Reflecting back on that day, I will admit, I was a little anxious as I did not know what to expect from this experience. When I first approached Whiteaker Station 2, Firefighter Cody Giddens was tending the Engine. I rang the bell and was greeted by Firefighter Bill Bennett, who introduced me to Captains Mike Montgomery and Tony Biagi. They put me at ease at once…then we got the first call.
Part One of Sandy’s Day in The Life of A Firefighter: http://eugenedailynews.com/2013/03/21/a-day-in-the-life-of-a-firefighter/
Once we returned to the Whiteaker Station 2, still a little shaken, Captain Montgomery and I continued my tour of the station. The main floor holds the offices, restrooms, a weight and exercise room and a television room which is used for training as well as a comfortable place to relax after 5. A small laundry room sits just off the dining hall. The sleeping quarters are on the second floor, 12 rooms with a single bed a window and lockers. The showers are in the center of the building.
Each shift starts at 8 a.m., 24 hours on with 48 hours off.
“It is inevitable that something will happen at home when we are at the station” someone observed.
Entering the large kitchen I notice 4 refrigerators. Three were marked shifts A, B and C, a smaller refrigerator holding the condiments. Most houses revolve around the kitchen, the department is no different. They are a family, spending 1/3 of their lives together.
I was surprised to learn that neither the city nor taxpayers pay for their meals. Each meal is bought and prepared by each shift. Their money is pooled ($10.00 each) and their groceries are purchased for the day. The crew from the engine and truck rotate vehicles every second shift, the crew on the truck are always the cooks.
As lunch was prepared, they laughed and teased with each other. Sharing stories, they talked about business, some read the paper while we enjoyed chips with our freshly sliced turkey bagel sandwiches. We were even joined by a member from the life flight team, which is also dispatched from Whiteaker station.
“What are drivers supposed to do when they hear the sirens and see the truck behind them if there are five lanes and they are full, which way do they go” I asked.
With smiles on their faces they replied: “We try to take care of that for you. If you see us coming down the middle of the road, make room, that is the path we want to take. Typically you are taught to move to the right, but move to the left if you have to. Don’t just stop. We are trying to get to an emergency and time is critical.” Same rule applies to the freeway.
“We know lights and sirens sometimes panic people, so we may turn them off. The best choice is to slow down and move over, allowing us to pass.”
“How long does it take to learn everything you need on the job” I asked.
“We are problem solvers, every call is different. You never stop learning until the last day of your job.”
Firefighters it seems really have no down time. They are always training, either in the gym to maintain physical strength (their turnouts weigh between 75 to 100 pounds alone) or maintain their certifications for medical, cardiac, airway and childbirth classes to name a few, keeping up on their EMT and Paramedic certifications.
“We must stay certified as Firefighters, EMT’s and hazardous materials awareness. This is just the minimum and does not include members that are on special teams, (USAR, Water and Rescue, Haz. Mat. or ARFF (airport rescue and firefighting).”
Drills take place in the tower, or simulated house fires. They train in auto extrication and confined entry.
I would like to clarify that in the first half of my story, I referred to everyone as EMT’s, thinking this would cover everyone. The reason behind this was I didn’t know how to tell the firefighters from the EMT’s during that first call. In reality, all Firefighters are EMT’s or Paramedics.
“All Engines, Trucks and Medics (ambulances) are equipped with medical equipment for Paramedic response. The Engines and Trucks can provide the exact care and treatment the Medics do, they just can’t transport to the hospital.”
“When hired, new firefighters spend approximately 14 weeks in a basic academy to learn about firefighting and other pertinent skills. To be eligible for employment you must be an EMT Intermediate or Paramedic” Captain Montgomery said.
“Recently I believe it has changed to Paramedic only. Once the basic academy is completed, the new firefighters will be assigned to one of three shifts (A, B or C). For the first couple of years, new firefighters spend a significant amount of time on the Medic Units (ambulance). Most common is 5 shifts a month with the other being assigned on an Engine. In times past it was not uncommon for new firefighters to spend 7 to 8 shifts a month on a Medic. As our department has gained Paramedics, it allows the time to be shared among more people” Captain Montgomery continued.
“Only experienced firefighters work on the Truck, this usually is someone that has been on the department for more than three years.”
