I’m in a Gypsy Cab, headed up the West Side Highway in Manhattan to 143rd St., “Between Powell and Douglas,” I say to the driver. You couldn’t get a Yellow Cab to take you up there, back then, so you had to take a car. It’s the Fall of 2003, I think – I can’t recall the first time that I had made this trip – I’m with my usual NYC Trip Suspect, Sean, on our way up to the famed “Harlem Hilton” in West Harlem. Ray McCormack is up there waiting for us, about to start the easy-side of a 24, the 9 x 6. We arrive, with requisite pastries and pies, planning to say hello, hang out with friends for a bit, bust balls and head back down to Soho and The Village to make some more bad choices for the rest of the evening. As usual, that is never the case when you visit the gang at The Hilton – and I already knew it. That’s why I love that shop. After downing some coffee, telling stories of the night before’s antics and comparing other notes, we’re squeezing into Engine 69 and Ladder 28 with six other guys in each, off to a vacant.
We arrive to a ubiquitous, Old Law Tenement building that is under demolition. The neighborhood is being bought back up by investors after years of neglect and enduring some of the nation’s heaviest fire-duty during the famed War Years, till present. We get off the rig, exchange some pleasantries with the contractors and for the next few hours, assist in demolishing the building, starting with some doors and locks, then onto making holes in some walls to escape into an adjacent room, if trapped by fire. Since we were onto the whole escape thing, some of the fellas decided to play around with what were some of the remaining, original personal escape systems in the FDNY at the time. They all had them on, of course, because Engine 69/Ladder 28, right? After watching them bail out the 5th floor window a few times, we headed back to enjoy the meal.
I don’t remember what they made that day, but they covered every inch of the plate with food that they put in front of me. We enjoyed a great meal, caught up on all-things FDNY and how the men were holding up from more than a year of working on the pile, attending funerals and rebuilding the largest fire department in the world. Captain Bob Morris, who worked there in 28 when I first started visiting The Hilton was leaving soon to go rebuild Rescue 1, and Ray was still in Engine 69 at the time. I was always amazed at the level of expertise there was on the floor in that firehouse. That’s one of the reasons that I loved going to that place. It exuded experience, tradition, and the proper development of a firefighter. Essentially, if you sucked, you got tossed. Period. There was no other place like it that I knew of, including any place in my own fire department, at the time.
We sat with Ray, hashing out the goings-on in the rest of the world for a while, and decided to head back down to the City, since Ray’s tour was almost over. Yep, we spent the entire day there before we knew it. That’s how it goes up on 143rd St. You never come empty handed when you visit a firehouse, and you never leave, empty handed. We bought up half of their shirt locker for friends and family and walked to down the street to find another Gypsy Cab for the return trip.
I have many of these great memories like these of my visits to The Hilton to see Ray. In fact, I have thousands of other great memories with Ray McCormack, too – perhaps it’s because we’ve been partners in crime for twenty years, now. It has gone by fast, and so has Ray’s career with the FDNY. I think you know why I’m giving you a dose of this nostalgia. That’s right, Lieutenant Ray McCormack has called it a day and has officially retired from the FDNY after 39 years of service.
Let’s all take that in for just a second: 39 years
I’ll bet Ray’s pension that most people reading this aren’t even that old, or that your second wife isn’t even close to this age. That’s a lot of years, and in this job, real experience. Ray has worked in the FDNY a third longer than most of us will ever do in our own jobs, and that’s not because he didn’t know how to find the bridge exit to the Pension Office, it’s because he truly enjoyed the work and what it was really about. Ray is cut from a different cloth, and that’s okay with him. And if you know Ray, you know exactly what I mean. So what does 39 years look like on a one-page resume? Let me give it a shot:
Ray McCormack was appointed to the FDNY on November 7th, 1981 and assigned to Proby School.
Graduated Proby School on December 19th 1981 and assigned to 24 Truck in Midtown Manhattan, near Madison Square Garden.
On May 14th, 1991, Ray was an integral part of the most daring and famous rope rescue in fire service history with Rescue 1. Ray held Firefighter Kevin Shea over the edge of a building with the rope tied around his waist as the only anchor. See the story here and the Rescue 911 video reenactment:
Ray was promoted to Lieutenant on September 3rd, 1994 and assigned to the 16th Battalion where he covered in firehouses all over New York City.
