As a full time firefighter working over 72 hours a week I realized that even with overtime pay I wasn't making enough money to support my growing family. With 10 years of firefighter experience under my belt it was time to venture into something new, teaching myself how to sew, and this grew into the extra income that I desperately needed. All this happened right as my wife gave birth to our first son in 2013.
I want you to know who I really am, what I’ve struggled to overcome and some of my biggest wins in life. My friends and family have watched as I struggled from one “Great” idea to the next, all on this journey "From fighting fire to sewing fire hose"!
So take a few moments and read this short timeline of how I grew up and grew into a firefighter/entrepreneur. I hope it helps you get to know the REAL me!
That's me on the right dressed up as a ghost buster back in 1989!
Many firefighters will tell you that they wanted to be a fireman since they were 10 years old. My desire to put on those cool uniforms and run into burning buildings didn't came as a child actually. When I was 10 I really wanted to be an army man. I would frequently wear my camouflage army clothes and go walking through the woods behind my country house in Illinois.
My twin brother and I would play a modified version of hide and seek where I would disguise myself in some bushes or trees and he would spend the next hour trying to find me. I actually thought I was arnold swarzenneger from the movie Predator when Arnold rubbed mud on himself in an attempt to camoflauge himself from the predator.
My 3 year old playing the custom drums I built.
As I began junior high I quickly grew out of the army man phase and began the drumming phase. My older sister had a boyfriend that could play the drums and was in our local high school marching band. He took some time to teach me some of the drumming fundamentals and so set me on a path to what I thought would be me becoming a punk rock star. I would practice for hours a day in the room above my garage, probably much to the annoyance of my parents, and quickly became good enough to try out for my freshman drum line.
What I thought would be an easy try out for my high school marching band drum line turned into a tough lesson in my early life. I was obviously too unskilled as a snare drummer to make the cut and was told by the band director that I should play the baritone instead. What seemed like a sure thing quickly turned into me teaching myself how to play a brass instrument instead. I went on to play baritone for a year until I could try out for the drum line my sophomore year. After another year of practice I successfully made the cut for the drum line and went on to really love marching band.
I was quickly learning as a senior in high school that the type of girls I was going after didn't date band nerds like I me. So instead of continuing with the drum line I started a punk rock band and began playing drums for local shows in our small town of Bloomington Indiana. Early on I realized that not only would it take a lot of hard work to get my band a record deal, it was going to take a lot of luck. It soon became obvious after a year or so that our band was good, but lacked the star power most punk labels looked for to bring on board with a contract.
This love of drumming actually turned into my first try at being an Entrepreneur. I began making and selling custom drums to friends and people I knew in the music scene. I did this as a hobby/part time job for several years until I lost interest and focused on the fire service.
This is me at Fire Academy graduation in 2004.
So after graduation high school and breaking up with my on again off again girlfriend I decided to move to Clearwater florida where I would attend St Pete College’s Fire Academy. I didn't move down to florida with the goal of becoming a firefighter, I was actually escaping the midwest for new experiences and searching for a fresh start after a final breakup.
I remember driving down to clearwater beach and seeing this huge fire truck blazing past me, it was in that moment I realized I needed that sort of excitement in my life. So I drove down to the community college and enrolled in the fire science program. As Emergency Medical School and the St Pete College Fire Academy kicked off I realized that I had really found my calling.
Not only was I able to wear all the cool gear and uniforms, but I really excelled at the classroom work. I also loved learning how to tie knots and climb ladders all while wearing 60-75lbs of gear and tools. I wasn't much for the classroom experience growing up in school, but its funny how things change when you are actually interested in the field of study. I was the top of my class in both EMT school and Fire Academy out of over 100 type A personalities.
After graduating fire academy I began looking for jobs at local fire departments. I applied at over 50 fire houses and began the long and arduous process of testing and interviewing before being told over and over that I wouldn't get the job. I sometimes drove for over 200 miles to other cities like Orlando and Orange county Florida just to apply for 30 jobs with over 2,000 other applicants. This taught me two things, I had to keep trying no matter what and I needed better odds! So with the pestering of my twin brother who lived in louisville kentucky I packed my 1996 ford ranger with all of my belongings and moved to the midwest.
As the top student in my fire academy I thought it would be a cake walk when it came to getting a full time firefighting job. I was wrong, it took me almost 3 years before I finally got that phone call. I was sitting in a Wendy’s eating a spicy chicken sandwich with my wife, who at the time was only my girlfriend when the chief of lafayette township fire department called to congratulate me. I’ll never forget that first full time job.
Although I thought being the top of my class was something special, I soon learned that all the accolades in the world mean nothing when you're the new hire. So show up early and leave late and don't act like you know everything. I worked hard and kept my mouth shut, I learned many valuable lessons with that first full time job. One of the biggest ones being that I wasn't making enough money to support a family.
