smile. How could he refuse?

Three days later, a call came from the nurse's station to Johnny's parents in his room saying "there are a lot of fire fighters down here that want to see that boy." There were so many in fact that they couldn’t fit in his room. Johnny had to be brought to a waiting room where the entire
recruit class waited to see him. The 23 men presented their "little brother" with a helmet, pictures of each Camden firehouse, and a donation toward defraying hospital bills, with requests for him to get well in time to graduate with them at the end of their twelve week training cycle. Johnny did get better but the fire fighters and relatives that were close to him knew that continuing encouragement was essential. Captain Paul Price, a personal friend of the family, took it upon himself to organize a trust fund for the boy. The Defender Fire Company of Audubon where Dan Payne previously served as a volunteer fire fighter, sponsored fund raising events to offset hospital expenses. On the day after he left the hospital, Fire Fighter Dennis Penn threw a party for the boy at Fire Headquarters. There Johnny met more friends. A City Fire Marshal surprised him with a genuine
inspector's badge, and Captain Robert Frett gave John and his younger brother a grand tour of the firehouse. The Captain let them climb aboard the apparatus and operate the siren, lights and air horns. It was Johnny's dream come true. 

When graduation day at the Fire Academy had finally arrived, 23 Probies mustered at the base of the drill tower. Part of the ceremonies consisted of an exhibition where the Probationary Fire Fighters were eager to perform a variety of evolutions demonstrating what they learned before a crowd of family members and Department officials. As the formation of Probationary Fire Fighters in turnout gear was called to standing attention, Johnny Payne fell in at the end of the column also attired in full turnout gear and filled with beaming pride. Then a procession of people came forward and presented him with gifts. The President of the fire fighter's union gave Johnny a thirty year union pin. A friend of Chief Penn gave him collectors' postcards of vintage 1930's and 40‘s apparatus, and the Department Photographer provided blowups of photos of Johnny with Chief Penn. And finally, the graduating class presented their little brother with a grand cake in the shape of a fire apparatus. 

At the close of ceremonies, there were 24 members of the 45th Graduating Class of Camden Fire Fighters. The additional graduate, Johnny Payne, stood proudly with the men that had dedicated themselves to helping his recovery. Indeed, their remarkable efforts were credited with the boy's early discharge from the hospital, days and even weeks in advance of what the doctors had initially anticipated. On graduation day, Battalion Chief Jim Nash stood proudly before the group of new fire fighters about to take their places among the ranks of the Uniformed Force. A tragic circumstance had been turned into a very positive outcome. A group of raw recruits had helped a young boy back from the brink of calamity, and in doing so had learned a lot more about being fire fighters than any textbook or roof rope could ever teach. And the tragedy borne by little Johnny Payne served to demonstrate what the true Brotherhood Of The Job really means. An equally happy ending to this story occurred just three years later in 1994, when Johnny Payne attended yet another graduation ceremony for Recruit Fire Fighters in the City of Camden. His father, Probationary Fire Fighter Daniel Payne, took his place at the base of the drill tower with the 47th Graduating Class. And the tradition goes on, as does the Brotherhood of the Job which is passed to still another generation of Camden Fire Fighters. A brotherhood among many generations of past and present members that serves to link the Department's future to its extraordinary history..

Johnny Payne

Daniel Payne