We often view firefighters as nearly invincible. Known for their bravery, it’s tough for the average civilian to imagine the toll this line of work can take on a person; and yes, these men and women are in fact human beings, not superhumans. But thankfully, there’s nothing that good food and hearty conversation with friends can’t heal—or at least soften for a few hours.
Friends of Firefighters, a non-profit with headquarters in Red Hook, Brooklyn, is dedicated to providing counseling, acupuncture, and other wellness services to active and retired FDNY firefighters and their families. Nancy Carbone, the founder and executive director, started FoF shortly after 9/11. Since then, the organization has grown to eight chapters that spread across every city borough; they even get requests to open locations in other states.
“Five of my friends were firefighters [during 9/11], and they all survived,” she says. “My great uncle was killed in the line of duty before I was born, so I was raised with an understanding that as my mom would say, ‘they’re a cut above.’ And they never need anybody’s help,” explains Carbone.
Due to her career in postpartum home care and experience working with families who’d lost an infant through delivery or stillbirth, Carbone instantly thought ahead after 9/11.
“My thinking immediately went to ‘what happens to survivors after this? How do they go forward?”
She says she didn’t set out to start a nonprofit, just to help those who might need it. “I just went to a firehouse in my beat-up car, said, ‘what do you need?’” Carbone recalls.
Her response was vastly appreciated by multiple firehouses—so much so that a company in Brooklyn eventually asked her to open a place where FDNY active and retired members could go for counseling outside of the department. A Red Hook family with a lot of property let her rent a storefront that they owned on Columbia Street, and the rest is history.
Five of my friends were firefighters during 9/11, and they all survived. My great uncle was killed in the line of duty before I was born.
“Firefighters came from ground zero to come build out this place into a counseling center,” she says. “I was sort of just the one to fill out the papers, and in February 2002 I incorporated it as a non-profit.”
FoF depends heavily on donations, as well as participation in its events, such as the Annual Fall Gala. But Carbone credits much of her organization’s success to the firefighters she’s encountered during FoF’s growth. As she and her staff know, there is a tremendous, often overlooked need to tend to first responders in a comfortable, confidential way, and relying on the community itself was crucial to their success.
“They drove this whole organization,” she says of the founding firefighters. “They created it, and they’re the ones who informed the staff and me as to how things should be. Without their participation, we wouldn’t have an organization, period.”
The On the Arm Breakfast is one of the cornerstones of FoF’s event calendar. Besides “on the arm” being a term for “free of charge,” this exchange of help and companionship informs the name of the monthly breakfast. Started in 2007, the free meal is offered to all current and retired FDNY members and their families. The breakfast is prepared by retired firefighters Tony Catapano and Pete Calascione, who have been part of the organization for many years, and even lent their hands in the restoration of their headquarters—fittingly housed in a former fire station on Van Brunt Street.
“Firefighters moved out of here in 1960,” says Catapano. “Since then it’s been a chop shop, fish wholesaler, dance studio, art studio, and a number of other things.”
Tradition is an important part of firefighter culture, and being headquartered in a firehouse (even one that is non-operational) means a lot. Volunteers and donors outfitted the building with red and black spiral stairs, a mock pole, old photos of past fire companies, and one-of-a-kind artifacts from other FDNY firehouses, including an activity log from 1898.
“Every single man and officer wrote in here,” Calascione beams as we flip through it. “Look at the handwriting! Script is a lost art.” The new kitchen at the center was also specifically modeled to resemble a firehouse kitchen: cozy, simple, and communal.
Events like the On the Arm Breakfast are also crucial in helping to forge new bonds between young and senior firefighters. Bill Hodgens, a retired firefighter who’s been attending the breakfasts for a few years now, explains that the number of mortalities and career-ending injuries caused by 9/11 resulted in a bit of a generation gap. With so many seasoned firefighters gone, “probies”—short for probational firefighters—are at risk for missing out on a lot of wisdom and advice.
Healing infers you can get over it and walk away unscathed; that’s not the truth. You’re going to carry the scars and that’s just the way it is.
“We lost a lot of guys with seniority [on 9/11]. With losing that knowledge, we want people to come in here because it’s low-key,” says Hodgens. “These new guys are missing the knowledge that we got when we came on. This [breakfast] can help add to that, and help them when they’re on the job.”