Besides the obvious reason only experienced firefighters work on the truck is this: the Truck (ladder truck) is the largest and most expensive vehicle of the fleet, costing about 1 million dollars. Referred to as “a big tool box on wheels”. The ladder (big stick) measures 100 ft. is used to get to the top of buildings quickly, allowing the firefighters to cut vent’s during a fire, relieving the heat and giving it a place to go. Lane county has just two trucks in it’s fleet.
The Engine is usually the first on scene, it’s smaller and responds to more calls. The Engine costs approximately half a million dollars. It’s main purpose is fighting fires. The Engine carries 500 gallons of water, which does not last very long at a fire if more than one hose is being used.
“This is why a big priority is to find a hydrant and lay a supply line” Captain Montgomery said.
With such a high price tag on these vehicles, preventive maintenance is imperative. It is the engineers responsibility to maintain the vehicles. Not only keeping it looking nice but to check it regularly, ensuring it is in good repair.
The hoses, axes, chain saws, anything that may be needed to gain entry into a building to fight fires are carried aboard the engine, as well as the Truck. Each engine carries 1000 feet of five inch hose. The Truck and Engine are also equipped with pre-fire plan books.
“It’s hard enough going inside an unfamiliar building let alone a burning one. We tour a building, get a feel for the property in advance and lay it out. If we get a fire call, we refer to the books for a map of the building.”
When the engine is en route to a scene is when much of the real work begins: the engineer is locating fire hydrants while approaching a scene, ensuring they park close enough to the fire and hydrants yet leaving enough room for the ambulance and truck, and they go over the pre-fire books. The number of firefighters dispatched to a scene depends on the nature of the call. 8 firefighters seems like a lot, but as I witnessed, every firefighter was needed to assist in helping to save a life.
Lane County has one ambulance for every three stations, with two firefighters on board. The average time spent on an ambulance is anywhere from 3 to 5 years.
“You begin to look for a break and advancement in your career. It wears on you after a while” stated Montgomery.
“Sometimes a single ambulance can get as many as 36 calls in a 24 hour period. It may take a full 24 hours to rest while on your 48 hours off and before you know it, you are back on shift”.
In the middle of my interview with Captains Montgomery and Biagi our next call came in. A report of a possible heart attack. “An 87 year old woman with chest pains.”
We headed for the engine, doors readily open for the next call. Lights and sirens. It was impressive watching the firefighters in motion. This time they had a headset ready for me. They kicked into automatic action once again.
Arriving on the scene we found an elderly woman who was dizzy with chest pains. The firefighters comforted the woman as they monitored her vitals.
“We are going to take you to the emergency room ma’am.” firefighter Cody Giddens explains.
The captain is filling in the report for the Medics. The gurney is brought in and prepared with blankets as the firefighter asks his patient to stick her tongue out, which she thinks is quite comical under the circumstances. He asks her to take a couple of steps to see how her balance is, ready to catch her if needed.
The patient and firefighters were in a lighter mood as the ambulance doors closed and it began the trip to the hospital; this one would make it.
“I wish we could have started your day out with a call like that” Captain Montgomery says with a smile. We find our seats once again within the engine, the sun is out and spirits are high.
Some Additional Observations:
- Each year, off duty firefighters volunteer their time, grab their boots and hit the streets for Muscular Dystrophy, their family often right beside them. The Fill The Boot Campaign was founded by late fire fighter George Graney in 1953. A friend, Charlie Crowley needed financial help to take care of his two sons with MD. Graney found 20 firefighters willing to go door to door raising $5,000.00. The campaign, which went nationwide in 1954 has raised nearly $375 million for the MDA.
- Due to the popularity of cell phones, there has been a marked increase in calls to 911. Instead of stopping to see if a person needs help, people just dial 911 and go about their lives.“We have to go to each call. We know people mean well, but if it is not a serious call, it may take us longer to get to an urgent call”.Their preference would be for people to stop and assess the situation.
- Demographics also appear to play a key roll in the amount of calls a station may get. Domestic, assault, suicide calls, lower financial ability for medical help, many different factors come into play.
Spending a day with the fire department, I came away with a better understanding of what they do and an even higher respect for these men and women who set their lives aside (even though it is their job) to help us when we need it the most.
Due to budget cuts, there are talks of taking the Engine out of service at Whiteaker Station 2 leaving only 1 Engine for Lane County, and leaving an ambulance and truck at Whittaker station. The success of the proposed City Fee could have an impact on that decision.