On June 14th, 1997, Ray landed a spot in 69 Engine where he worked for the next ten years
Ray crossed the floor to 28 Truck on June 30th, 2007, where he stayed until his retirement on April 29th, 2020
During his 39 years, Ray worked on several projects for the FDNY and is leaving today after putting the final touches on the new FDNY Engine Company Operations book. This book will surely be the most sought after publication on all-things Engine, and look for its release, shortly.
Whew, now that’s some legacy…
What’s telling about his career in the FDNY is the tenure that he had in the companies he was assigned to. While many departments have their own way of transferring people around, the FDNY lets members work in a spot until they promote, decide to move on, or some else decides that for them. Ray was a Firefighter for 13 years and a Lieutenant for 26 more. He spent 10 years in Engine 69 and 13 years in 28 Truck. That’s a lifetime of experience for any firefighter, but none of that experience was lost on Ray. Ray took that experience and the very best about this job and also put in on paper, and started writing for Fire Engineering over 25 years ago. That’s where the rest of the story continues.
Ray started writing about the job when no one really thought it was cool in big towns to write about the job. Of course there were some stalwarts on the pages of the trade magazines, but very few that got down to the compartments on the rig or the tips that every firefighter should know. Ray paid attention to everything going on at work and took good notes. It’s easy to get lost in your rank, the position that you’re assigned to for the day, or simply the company that you’re in and only what it cares about. Ray’s focus was more eclectic and holistic about firefighting, and although he came from a prestigious truck in his humble beginnings, it was the engine that became his true calling. Why? It’s because he realized how little attention was paid to the most important unit in the fire department. Go ahead, say I’m full of it on that. I’m right and Ray knows it, too. Ray became one of the greatest ever to write about the engine. He talked more about the engine than anyone in history and taught us things that we would never even think about in this kind of company. Ray made being in the engine important again and brought back the peonage of being great in this unit.
Ray also personifies what it meant to be an aggressive, interior firefighter. Many boasted that they were, and still do, but none with the gravitas, longevity and experience that he has. In fact, Ray gave a keynote speech in 2009 that turned the fire service on its ear and challenged the narrative of many special interests. Not to be a contrarian, as he was accused of being, but to be the voice of skepticism and a logical approach – to hit pause for a moment on a national movement of misinformation and misinterpretation. Ray was both vilified and deified at the same time, that day. A fire service Civil War that was brewing erupted, and put Ray in tough spot for a while; however, heads cleared and everyone realized that Ray actually did everyone the greatest favor with that speech: He got everyone talking, not just the special interests at the time, and we still are, today, as a result.
Ray and I were both regulars at FDIC when we met, loved and hated the same people, and knew what was missing in the fire service trade magazine space. Ray and I began work on a top-secret project that was launched as Urban Firefighter Magazine in 2010. It was hard to keep it under wraps, but we managed to pull it off. With some dedicated authors and media talent, we were able to flip the Apple Cart over and give the urban firefighter a voice, space and medium to talk about fires. This was a great time in our lives and some of Ray’s and my proudest memories. Although it was short-lived, it still inspires people to bring everyone the very best training and experience to others, to this very day. I wish you could have all have been on that journey with Ray and me at the time. Having Ray as an editor of that magazine made us all feel like the real fire service was in the right hands.
Ray continues to teach at FDIC and around the country. He is also on the Advisory Board of Fire Engineering, and has recently been on the Advisory Panel for UL FSRI’s Fire Stream Attack and Coordinated Fire Attack studies. He’s not slowing down by pulling the pin at the FDNY. In fact, there’re about 1,000 people that’ll keep him busy, including me. Ray is revered by everyone he taught and collaborated with. He tells it like it is, and you can love him or hate him for that, he doesn’t care. I asked some of our fellow Fire Engineering Advisory Board members to say a few things about Ray and here’s what a few of them came up with:
Bill Gustin, Captain, Miami-Dave Fire Rescue:
Ray McCormack is a highly respected and admired fire service educator throughout the USA because he “gets it.” What I mean by that is that Ray understands that the American Fire Service is not the FDNY and tailors his instruction to be relevant to fire departments of all sizes. Ray gets it because he is a great listener and is genuinely interested in what firefighters think and how their departments operate; especially as it pertains to engine company operations. Ray is an extremely humble man. I knew him for years before I learned, not from him, that Ray was the man on the other end of the rope that lowered Kevin Shea down the side of that building to rescue a trapped occupant. Over the years, Ray has produced dozens of training videos for Fire Engineering and Elkhart Brass. I can think of no finer example of Ray’s passion, experience and insight than his Elkhart Brass “Brass Tacks And Hard Facts” video on the nozzle position firefighter. If you have ever met Ray or attended one of his classes, you know that video is the embodiment of Ray McCormack. Ray has been a wonderful mentor to the young fellas on my company and they look up to him, as I do. Every firefighter who has learned and been inspired by Ray is a better firefighter because of Ray McCormack.
