Posted 1/26/05, Photos by Bob Karp\Daily Record

Morristown 'Probies' firefighters (Jan. 26, 2005)

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01/26/05 - Posted from the Daily Record newsroom
At the bottom of the ladder

The firefighters surrounded the white, four-door, 1990 Toyota in the Speedwell Avenue firehouse in Morristown.

After stabilizing the car by bracketing its tires with wooden blocks, firefighters Stuart Williamson and Alex Cadena used the "jaws of life" to open the driver-side door.

Firefighter Joseph Sanfelice Jr. broke a couple of windows. John Carlson and Cadena yanked off another door while fireman Nick Prizzi and Probationary Full-Time Firefighter ("Probie") Christian Mussner cut off the roof with industrial mechanical saws.

In less than 15 minutes, the car was a convertible and the firehouse was filled with auto parts.

"Now, somebody clean this mess," said Capt. Jon "Pracht" Prachthauser, who had been running the training session. There was never any doubt who that somebody was going to be; the "probie" would do the cleaning.

Without hesitation, Mussner grabbed a broom and spent the next 10 minutes cleaning up. The rest of the guys put away some tools, before walking back to the firehouse's lounge area.

Such is life in the firehouse for a "probie," who is at the bottom of the seniority totem pole and gets stuck with the jobs no one else wants. With the tour's schedule of 24-hours on, 72-hours off; the "probie" is the clerk, secretary, janitor, and assistant.

Mussner is one of three "probies" this year. The others are Joseph R. Sanfelice III, and the chief's son, Philip K. Barter. The department, which has 32 full-time firefighters, has four tours. Each tour is made up of a certain number of firefighters, eight when fully staffed, and each has at least one probationary firefighter.

When not running to get lunch at the deli across the street from the firehouse or cleaning the bathrooms, Mussner sits behind his mentor Williamson in the engine when they're out on calls.

After the routine training, Mussner typically operates the front desk of the firehouse, built in the early-'70s. The "probie" handles incoming calls from residents seeking help with anything from pets stuck in a tree to real fires.

"We don't rescue pets from trees anymore," said Chief Dave Barter, at his office. "It takes too long and we risk unnecessary injuries."

Before the training on Thursday, Mussner had accompanied Williamson on a call up the road to Headquarters Plaza. The call was one of about a dozen false alarms at the plaza during the past few weeks, Prachthauser said.

Mussner played a bigger role last week, since Tour 3 firefighter Barry Howard was out on sick leave.

Back at the firehouse, lunch is at the table in the lounge, where everyone, except the "probie," ate some kind of sandwich. Mussner had chili with an egg bagel -- not to be different -- because he enjoys good chili.

"Breakfast of champions," the "probie" explained, smiling.

Over the summer, while many of the "probies" were still volunteer firefighters, Prachthauser led Tour 3 and a few would-be "probies" on a practice on Jefferson Road for several hours, jumping safely out of first- and second-floor windows, breaking through walls and simulating rescuing a person from a home.

The crew did not use actual flames in the course of the training exercise; they practice extinguishing actual flames back in headquarters.

"There are limited amounts of places to have off-site training like this," Prachthauser said, about the off-site training. "It's unheard of to have this access."

Prizzi, a four-year fireman in Morristown, was the first to jump from the second floor of the house over the summer. He used a thin, fire-resistant rope to rappel back down. The training is an essential part of the job, which eventually becomes second-nature, he explained.

In a real fire "once the adrenalin takes over, you act much quicker," Prizzi said.

"Our role is to provide service, protection and education to residents," said Barter, who has been chief since 2000. "Morristown is changing and just like the business community develops, we have to develop to provide our services."

Mussner, a 30-year-old lifelong Morristown resident, was a volunteer with the department for a dozen years. Ever since becoming full-time, he said he forgets to pick up his paycheck.

"It feels weird getting paid for this," the "probie" said. "But now that I'm just like one of them, they've really accepted me."

Carlson called to Mussner after the rookie had cleaned up the garage.

'"Probie,'" said Carlson, a 28-year veteran, with a boyish grin, "Stop talking and hurry up and handle the phones."

Mussner quickly walked to the front desk area, where Prachthauser waited for him to assign about a dozen more tasks for the remainder of his shift. "Pracht," the family guy of the bunch, looks out for the "probie," but explained there's only one way to find out what the kid is made of.

"It only happens during a real fire," said the captain. "That's when we know who we really have on board remember, this is the best job in the world."