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From Five Alarms, to Triage

James Gerber, Nursing major, and Lieutenant in the NYC Fire Department
James Gerber, Nursing major, and Lieutenant in the NYC Fire Department
April 6, 2011

Nursing major—and Lieutenant in the New York City Fire Department—James Gerber wants to work in a major trauma center, someday.

“I’ve crawled under trains cars to extricate trapped people,” he says. “I’m a certified EMT, I’ve been to the scene, ‘packaged’ people for the ambulance, and now I want to be part of the next step, the part that happens once patients arrive at a hospital or trauma facility.”

Emergency response

Till he reaches the 20-year minimum for retirement from the Fire Department, Gerber will work in scrubs on some days; fire-resistant boots and uniform on others.  

“We work eight 24-hour shifts a month,” he says of his duties at Engine 279, Ladder 131 in Red Hook, Brooklyn. “And a nurse typically works three 12-hour shifts per week, so that would be a good match for my schedule with the Fire Department.”

Meanwhile, he’s balancing his nursing classes at BMCC—and internships in some of New York’s most challenged hospitals—with a firefighting career.

“The skill sets overlap,” he explains: staying calm in a crisis, applying protocol and responding quickly, when life hangs in the balance.  

Having a direct impact

Nursing isn’t Gerber’s second career, but his third.  Like many, he’s explored his options.

After earning a Bachelor’s degree in Engineering at Boston University, he started a Web-based engineering software company with 1.5 million dollars in seed money, but made a career change after just a few years.

“I realized I didn’t want to sit behind a computer for 18 hours a day, the rest of my life,” he says. “I didn’t have personal interactions in my work, and I felt like what I was doing didn’t have a direct impact on anyone.”

Gerber and his fellow fire fighters have received two unit citations, so far, for the direct impact they’ve made on a number of people’s lives.

“A construction worker fell into the netting, 40 stories up,” he says. In another emergency, “a car went over a cliff, out on the Long Island Sound; it was hanging in the bushes, 30 feet over the water, and we had to get the driver out.” He also helped rescue two highrise window washers whose ropes broke—and harnesses held.

He had been on the job as a firefighter for six months, assigned to a fire station in the South Bronx, when 9-11 struck.

“We got called on the fifth alarm, and I was half a block away when the Towers collapsed. We were in the debris, searching for people, and I was assigned there for three months.”

Hard workers and self starters

Elected as president of his nursing class at BMCC, Gerber also volunteers with a student project collecting toys for Lincoln Medical Center’s Pediatric Unit in the South Bronx, where he completed a clinical rotation.

“I’ve been assigned to a mix of public and private hospitals—Lennox Hill Hospital, the V.A. Medical Center in Manhattan, Bellevue Hospital, and the Metropolitan Hospital Center,” he says. “You get to meet people on the floor, really see what they do.”

He’s started interviewing for nursing jobs, and recently won the nursing department’s Lincoln Fund scholarship, for students who work full time.

“BMCC’s nurses are known citywide as hard workers and self starters,” says Gerber. “You need a high GPA, almost a 4.0, just to get into the nursing department.”

Eventually, he wants to enter an accelerated masters degree program, in nursing or another medical field, and someday retire from the FDNY. But will he miss the camaraderie of the firehouse—the shared meals, communal living, knowing that when the bell sounds, someone’s always “got your back”?  

“The environment of a well functioning unit in a hospital is very similar to that of the firehouse,” Gerber says. “Teamwork is critical in providing the best patient care—in both jobs, reliance on your fellow workers is important. They become your second family.”

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STORY HIGHLIGHTS

  • BMCC nursing student James Gerber is an NYC firefighter
  • Stationed at a firehouse in Brooklyn, he studies while waiting for the alarm
  • He plans to work in hospital emergency care—a skill set he’s already using

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