Glenn Corbett, Fire Engineering:
Ray is truly the human anchor, in both the literal and figurative senses. His part in the famed 1991 roof rope rescue cemented his place in FDNY history and lore. His more recent activism in the world of fire behavior research into flow paths and ventilation has forced the fire service to make a more critical and practical assessment of what the research actually tells us in practical firefighting terms.
Congratulations on your retirement, Ray!
Dan Madrzykowski, UL FSRI:
Sometimes “the senior man” likes to rest on their laurels. In other words, they are satisfied with the experience that they obtained during their glory days and they make no further effort to make sure that they have relevant information to share with other firefighters. That is NOT Ray McCormack. Ray, who has significant experience and street cred, also has been investing his time and energy into the most current firefighting research. Ray volunteered to be on the technical panels for UL Firefighter Safety Research Institute projects on Fire Attack and Coordinated Attack. From day one on the tech panel, Ray was all in. He participated in the meetings, traveled to witness experiments at the UL lab and in acquired structures, and most importantly reviewed the data and the reports. Being a tech panel member is a lot of work. Ray has proven that he has been a student of the job over his career, and that is what makes him a valuable teacher and mentor.
Jack Murphy, Fire Engineering:
A ‘Tip for the Helmet’ for your 38 years of service as a firefighter and fire officer in the FDNY. Over the years, your broad knowledge of the job has been a learning & training benefit to all who participated in either your hands-on training evolutions, classroom sessions or the many firefighter conversations you had with your fellow firefighters.
Thank you for all your contributions at the FDIC conferences.
Wishing you the best with your new endeavors!
Becki White, Fire Engineering:
I attended Urban Essentials at FDIC with Ray, ten years after starting in the fire service. I had learned the skills individually before, but my skills were brought to a whole new level with the instruction from Ray and his team. It was also my first introduction to FDIC, which has become an annual trip.
I have also had the opportunity to spend lots of time taking to and learning from Ray in a less formal setting. I have found him to be very compassionate and thoughtful. He listens and provides advice based on his years as a firefighter and fire officer, but also on a personal level, which has helped me through some challenges in my career.
Robin Nicoson, Indianapolis Fire Department
It was great working with you—your work truly made a lasting impact, with so many brilliant and creative ideas and suggestions that I’ve lost track. But you are one that has changed the fire service for the better in so many ways. I always appreciated how you were readily available to lend an ear and help solve any problem. We will miss you very much, but I wish you the best in retirement! Thanks for everything!
Frank Ricci, New Haven Fire Department:
Ray has and will continue to have a large voice in the fire service. He is a hard charging, salty Lt. who drives a Prius. He asks the hard questions and has a reputation as a great instructor and for challenging the latest trends. Debate, asking why and challenging trends is at the heart of Fire Engineering’s mission dating back to it’s early days as a Journal. We all wish Ray a great retirement from the fire department.
William Shouldis, Philadelphia Fire Department:
Ray, thanks for your dedication to being a “role model “ for all first responders. Best wishes and consider us fortunate to have been a part of the “best job“ in the world. I hope you will find great satisfaction in sharing your experience with the next generation of firefighters.
Mike McEvoy, Fire Engineering:
My best memories of Ray McCormack are from our Fire Engineering Advisory Board meetings. Ray takes a lot of information in, much the way Alan Brunacini always did. When he voiced an opinion, it was (again like Bruno), invariably something very thoughtful and well spoken. Ray also, in my opinion, was a firefighter’s firefighter. He taught nothing that he did not do or could not do himself. Leading by example is not a common characteristic in this business. Ray always leads by example.
So what’s next for Ray? Don’t worry, he’s not going anywhere. Ray always has a lot of ideas and things on his plate. His retirement from the FDNY is simply a large chapter that is closing. Imagine the time he’s going to have to teach, write, consult, train, etc. when he’s no longer in an hour and a half and three bridges, each way, car ride into the firehouse. I expect he’ll be back at it, tomorrow morning, in being a part of what you read, hear and do on the fireground and in your firehouse, forever. That’s what Ray is all about, and that’s enough for anyone.
Godspeed in the rest of the story, Ray!