Louisville, Jefferson County Kentucky.
I knew I needed a raise, and with most fire departments your raises are based on years of service. It was going to take me almost 10 years before I would be making only $40k, and my starting salary was only $30k a year with overtime. This was barely minimum wage after you accounted for all the hours I was working.
With that being said it is still one of the greatest jobs on the planet! So I applied at some other fire departments in the Louisville Kentucky area and got hired at Eastwood Fire Department which was a combination career and volunteer department with 2 fire houses and about 30 employees.
As I repeated the new hire process I realized I had made a good choice by joining this new fire department. The guys were knowledgable and the crews I worked with were laid back and easy going. I would frequently goof off with the guys and in our down time we watched a lot of sports center and trained frequently.
Sitting behind this old industrial sewing machine has quickly become my home.
With the constant flow of a firefighters schedule now firmly cemented into my lifestyle. I set off to search for some part time income on the days that I wasn't at the firehouse. I was on duty only 10 days a month so this meant I could work from home the other 20 days.
Although working only 10 days a month sounds like a cake walk, you have to remember that your first day off from shift often involves catching up on much needed sleep since car wrecks and house fires typically happen in the middle of the night while on duty. My main goal for a second source of income would be the ability to work from home. With my wife who I had just married a couple years before, being newly pregnant and due anytime now, she really needed me home to watch the baby.
My son and I in 2014
With my first born son on his way in march the search was on for a part time work from home job. I had slowly been teaching myself how to sew backpacking hammocks from watching YouTube videos and had even sold several to friends for a decent profit.
Although sewing hammocks wasn't super technical, it involved long lengths of stitching and took too much time to really make it worth while after costs were factored in. Late one evening on one shift at the firehouse I was taking the stations trash out and noticed that someone had thrown away a bunch of the old fire hoses. I quickly asked the chief if he would mind if I could take it home and make something out of it. He told me to "knock myself out", so I took that first piece of fire hose home and turned it into some terrible looking iPad sleeves.
Yes those early products were absolutely terrible, but I was learning and there were no How-To manuals on how to sew fire hose. I soon realized that only hours and hours of repetitive sewing would give me the skills I needed to put out quality sewn goods.
After about 200 different failed products and prototypes that I thought would be a sure hit I landed upon a minimalist credit card wallet I called “The Sergeant”.
See the Fire Hose Sergeant Wallet Here.
This wallet was the product of 6 months of nose to the grindstone research and development. This single product would change my life, it was apparent that it filled a gap in the market that no other wallet could. It also allowed me to finally work from home and sew wallets for a little extra income. No amount of training would prepare me for what happened next though.
The Sergeant wallet after being in the hands of some initial, and very loyal instagram followers, began circulating around the everyday carry community like wildfire. These die hard gear collectors started showing off their wallets and became amazing brand ambassadors for Recycled Firefighter. What started as a goal to bring in part time income to support my wife and new baby quickly grew into a full time business. To check out how much the community has grown on Instagram Follow me HERE.
A batch of Desert Tan and Multicam Arid U.S. Combat Boot Leather Sergeants.
No amount of speed sewing would allow me to meet the demand for my wallets and other products. "The Sergeant" slim wallet took off like a rocket ship and is still my best seller. I began reading every E-commerce and entrepreneur book I could find in hopes it would help me learn how to run a new business.
Repurposing fire hose is unique among business’ and the tips and tricks were few a far between. I would go on to make many mistakes in the early days with hiring help or running the website, but with every mistake comes a valuable lesson. I was learning fast, and working even faster.
Most weeks I was working 72 hours at the firehouse and sewing another 30 hours and shipping orders for another 10 hours. What began as a fun way to support my small family was draining me of my energy and the guys at the fire house could tell a difference in how I acted.
After reading the Four Hour Work Week by tim ferris I saw the path I needed to take. I couldn't keep up trying to do everything myself, it would absolutely destroy my family and probably my health as well. I started hiring help for jobs that I wasn't really good at, things like the website, shipping, and even photography. This allowed me to do what I really enjoyed, which oddly enough was sewing and creating new things in the garage work shop.
Just a few thousand pounds of decommissioned fire hose in my garage.
We have recycled and repurposed over 15,000 feet of decommissioned fire hose from around the U.S.! Equally as important though is being able to tell the amazing story of where this hose comes from.
From that first piece of hose I took out of the fire house trash to the most recent pallet of hose I got from St. Matthews Fire Department here in Louisville Kentucky, these hoses deserve to have their story told.
Honestly, that is what I enjoy the most after all these years. When I feel like I just cant sew another wallet without going crosseyed, I read the many emails I get from happy customers telling me how awesome it is that they get to carry around a wallet with real history. If you want to send me an email, send it to Jake@recycledfirefighter.com