Flirting With First Responders

The trio of women entered the sports bar, decked out in their Friday night dresses and heels. They smiled and shared laughs as they approached a front table, where they were greeted by two more women working at the event. One asked the group, “Are you here to meet firefighters?”

They gleefully answered yes as they each handed over $25 and were given wristbands.

Similar scenes played over and over again at the front door of Katch Astoria, where dozens of EMTs, police officers, and firefighters mingled with civilian women looking to meet a man—or woman—in uniform. The event had been scheduled to begin at eight, but some participants arrived early to get a good seat at the bar. First responders get a $10 discount at the door and an open bar for the first hour, a big incentive to attend, in addition to the chance of finding love. A deejay in the back kept the music going over the numerous silent televisions showing seemingly every sport imaginable, from hockey and basketball to gymnastics and pro wrestling. Red hearts dangled from the ceiling, for Valentine’s Day.

The parties are a monthly affair and seem to attract their fair share of regulars. Dan Gardner, a 37-year-old FDNY lieutenant with Engine 324 in Corona, Queens, said he has been attending the mixers on and off for the last eight years. This night he came alone. “Most of my non-firefighter friends are married with kids,” he said as he sipped on his first beer of the evening.

Gardner said he likes the events because of the flirtatious atmosphere. “There is less fear in breaking the ice because everyone here knows they came to meet someone.”

Gardner is tall and muscular with blue eyes, a shaved head, and a warm smile framed by a chiseled jawline. He believes lots of women show up to the first responder parties with preconceived notions of what a firefighter should look and act like—burly, with a baby over one shoulder and a puppy over the other. He said some guys wear clothing emblazoned with their engine and ladder numbers everywhere they go in hopes of cashing in on the fantasy, but he downplays it. “I do my job because I like it and I’m passionate about it,” he said.

FDNY Lt. Dan Gardner at the main bar/Photo by Christopher Howell for NYCityLens

Of course, linking up in earnest with a first responder can have practical benefits. A New York City fire lieutenant, for example, can make more than $125,000 annually, according to the FDNY. The starting annual salary is about $45,000 but jumps to more than $110,000 after five years. All city firefighters get up to four weeks vacation, meanwhile, and retire with a pension along with lifelong health coverage for the entire family. Plus, their flexible work hours give them lots of days off to stay at home with the kids. Paramedics make more than $61,000 annually after five years and, according to the NYPD, police officers can potentially make more than $100,000 annually after the same period.

Despite all of the perks, dating can be difficult. Gardner said being a lieutenant makes his work schedule more manageable but lower-ranking firefighters work lots of weekends, overnights, and holidays, making it hard to have a normal social life.

First responders also are more likely than the general public to suffer from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder because they usually are the first on the scene of dangerous, challenging, and draining situations, according to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

For Dee Carano, a 29-year-old public relations specialist from the Upper West Side, the positives of dating a firefighter outweigh the potential negatives. She finds firefighters attractive because she believes they have more structure and discipline in their lives. She also sees them as manly men” supported by a brotherhood of fellow firefighters. “I like strong, confident, strong-willed people like myself,” she said.

Carano smiled brightly as she recalled the first time she attended a first responders party, in 2013. She remembers finding romance and new friendships. “I met lots of girlfriends and got two dates.”

She recently returned to the scene, she said, after breaking up with her boyfriend of one year. She has a simple formula for getting telephone numbers. “I go for the cutest guy at the bar.” She said she had scored two numbers in the first two hours.

Not all the women in attendance Friday night seemed to be as successful as Carano, however. Some sat in pairs around the edges of the establishment looking increasingly forlorn as the night progressed.

“Nobody talks to you,” one young woman lamented.

And some women expressed disappointment with the way the party had been advertised. One Facebook promotion shows a pack of sexy, shirtless firefighters staring seductively into the camera. The description reads, “Snag your very own hero at this soiree which gathers together the area’s  MOST ELIGIBLE First Responders. If heroes leave you breathless, we have a feeling you’ll have no trouble getting some mouth-to-mouth.”

“I thought it was a strip show,” said Yan Liang, 37, from Brooklyn. “I was like, ‘Twenty dollars for a show? That’s cheap.’” Instead, Liang found herself standing awkwardly in the back of the bar. She said the first person who actually approached her was a guy she had been chatting with on Tindr. He’s a battalion chief who lives in Manhattan. The chance encounter was the first time they had met in person.

Yan Liang/Photo by Christopher Howell for NYCityLens

Natalie Haynes, 58, from the Upper West Side, was very direct about why she came to the party. “Because the men all looked sexy,” she said referring to the ads. But like Liang, she found herself sitting in the back of the bar wondering how long she would stay. The only guy at the party she wanted to talk to was Dan Gardner, the hunky fire lieutenant, but his attention was occupied by two women at the main bar.

The events are organized by Single and the City, an outfit that runs multiple singles mixers each month around New York City. Amber Soletti, owner of Single and the City’s Austin-based parent company, OneStop Singles, defended the ad pictures in a phone call as merely promotional materials and insisted there were plenty of attractive guys at the event.

In a follow-up text message, Soletti added, “We have countless women that come out to these events and the majority have a great time. Yet as with everything in life, there will always be those that are disappointed or unhappy. This party is really geared for women that are more extroverted and comfortable going up and talking to men.” She also pointed out that the events provide an icebreaker, intended to make it easier for women to make the first approach.

Icebreakers like the questionnaire above were handed out to participants/Photo by Christopher Howell for NYCityLens

During the first hour of the event, there was hardly any mingling. Soletti said every party starts out resembling a high school prom: “The guys are on one side and the women on the other.”

To encourage mingling, the civilian women were handed a little red sticker they could place on a firefighter they found attractive. Later in the evening, one firefighter proudly carried at least five stickers on his chest.

Many of the male firemen seemed to enjoy the role reversal of being pursued, and those women who played along appeared to have the most fun. Most women who waited to be approached were ignored until they either gave in or went home in frustration.

By 10 o’clock, in fact, the party was in full swing. The main bar was packed and people were starting to spill into the patio bar in the back, which, up until then, had been mostly filled with wallflowers. By that hour, it seemed as if the free-flowing booze from the earlier open bar hour was kicking in. People were dancing and belting out the hooks to their favorite 90s rap songs. There was lots of flirting and some kissing. Gardner moved from the main bar to an open area, where he danced with the two women.

Towards the end of the party, the firehouse with the most members in attendance was awarded a $200 bar tab. The honor went to Engine 263, Ladder 117 out of Astoria. The event officially ended at 11:30, but the mingling went well into the night.