The breakfast is casual, and is mostly made-to-order. The kitchen is quaint but warm, and the food is better than what you’d find at many brunch joints in Brooklyn. My picturesque breakfast made by Calascione is all the evidence I needed that these firefighters are putting real care into their fare; he sets a plate of mascarpone- and Nutella-stuffed French toast, prepared with fresh challah bread and macerated berries. Firefighters may seem rough around the edges in the movies, but Calascione finessed all the details on my plate, dusting my meal with powdered sugar and finishing the dish with a fanned strawberry.
“It started out with eggs, home fries, and bacon,” says Catapano. “Eventually we went to pancakes, French toast; Pete makes grits and bread pudding. When we first moved here, we were doing breakfast while we were working, on just two portable gas butane stoves. It was enough to satisfy everyone.”
Food and mealtime are important parts of every firehouse: the teams get as close as family both through the intensity of their work and their downtime. While there’s usually at least one person in charge of cooking, everyone chips in to chop, peel, and get food on the table.
“Everybody gets involved,” says Catapano. “We sit down together and hopefully we finish the meal [before getting a call]; that’s the nature of the beast.”
It should come as no surprise that when Catapano was an active firefighter, he was the one preparing meals for his company. “You want to make something that everybody is going to enjoy. Before you go out and buy everything, you ask what everyone feels like having. The young guy will say they want this, they want that—we don’t get that,” he jokes.
Firefighters may seem rough around the edges in the movies, but Calascione finessed all the details on my plate, dusting my meal with powdered sugar and finishing the dish with a fanned strawberry.
Despite their inherent instinct to help each other, many firefighters and first responders feel there is still a vivid stigma that surrounds seeking professional help, specifically from a counselor. Hodgens explains that when he first started coming to FoF, he was “going through some really dark times, some really hard situations in life that I needed something other than my own self to get through it.”
He recalls seeing other individuals come in for a FoF event and initially walk out because “it brings back too many memories.” The guilt of receiving more than they give is also a tough one to swallow, especially for people whose whole careers are built on putting themselves in danger to help others.
“I used to feel guilty coming in here because I got so much out of it. I thought I was getting stuff, and I should be giving more,” Hodgens says. “It was benefitting me and I didn’t know how to feel comfortable with that. Coming here, I never thought I’d be able to say it, but you learn to laugh at yourself, and it gets easier.”
Carbone is well versed in the daily sacrifices and traumas firefighters and their families endure. The perception of a stigma alone is enough to keep someone from asking for help, especially in a profession predicated on toughness. But she worries that the perception will keep firefighters from taking services they need. “Then what happens?” she asks. “They fall through the cracks.”
Friends of Firefighters also emphasizes the importance of offering their services to the spouses, partners, and children of firefighters, as well.
“If you think about being the wife or husband of a firefighter or the child, every time they walk out the door, you know that could be it,” Carbone says. “And after 9/11, if your uncle, your brother, your father, your sister, or your son could have been or was killed, you still have to let that guy go out the door. This is what they live with—what the general public does not know.”
I used to feel guilty coming in here because I got so much out of it.
To come together with other families and firefighters under one roof in an old firehouse—that’s a new kind of brotherhood, and support that’s difficult for many to come by in one-on-one therapy or even traditional group counseling. Retired firefighters have it especially tough; many hesitate to reenter their old firehouses because their teams are long gone and they may not be recognized.
“Shortly after I [retired], my hair got long, I grew a beard, [and] it was snowing so I had snow in my beard,” Hodgens recalls with a smile. “And I walked [to the back of the rig] to talk to some guys. And someone asked ‘who’s that homeless guy, what’s he doing here?’ I worked 20 years in that firehouse and they think I’m some homeless guy!”
This sense of isolation is what FoF and events like their breakfast aim to eliminate. Hodgens explains that volunteering for FoF feels like a job to him—in a good way.
“If you don’t show up enough times, people wonder where you are. I’ll get phone calls where people are like ‘where you been?’ It’s something in the outside world that you’re not gonna get. Here it’s just different,” he says.
This is the unique brotherhood that Friends of Firefighters seeks to preserve and foster—Carbone doesn’t like to use the word “heal” at the firehouse.
“Healing infers you can get over it and walk away unscathed; that’s not the truth,” she says. “You’re going to carry the scars and that’s just the way it is; but how you develop a new norm for yourself, you do it with people you can share with.” Sharing some food just seems to take the load off.
All Photos by Mackenzie Anne Smith