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August 4, 2002

The 30% Club
By Jake Rixner 
There is a little known club in the fire service; I call it the 30% club.  The members of this club have what it takes to get the job done no matter what the circumstances.

I first noticed this club when assigned to 5 Engine in Richmond, Virginia.  5 Engine was the busiest Engine Company in Richmond, for the entire 8 years I was assigned there.  It was a wonderful place for a young fireman to learn his trade.

In the early 1980’s all three shifts at the nickel were taking in about 80 to 100 working fires a year, most of which were in the first due. To really learn how to be a good fireman, one has to go to fires. And the action didn’t get any better than 5 Engine.

Some of the best Officers, and firemen were assigned to the busy house on Leigh Street. Lessons of previous battles were passed down from the senior members.  Friendships were forged that will be taken to the grave.  We also worked with 18 other men assigned to 1 Truck that shared the cramped quarters.  Many of them, were also members of the 30% club.

What is the 30% club?
Have you ever noticed that when first arriving at a working fire, its always the same guys who step-up and take the fight to the fire?  Now far be it for me to point fingers at the rest of the members, but it seems that some guys have a strong urge for self-preservation. Another important point is that someone has to take the hydrant. 

In my early days as a Richmond Fireman, it was always the same guys you bumped into inside a fire building. 

Pitch black smoke, the sound of crackling fire, a campfire noise amplified 100 times by being confined inside a building.  Who is that?  It’s Buzzy, It’s Pinky, It’s Radar, it’s Mikey, It’s Bryan, It’s Grayson, and the list goes on.  Richmond has always been blessed with great firemen; it has been passed down from generation to generation.  It always felt good to be crawling down that long dark, hot hallway with these men. 

Upon finding the fire, the pipe is opened and the steam seams to find every opening in your clothing, making and uncomfortable situation even worse.  Thru clenched jaws you “stick it out” that extra 30 seconds that it takes to turn a second alarm fire into just another all-hands job.

The members of the 30% club know that their work will not be featured on the news, the public will never see what they do. That small burns to the ears, & neck are part of the trade. They know that many second and third alarm fires (which can generate intense media coverage) would have been put out for want of a thirty percenter on the pipe.  Members of the club also know that once the fire is knocked down, there will be a wave of firemen on scene wanting to help pull ceilings and walls, making sure the rub a little soot on themselves. At times it gets so tight you can’t move.

So what is it that drives these guys?  Thirty percenters love the challenge of taking on a force of nature, and living to tell about it.  They know that the true reward working in this business is what you give back to the community, the life you helped save, the building you helped save, the little boys baseball card collection. A little girl’s American girl doll collection.  The family photo album. Things that can never be replaced are some of the things that drive the “thirty percenter”.  There is also a bond, a brotherhood that is formed by shared hardships, and shared danger.  Respect, the respect you get from Officers and co-workers.  I can remember what it meant to me. The many times of “Good job” or the eye contact from officers who know what you just went through, and what you’ve accomplished. The respect your company receives from the Battalion Chiefs.  The respect you receive in the firehouse kitchen, etc.  It feels good to be in the thirty percent club.

How do you join?

You join the club by taking all available training classes. Learn your business so you are not a danger to yourself or those around you. Then you must figure out who in your department is trustworthy, and stick with him at the next fire. Like any trade, you need a mentor to show you the ropes. 

Be careful, the loudest talker at the kitchen table may not be the best fireman on the fireground; its often that quiet guy sitting at the table taking it all in, who just might surprise you at the next worker.  One sure way to tell is to push the line in at the next fire and see who you bump into………I can promise you that it is right then that you will have become a candidate for the thirty percent club. And you may even be seen with a slight grin on your face when one of the pretenders rubs a dirty glove across his face… 

About the author
Jake Rixner is a fire Lieutenant with 20 years service in the Richmond, Virginia Fire Department. He previously worked as a firefighter in Washington DC. His fire service career started as a volunteer in Monroeville, Pennsylvania in 1978 at Company #5 (the busiest in Alleghany County). 

He has had articles featured in Fire Engineering Magazine and has instructed at the FDIC. He is an instructor in Virginia. Lt. Rixner holds an associate's degree in Fire Science. Lt. Rixner still volunteers in Kentland in Prince Georges County, MD.