Industrial firefighter Cory Campbell says he wishes he had a good story about how he lost his left hand in the line of duty. The truth is he was missing that appendage long before his 12-year career in the fire service began.
“I was born without it,” Campbell said. “Nobody knows why it happened.”
Some might claim that being born missing a hand and part of his forearm halfway to the elbow is an unfair adversity. Campbell is not one of them.
“In my opinion it was good luck,” Campbell said. “It’s made me who I am today. I think it’s what gives me a positive outlook.”
He was among 130 attendees at the annual Xtreme Industrial Fire and Hazard Training held in June at Brayton Fire Training Field in Texas.
Campbell, 43, serves as a fire brigade battalion chief at a refinery in Blaine, WA. The 234,000 barrels-per-day refinery is protected by a fire brigade with almost 200 members. Campbell is directly responsible for 35 responders on the brigade.
As an infant, Campbell became one of the youngest children to ever to be fitted with an artificial limb. The idea was that he would naturally adapt to using it like a real hand. However, Campbell almost instantly came to regard the prosthesis as his only true handicap.
“My mom told me that the second I developed enough motor skill in my good hand I took off the artificial one,” Campbell said.
He attributes his ability to function in the workplace to his father who refused to make allowances for Campbell’s perceived deficiency. He taught his son to hunt and fish just like any growing boy with two arms.
“Giving me two complete arms would be the same as taking one away from anyone else,” Campbell said. “I won’t know how to do anything with two arms.”
Because his father was retired from the local refinery, Campbell grew up knowing many people there. When he decided to apply for a job, one of those friends wrote a letter vouching for Campbell’s abilities.
“One wrote that he’d gone hunting with me and that I could do anything with one hand that others do with two,” Campbell said.
It was enough to quiet the few concerned voices heard about hiring a one-handed refinery operator, he said.
“They gave me a shot,” Campbell said. “A fair shot.”
His move into firefighting stirred those concerns once again. Campbell said he has no trouble discussing the issue with anyone.
“I want people to feel comfortable with me,” he said. “One way I do that is that I’m very open about it. I even make jokes about it.”
Campbell said the only way to really insult him is making unfounded assumptions about him not being able to cope with any particular task.
“I’ve always been the kind of guy who was anxious to prove what I could do,” he said. “I might do it a little different and it might take a bit longer, but I can do it.”
For example, handling a hose line involves three key positions – lead, mule and kinker. The lead controls the nozzle and directs the stream of water. Second in line is the mule who keeps the lead standing against the pressure from the open nozzle. Next is the kinker who keeps the hose behind him free of bends that might restrict water flow.
Campbell takes pride in being able to manage all three positions. As lead, he balances the nozzle on his left forearm and operates the bale handle with his right hand.
“Every firefighter should be able to do it with one hand if the mule is doing his job,” he said. “It’s a very straight, easy to maneuver stream.”
Campbell’s biggest incentive to leave operations and become an industrial firefighter full time came in 2012 when the refinery reported its biggest recent emergency. Residual crude from a vacuum unit ignited at a pipe flange, according to the U.S. National Response Center.
“I was the board operator for that crude unit, so I couldn’t go,” Campbell said. “To be honest, I went through several days of depression after that.”
Married for 23 years, Campbell has one child, a 19-year-old niece that he and his wife raised from a baby.
If Campbell has one fault as a firefighter, it is that asking for help when he does need it remains difficult.
“It’s tough for me to accept help from anyone,” he said. “I don’t want them to think they’re helping the one-handed guy.”
As for physical challenges, Campbell will only admit to one problem that all too many of us share.
“My biggest challenge is my weight,” he said.