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Firehouse gang plays winning hand.

Byline: Clive McFARLANE


Early yesterday morning, firefighters responded to a call from a single-family dwelling in the city.

They spent a good portion of the day working that call, but their work went relatively unnoticed.

No fire engines had rumbled to the home with horns blaring. The fire alarm dispatcher didn't mention the call over the radio.

There was no smoke, no fire and no curious onlookers to greet the firefighters when they arrived at the scene.

And when they left later that day, the only person who knew about their visit was the woman on whom they had called.

You see, the call the firefighters made yesterday was not to put out a fire, but to put in a deck and a ramp.

It was merely one of the more than one dozen calls firefighters make each year to help homebound residents gain a smoother access to the outside world, according to Fire Lt. Donald Courtney, who had given me a heads-up on yesterday's project.

I suspect he wanted to make sure I didn't really believe my tongue-in-cheek dig in a previous column that firefighters spend most of their time on the job sitting around, playing cards.

"Well, the firefighters are putting down their cards," he e-mailed me.

"We're packing up the cribbage board and we are going to be driving dirty cars over to - in Worcester on Thursday May 15th to build another handicap ramp for someone unknown to us."

He signed his e-mail the "Worcester Firefighters Ramp Gang," who I subsequently learned are firefighters who use their days off and vacation time to build ramps for handicapped residents throughout Central Massachusetts.

Some are novices, like four-year Firefighter Mike George, who has to work his way up the hierarchy of ramp building by learning how to dig holes.

Others, such as Firefighter Bob LaRose, whose firefighting career has spanned some 37 years, are skilled carpenters who command much respect on these projects.

The ramp program is funded through a collaboration between the firefighters' union and the United Way. The agency has established a ramp-building account, into which many firefighters have asked that their United Way contribution be placed.Yesterday's project was the third undertaken by the firefighters this year. They completed 13 last year.

Their clients include an 11-year-old boy and a 95-year-old woman.

They have worked in the winter, melting snow by hand and digging into the frozen ground. They have worked in summer, when a day off spent at the beach would seem a better way to unwind from their stressful occupation.

In many ways, the ramp program seems a logical complement to the firefighters' regular job. A ramp, for example, could provide a handicapped person with the precious minutes he or she might need to escape a burning building.

But the firefighters I spoke to yesterday appeared giddier with the prospect of doing something that they believe will help people live a more fulfilling life.

Lt. Courtney recalled a woman for whom they had built a ramp in Milford.

"She couldn't wait for us to finish," he said.

"We were hardly done when she wheeled herself onto her deck and began talking to her neighbors. It was the first time she had been able to do that in years."

Three of the individuals for whom they have built ramps over the past couple of years have since died, but the Ramp Gang is consoled by the thought that they were able to give those individuals a few months to a year of quality time.

"One of the greatest feelings is watching a person who has been housebound for years rolling down the ramp we have just built," Lt. Courtney said.

"You take your dirty hands, brush them off, pick up your tools, and walk off happy with the fact you have given another person access to the outside world."

Contact Clive McFarlane via e-mail at

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Title Annotation:LOCAL NEWS
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:May 16, 2008
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