Fighting deadlines by day and fires by night
Robert Imbriaco works at Gateway Operations at DHL Global Forwarding in Newark, New Jersey in the U.S. There, he handles freight arriving from all over the U.S. for international ocean-bound shipment. When he's not at work, he's a voluntary firefighter, and recently responded to calls during superstorm "Sandy".
Robert Imbriaco: "If my pager goes off, I drop everything and I'm out the door - it can be midnight or 3 am in the morning."
How long have you been with DHL?
I joined the company 15 years ago. Initially, I worked in Customer Service. I moved into my current role two years later. It's a job I really enjoy. There are lot of deadlines and pressure, so I guess I must thrive on that on some sort of level. Basically, it's about keeping the customer satisfied. I'm happy when I know I'm helping to make things work.
When did you become a firefighter?
About three or four years ago. I'd tried to become a paid fireman after leaving college, but there was a long waiting list, and then I moved to a place where it was a volunteer only service. I've always wanted to make a difference, wanted to be an active part of my community. I felt firefighting was the best way to do it. And it's one of the best things I've ever done.
It's a pretty dangerous way to do voluntary work.
There are inherent risks in everything, but my attitude is if I'm going to do it, I'm going to do it right. To make sure you, your colleagues and the people you're trying to help stay safe, you have to think on your feet and be smart.
You must have undergone some rigorous training.
Yes, that's right. I'm a State Certified Firefighter. I had to pass through the fire academy. That took about six months in all. I learned all about the equipment, different firefighting techniques, and became CPR certified. And because I live near a flood zone, I had to do a boating course and get a boating license. I did this all alongside my main job and my sports activities - I'm also a hockey referee.
Where do you find the time and enthusiasm?
I've always had a crazy schedule since I was at high school. At 16, I was working a full-time college schedule, but still found time to play hockey. I think you just get used to it, to being busy. If you want to pursue things that are important to you, you simply find the time. In the hockey season, I'm refereeing three or four nights a week. At the weekends I referee kid's hockey. With firefighting, if my pager goes off, I drop everything and I'm out the door - it can be midnight or 3 am in the morning.
So when do you sleep?
I don't usually have a problem. Before Sandy, I'd say I averaged about three to four call-outs a week, responding to fire alarm detection incidents and car accidents. But I haven't slept much lately. During the week of the storm, I was called out three, four or even five times a night. But thinking back to Hurricane Irene last year, it was worse. We were in action for over 24 hours without a break.
What were you doing during Sandy?
I attended two structure fires, and two rescues. One fire happened at the height of storm. The second floor of a building was completely engulfed. Unfortunately, the second fire was fatal. We just couldn't get to the guy in time. The rescues both involved houses where trees had crashed through the roof, bringing down power cables. In one, we had to get a 90-year-old woman out of a crushed house that was surrounded by live power lines. That call came just as we'd packed up after the second fire.
How do you deal with those situations psychologically?
You just focus. You just blot out all the outside distractions and focus on what you need to do. And you pay attention to your surroundings. There might be trees down and there'll be others threatening to come down at any time. There are live power lines on the ground, hanging in the air, or draped across buildings. You've just got to concentrate on what you have to do. You look after yourself and your colleagues, and get the person out safely. That's where all the training comes in. Everything kicks in once you respond to a call, once you arrive on the scene. It all becomes automatic.
How long were you out in Sandy?
Most of the time. I'd just got back home after attending a fire, when another call came in just after midnight. Then there was a lull, and I went back home again to check on my family and my house. Luckily, everyone's fine and everything's intact. We did lose power at day break, though, and I had to fire up my generators. We feel very fortunate. Some people back at the office were a lot worse off. I consider myself extremely lucky that my family are safe and my house is still there. Some people can't say that. We've all been helping in any way we can.
Your family probably don't get to see you very much, but they must be very proud.
They understand that firefighting is an important job, and that it's important to me. They really didn't see me much during Sandy. But my little ones were telling their friends that their dad's a fireman and is out there helping. No matter what, I always find time to do stuff with my kids. They both skate, and I'm teaching my older daughter to play hockey. I used to be a hockey coach as well as a referee.
And how do your DHL colleagues respond?
They respect what I do. They're interested and always ask questions when I tell them about a call. And they say I come in handy during fire drills. I think people are happy to have someone qualified near by. It's nice to have that respect.
Are there any similarities between your two roles?
At DHL we have lots of deadlines to meet. You know, people are always talking about 'putting out fires'. When problems come up, and the rug gets torn out from your feet, you have to find a solution in next to no time. You have to keep operations going and keep the customer happy. So yes, there are some similarities.
What have you learned in one job that helps you in the other?
The first thing is don't panic. The second is take a step back and see what you're dealing with. When you go to a fire, you don't just grab equipment and run into the house. You assess the situation, the potential dangers, and the resources you have. That carries over to my work at DHL. When things go wrong, there's no use pointing fingers. That just wastes time and energy. I'm also what we call HazMat certified, meaning I'm qualified to handle hazardous freight, so there's another overlap between the two jobs. And as a firefighter, you have to trust your colleagues. You go into a fire in teams of two. You're totally reliant on each other. In one house fire, I was the back-up to the guy on the nozzle. He was hit by a live power line and was electrocuted. I pulled him off the cable just in time. I couldn't see anything because of the smoke, but I heard what was happening and I just pulled him away. At DHL, a good part of my job is reliant on others doing theirs. And people further down the line are reliant on me doing mine. That's what makes it all work. In both roles, what matters is teamwork and trust.
Author: Carol Stocks, Central Editorial Team