Published: September 14, 2004

WHEN Terry Quinn was a teenager in the late 1970's, he attended a Christmas party at a Manhattan firehouse. The firemen, and they were all men then, were at ease. Their families were there. The firehouse was fun; the firemen were fun. "It was weird, at least to me, to see people in their workplace enjoy each other." said Mr. Quinn, the Brooklyn-born son of an insurance executive and a homemaker. "It put a bug in my ear."


Mr. Quinn married and divorced the girl whose firefighter father he was trying to impress that holiday night. Later, he joined the department, where he is now a firefighter, first grade, at Ladder Company 22 on the Upper West Side.

What's more, Mr. Quinn has become an interpreter of the firefighter's life. Now 43, he is technical adviser for the cable television series "Rescue Me," a bawdy, sometimes grim, but always humane look at firefighters. Broadcast Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on the FX channel, it premiered in July to critical praise and has already been renewed for a second season.

Early in Mr. Quinn's parallel and checkered life as a restaurant and nightclub owner, he met Denis Leary, the stand-up comic who is the star and co-creator of "Rescue Me." Last year, in a three-hour lunch with the other co-creator, Peter Tolan, Mr. Quinn poured out his stories about firefighters. "I just inhaled," Mr. Tolan said.

When filming scenes of firefighters in action, Mr. Leary said, "we just give the script pages to Terry and we say, 'Look, change the dialogue to what you think the guys would actually say.' "

The New York Fire Department has changed a little since Mr. Quinn visited his first firehouse. The department, once all-male and largely Irish, now admits women and minority firefighters. Under budget pressure, firehouses across the city have closed. And three years ago this month, 343 firefighters died in one day.

There have also been scandals over off-duty drinking, firefighter-on-firefighter assaults and, just a month ago, a woman who said she had had *** with four firefighters inside a Bronx firehouse.

Unchanged, however, is the adrenaline that the job requires. Asked which fire was his worst in 16 years in the department, Mr. Quinn replied: "That's a civilian question: 'What was your worst fire?' Fires are the best! Which one was the best fire you went to?"

Unchanged, as well, is the firehouse. It stands for, because there is no gender-neutral synonym, the brotherhood of firefighters. "Rescue Me" is about living in close quarters with the good, the bad and the ugly.

There are few television shows or movies about firefighters. Fire equipment is costly, and depicting fires is costlier. It is also hard to capture the camaraderie of the firehouse. On television, "Emergency!" in the 1970's and "Third Watch" today have failed to capture the life, firefighters say. So did the movie "Backdraft" in 1991. And firehouse expectations are low for John Travolta's "Ladder 49," which opens in theaters next month. By contrast, "Rescue Me" captures "the workings around the firehouse, more so than any other show has ever caught," said Chief Michael McPartland of Ladder 22. Lt. Eddie Meehan added, "The fire scenes are pretty decent."

Mr. Quinn met last week with a reporter and a photographer on the show's set in Long Island City, Queens; the other is in Yonkers. (A new Fire Department policy, after the recent *** scandal, bans outsiders from firehouses, including Mr. Quinn's.) He sat in the set's convincingly grimy kitchen, at a battered table, complete with coffee-cup penicillin. His storytelling is punctuated by his grin, his broken nose (from his days as a teenage scrapper) and the scar on his left upper lip (more teenage bravado, this time from jumping off a rooftop). He talked with earthy gusto about a true incident recreated in "Rescue Me." For months, a tenant bottled up gallons of his own urine and then poured it down his building's stairwell as revenge on a landlord.

Mr. Quinn talked more hesitantly about another incident, based on a story he heard from another firefighter. Mr. Leary's character, Tommy Gavin, is haunted by a 10-year-old he rescued but could not save. The badly burned boy, Mr. Leary says on the show, wriggled around in his arms "like a baby seal"; the boy's skin "comes off like wrapping paper off a Christmas present."

AND Mr. Quinn did not mention a parallel in the series to his own life: Mr. Leary's character, in mid-divorce, rents the house across the street so he can be near his children and watch whom his wife is dating. "We got that from Terry," Mr. Tolan said. "He did that." (Mr. Quinn has been married twice, most recently to the actress Patti D'Arbanville, and has five children.)

Last Saturday morning, Mr. Quinn's unit gathered in dress uniform outside their firehouse to commemorate 9/11. Ladder 22 is so far north, on West 100th Street, that by the time they reached the World Trade Center on the day of the attacks, other firefighters had scrambled ahead of them. No one from Ladder 22 died that day.

Later on Saturday, Ladder 22 joined other companies from around the city at the Firemen's Memorial Monument on Riverside Drive, where the 343 names were read. In the afternoon, Mr. Quinn worked in the firehouse. "It was a beautiful day," he said. "A lot like Sept. 11."