John Dowling, a City of Gainesville firefighter at Station 2, shares his life as a husband, father and hero
By: Sasha Fields
Darkness nearly swallowed him on that Tuesday afternoon. Smoke invaded the surrounding sky and thickened as the novice firefighter approached the scene. Flames exploded out of every crevice of the home, with strong winds breathing new life into the inferno. Dowling trudged into the home, carrying the weight of his 70-pound gear on his back and a conflicting combination of fear and bravery in his heart. With a few small steps, daylight disappeared along with any spatial awareness. As bullets from a loaded gun case thundered all around him, he began to understand just how firefighters lose their lives in the darkness.
This was one of Dowling’s very first encounters with fire and although it was years ago, he still remembers every last detail—like how the smoke and flames altered his reality and made a 1,600 square-foot home feel like a giant warehouse. He recalled finally understanding why the training was so very intense, and how it could never have completely prepared him for that day.
“That was definitely a moment—a reality check of wow what did I get myself into,” he said. “This is the real deal.”
Dowling did not idolize firefighters as a young boy. It was a dream that occurred later in life. Born in Jacksonville, Fla., Dowling’s parents separated when he was very young. He moved around quite a bit and as he rattled off city after city, he explained that he always felt that he lacked roots. He received a recording engineering degree from Full Sail University in 2001 but didn’t fit into the corrupt music scene. He worked for his dad, a pool contractor, in Jacksonville for six years but felt unfulfilled by the trade. Dowling said that he would come home grumpy after hours upon hours of working in the smoldering Florida sun—he dreaded getting up for work each day.
“That’s around the time I figured out that I got to do something,” he said. “There’s got to be something better than this.”
His wife’s cousin was a firefighter and was genuinely happy. He suggested that Dowling give it a try.
Before he could pursue the career path, he and his wife needed to save money. He attended EMT school and in January 2006, he was accepted to the Florida State Fire College in Ocala. After graduation, Gainesville was his first choice but he knew that he needed to apply everywhere and was hired by the City of Jacksonville Beach Fire Department.
It was what he had hoped it would be. He lives by the idea that you get what you put out in the world. He finally had a true sense of honor and purpose and felt that he was making a positive impact.
Despite his success and growth in Jacksonville, he couldn’t get his first-choice department out of his mind. His wife had grown up in Gainesville, and it was where he always dreamed of raising his family. Finally, in March 2011, Dowling beat out 800 other applicants and became one of the 13 new firefighters hired. But with great joy also came inconsolable sorrow for his family.
In October 2011, John and his wife, Lara, lost their second son. At 23 and a half weeks, Lara’s water broke. The parents spent only 40 minutes with Shane, but Dowling said that even though the time with his son was far too brief, it was precious.
“I’m glad that I got the time that I did with him,” he said.
Although he had only been with the station for seven months, their support created an inseparable bond. Dowling’s lack of roots growing up made him more reclusive with his fellow firefighters. He was not accustomed to letting his peers in. The light at the end of this dark tunnel was the trust he developed with his fellow firefighters. In this dangerous career, trust is everything. Firefighters are dependent on one another for their survival. They raised money for Dowling and, as time passed, the firefighters became members of his family. Firefighters are part of an exclusive fraternity but Dowling did not truly experience it until after tragedy struck.
“It’s the people that make the department,” he said.
The firehouse is his second home. A few stray dishes rested in the sink and a television hummed in the background. His “office” is also where he eats his meals and sleeps—if it’s not a busy night. At this particular fire station, there are almost always several calls each night. Firefighters work 24 hours on and 48 hours off. Throughout his 24-hour workday, Dowling and his fellow firefighters are always training. They take this proactive approach very seriously. An onsite gym and other training equipment keep the team busy each day when they’re not responding to calls.
Dowling explained that that is one of the most common misconceptions about firefighters. Some people picture an overweight fireman relaxing on a couch with a Dalmatian by his side. This image couldn’t be further from reality. In addition to daily duties, the firefighters are also active in community events and give tours of the station to local students.
“We spend every weekday training or doing something along those lines,” he said. “We do not get a lot of down time.”
It’s a career that he takes home with him every day. As a firefighter and paramedic, he’s seen it all and he takes every preventative measure possible with his own family. Food should be cut into tiny bites for his infant son, Grant, and his wife must always wear a seatbelt.
As one firefighter headed out for a quick lunch and another raced up and down the station’s training structure, Dowling once again stressed how good his fellow firefighters are. Good at their jobs, yes, but also good people. It’s an unpredictable career that has changed the way Dowling sees the world and has also given him immense pride. As he finished his thought, a powerful siren screamed in the firehouse. Today, it’s a serious car accident but no one knows what the next alarm will bring. It’s a well-oiled machine—there is no time to hesitate. Within seconds the team boarded the fire truck and with the blast of a wailing siren sped off to save another life.