“Every sailor is a firefighter.”
If you’ve ever served in the United States Navy, there is a 100% chance that you’ve heard that phrase.
The reasoning is simple.
When you’re out at sea and your ship catches on fire — which happens surprisingly often — no local fire department is coming to rescue you. So every sailor, from their earliest days in uniform, is trained to achieve at least a basic familiarity with the tools and techniques to put out the flames.
Yet even on ships full of trained firefighters, there is a select group of specialists whose sole job is to fight fires and put a stop to any number of other potential catastrophes.
These are the Damage Controlmen.
Fire Department Coffee’s founder and president Luke Schneider joined the Navy in 2004 specifically to become a Damage Controlman. It was the best possible training, he figured, for his ultimate goal of becoming a professional firefighter in civilian life.
His plan worked to perfection, and along the way he served alongside some of the bravest, most dedicated men and women imaginable.
Among them was Paul Conway, who retired in 2020 with the rank of chief petty officer after more than 20 years as a Damage Controlman aboard a variety of vessels large and small.
“When I joined, I was trying to pick out a specialty,” he said. “The recruiter laid out some options and Damage Controlman was one of them. I thought, ‘I really like starting fires, so maybe I’d be good at putting them out.’”
Growing up, Conway was not an arsonist but he was most definitely an adrenaline junkie. He was drawn to anything that gave him a rush, a feeling of being fully alive.
He found that feeling over and over again in the Navy.
There was the time aboard the USS Austin when the alarm sounded and he was dispatched to deal with a fuel tank rupture. Except this was a 150,000-gallon tank full of aviation fuel. He found himself lying down in a bilge overflowing with fuel as he tried desperately to plug 12- to 16-inch holes in the tank.
Or there was the time aboard the USS Enterprise when an industrial dryer caught fire. There’s a lot of laundry to be done on an aircraft carrier with 6,000 people, and the fire jumped from one dryer to the next until half the ship was choked with thick, suffocating smoke.
“That adrenaline was something I chased for my entire career,” said Conway, now a project manager at a shipyard in Jacksonville, Florida. “And I had a good time doing it.”
Nick Pinero still has chemical burns on his legs, a little souvenir to remember the day aboard the USS Enterprise when ruptured fuel lines ignited a fire in a fuel pump room.
He and his fellow Damage Controlmen descended 50 feet into the tight space where the spilled fuel rose five feet high and a barrage of foam was the only way to put out the flames.
“You don’t even know what you’re doing at that point,” he said. “You’re just smacking everything with foam.”
The fire began just after dinner, he recalled. The fight lasted until 2am.
On the aging USS Enterprise, firefighting was a full-time job and then some. By Pinero’s estimate, he could count on two fires and a flood every day while at sea.
“The older the ship, the more you’re going to have it,” he said. “You’re just trying to make it go.”
The USS Enterprise was finally decommissioned in 2017 after more than half a century of service. Conway was aboard the Enterprise for its final deployments and its final days.
“She was rode pretty hard for 51 years,” he said.
Schneider, Conway and Pinero saw the world during their years as shipboard firefighters. All three earned the prestigious title of “shellback,” which is bestowed upon a sailor once they have crossed the equator.
They saw the world and they drank bottomless cups of coffee, though the quality was rarely anything to write home about.
“It was nasty, tar oil stuff a lot of the time,” Pinero said, noting that they were not above recycling coffee grounds for multiple brews. “Every freaking day, all night. It doesn’t matter. You’ve got to stay awake.”
Pinero now lives in McKenney, Virginia, where he owns an engineering firm and raises livestock on his family farm. He has been a Fire Dept. Coffee customer since the very beginning. He’s a member of the Coffee of the Month Club, but his go-to roast of choice is the Spiced Rum Infused Coffee.
A fitting choice for a sailor.
An old Navy tradition dictates that you don’t wash your coffee cup. This allows the remnants to build up like grease on a cast iron skillet.
Today, Conway drinks his coffee from a reliable stainless steel cup. His wife recently popped open the lid and did a double take.
“What is this?” she said.
“Don’t touch it,” Conway shot back. “That’s years of seasoning.”
Conway prefers his coffee strong, the darker and blacker the better. Old habits die hard.
“The ship might run out of a lot of things,” Conway said, “but there’s always coffee onboard, guaranteed.”
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