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September 14, 2004 > A Day in the Life of a Firefighter

A Day in the Life of a Firefighter

by Mekala Raman

On Thursday, August 19th, I was privileged to spend the day from 8 a.m. - 8 p.m. with three firemen as a "Ride-Along" at station #3. My day started with the shift change (when a company of three or four firemen working together assume responsibility for the station). The men of the previous shift briefly exchanged information and the newcomers settled in for a twenty-four hour "day" of work.

The three firefighters on "my" shift, Doug Henninger, Bill Hawkins, and Captain Mike Johnston - "Sparky" - sat down to a cup of coffee and I quickly ingratiated myself by contributing a fruit tart. Bill immediately helped himself to a mega slice and later, when Captain Johnston exclaimed, "Whoa! Someone took a really big piece," Bill innocently replied, "I just took a sliver."

I quickly discovered that firemen lead relatively normal lives until the alarm sounds. Routine maintenance and training tasks are part of the working hours as well as household chores since this is a living environment too. The men went about their work; dirty dishes left from the previous shift were cleaned, paperwork, always waiting, needed to be done and working out to keep physically fit was on the "to do" list.

Doug Henninger showed me the fire engine and gave me a tour of the firehouse. The engine has large doors with an automatic stairway for quick and easy access. Inside are four small seats, each with a set of headphones so all riders are able to communicate clearly. The engine is equipped with medical supplies, varying sizes of hoses, and tools for just about any "sticky situation."

The firehouse is like a residence, albeit a very special one. There are two bedrooms in firehouse #3, one for the captain and the other shared. The shared bedroom also serves as a workout facility. There is a bathroom with stalls for the firemen and another for guests. The fire station also has a locker room, a kitchen, a dining room, a living room, and an office. In addition there is a large garage.

Following the tour, the men played a game of dice to decide who would make the dinner that day. The "winner" turned out to be Bill Hawkins. Following the dinner decision, we went on "inspections," visiting businesses to make sure the buildings are safe, have approved plumbing and correctly installed hoods for stoves. If a problem is detected, owners are notified immediately so that they can make the required changes. Two weeks later, another inspection makes sure the necessary corrections have been made. If not, owners are given a warning and may be subject to a fine if the problem persists. "We're not trying to put them out of business, we're actually trying to keep them in business longer," Hawkins explained.

After completing the inspections, we went to Safeway to pick up lunch and water (food and supplies are personal expenses, paid for by the firemen). As we sat down for lunch at the fire station, we got our first call! The red light flashed urgently on the wall and Captain Johnston read the print-out that would tell him about the problem. The call was to Chiltern Drive where a man thought he saw smoke from another person's house. We leapt into the engine and fastened our seatbelts quickly. I tugged on my headphones and we were off. We went speeding down the road with the lights flashing. Bill was driving, turning on the siren any time we had to travel in the wrong lane or a car blocked our way. It was a thrilling experience to be in the vehicle causing such a racket!

Speeding along in such a large vehicle on small roads was a nerve-wracking experience. It amazed me that the other three were calm during the ride - real professionals! Arriving at the witness' house, we heard the man's story. He said he had seen smoke coming from a house a couple of streets away. We went to this house and saw nothing that indicated a fire had ever occurred. I had experienced my first "false alarm." Feeling quite disappointed, but pleased that no one had been in serious danger, I returned with the firemen to the station to finish lunch.

The men talked for a while and eventually, the strain of answering the call took its toll. Doug and Captain Johnston took naps while Bill did some paperwork. It was a quiet afternoon with no calls. They told me that except on Ride-Along days, it is really nice when there aren't any calls because it means that everything is safe. I wondered aloud if they are distressed when answering an alarm involving serious injuries or worse. Doug answered, "It gets to you" and Captain Johnston agreed but added that they have learned to put aside their fears and unease in those situations. I asked Bill why he chose a career as a firefighter and he replied that he always wanted to be either a police officer or a firefighter.

At around 5:15 p.m., we got another call. This time a 15-year-old boy was riding an illegal motorbike. He ran several stop signs and tried to ride away as the police chased him. He hit a pole and fell, breaking his bike and badly scraping himself. While the police were dealing with the issue of his misconduct, the firemen made sure he was prepared for a trip to the hospital - all people under 18 years of age must be taken to the hospital unless a parent or guardian releases them. When the boy was released, we went back to the fire station so Bill could finish cooking dinner - homemade tacos. It was simply scrumptious!

After dinner, it was time for me to leave and as I said my goodbyes, I knew I was leaving some of the bravest men I have ever met behind. These guardians of our city are well trained and prepared to risk their lives for our safety and security. My Ride-Along was a day that I will always remember.

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