Not everyone has what it takes to be a firefighter. While most working adults are accustomed to a 40 hour work week, firefighters can typically work up to an average of 56 hours a week, sometimes not leaving the station for days at a time.
And you can forget about getting a good night’s sleep.
For the firefighters at Firehouse 4 in Orange County, a hazardous materials station located less than a mile from the the University of California Irvine, sleeping is not a guarantee but a privilege. Whether they’re trying to sneak in a quick nap during the day or finally laying down at the end of the night, they sleep with one eye open, half awake. They are anxious, subconsciously waiting for the call that can instantly raise their heart rate from 50 to 110 beats per second.
“Here we don’t always get to sleep,” says firefighter Trevor Lazar. “You wake up from sleeping still kind of tired because you sleep with anticipation, waiting for the bells to go off.”
And the sound of the alarm can come at the most inconvenient times, occasionally disrupting more than a good night’s sleep. Brian Yau recalled a time he had to leave a cart full of groceries in the middle of Albertson’s, located right across the street from the fire station. Not knowing whether he would even be able to come back for it later, Yau ran back across the street, knowing he had less than a minute to gear up and get on the rig. Considered basic training, firefighters have to learn and be able to put on their gear and get on their assigned rig in sixty seconds or less.
This is harder than it sounds, especially if you’re in the middle of a fight with your bowels or trying to rinse all of the shampoo out of your hair.
“Taking a shower sucks. You have to rinse off, dry off, get dressed and then jump on the rig. Usually you’re hopping down the hallway trying to get your socks on.”
Nick Loevenguth also commented on the time constraint. “We always have to be ready for any type of call. No matter what you’re doing you have to be able to drop it and be on the rig in thirty to sixty seconds and be ready to go. You can’t take on too much at once because you have to be able to drop it and get going at anytime.”
Yet there is always something they are “taking on.” By 7 a.m. they have already begun their daily routine, checking the fire engine, fire truck and paramedic van, making sure that all vehicles work properly and without complication. They are also checking the equipment which includes their two initial fire tackling hoses, the first one 150 feet long and the other reaching 200 feet. Both weigh about 150 pounds and have the ability to pump out 200 gallons of water per minute, which is ideal for a house fire. The engine also carries hand tools, axes, shovels, and basic medical aid in addition to a crow bar and a Halligan tool, which is used for forcing entry into cars and houses, easily pulling out nails and bolts. After making sure all of their tools are organized they also do a “station clean up,” where they each take turns cleaning the kitchen, vacuuming, taking out the trash, They also take turns cooking dinner. Pitching in ten dollars each, the firefighter on cooking duty will usually go to Albertson’s and stick to a budget that will allow all of them to have a generous helping of whatever he decides to make that night. Not all of the firefighters were born with the ability to cook, though. A few guys secretly inform me that if the meal is especially bad (one firefighter mentioned a time when his steak was unusually pink) they will usually make a trip to Del Taco across the street.
Most times though dinner isn’t life or death. And because eating healthy is essential to their job there is always some form of vegetables on the table during dinner, usually taking the form of a huge salad accompanied with cut up tomatoes, nuts, apples or other fruit. Maintaining good physical fitness is a necessity as well. Around 9 a.m. every morning they go to the Anteater Recreation Center (ARC) where they focus on enhancing their stamina and overall physical fitness.
Captain Ray Falcon, along with the rest of the firefighters, takes his workouts very seriously. He starts off on the treadmill to work on his cardio, running at 7.9 miles an hour. Focusing on nothing but the run, he stares straight ahead, ignoring the ARC staff members who are taking turns looking at him from behind their desks. These stares are noticeably out of respect and admiration for him and the other firefighters. (These "looks of admiration" are also apparent when I go grocery shopping with Brian, who is warmly greeted by the manager and a few other grocers in the store by the time we reach the checkout aisle.)
After fifteen minutes, Ray slows down to a walk and wipes the sweat off of his face with the standard bubblegum pink towel that is provided by the gym. Shortly after he walks over to the weights section of the gym and begins to lift dumbbells, doing a couple sets before making his way to the mats to work on his core muscles. Ray, who is in his forties, tells me that the workouts are especially important for him because he needs to be able to keep up with the “young pups” out on the field. Physical fitness, however, is necessary not only for the stamina that is required for the job but also for merely being able to wear and carry the firefighter suit and gear.
Every time firefighters get a call they have to put on close to a hundred pounds of gear, also carrying with them an air tank that weighs twenty-seven pounds as well as other various tools, easily adding on an extra thirty pounds. After seizing the opportunity to try on all of the gear for myself, I quickly realize how heavy it is. Breathing became harder. And that was without the mask. The actual heaviness of it was unbelievable. I could literally feel a giant weight on my shoulders, the suit pulling me down with ease. Unwilling to move I stood in place, my arms awkwardly held at a forty-five degree angle. A few minutes later I tried to take a step forward but I stumbled backwards, my body giving out under the weight. Curt Corbin quickly stretched his arms forward and grabbed hold of me. Larry Mann laughed as he watched Curt pull me back up to standing position.
“Now try going up twelve flights of stairs” he said, grinning.
Unfortunately, these suits, although capable of protecting firefighters against up to five hundred degrees of heat, cannot protect them against all of the other unforeseen dangers of the job. And despite popular belief, fire isn’t the main culprit when it comes to the deaths of firefighters.
“You always think about the fire,” says Nick, “But we could get hurt doing anything. We are constantly running red lights and people die that way, too. People get hurt in this job or permanently disabled. You think about stuff like that and it kind of hits you. We recently lost somebody from this station actually, a veteran...”
Nick is referring to James M. Owen, a veteran firefighter and paramedic who collapsed during training a little over two months ago on September 16, 2010. According to Sean Emery of the Orange County Register, Owen was taking a break from drills at the OFCA headquarters in Irvine when he collapsed in full cardiac arrest. Although paramedics and other firefighters present at the time tried to revive him, he died an hour later at Western Medical Center in Santa Ana. And according to Linda Rosenstock and Jorn Olsen of the New England Journal of Medicine, heart failure is one of the main causes of death for firefighters. In an issue of the Journal they said “Nearly half of the deaths that occur while firefighters are on duty are related to cardiovascular events. Firefighting is a high-hazard job, and the work is at times extremely physically demanding. It involves heavy lifting maneuvering in sometimes awkward and unstable positions while wearing heavy clothing and protective gear in a hot environment. In addition, exposure to carbon monoxide and particulate matter in the air is routine, and there is a highly variable risk of exposure to a broad array of other toxic chemicals generated from the smoke of burning materials.”
Besides the various health complications that come with being a firefighter, there are also the emotional obstacles as well that they have to deal with. When I asked Ray about a call that had affected him on a personal level, one immediately came to his mind.
“There’s a sad one that kind of sticks in my mind about a six year old kid.” Ray then hesitated briefly, saying, “There really wasn’t [anything] we could do. We pulled up and there was a kid laying in the street with his bicycle and [there was] a car, probably four feet away. It was a sixteen year old driver, [it was] like the third day of his driver’s license. He’s going down the street and the kid’s on his bicycle going down the street and the kid goes right out in front of him and [the sixteen year old] hits him and kills him. We covered up the kid, checked to make sure he was dead. The mom was home, and I’m sitting there doing the paperwork and [the kid’s] dad pulls up. His dad was a fighter pilot. He pulls up in all his gear and I just watched as he dropped to his knees and cried over his kid. And then he started yelling at the sixteen year old who was there, [who was] crying with his dad. It was a total mess. We had two different types of trauma going on. All the neighbors were out, and everybody was quiet. [Usually] things are just happening so fast but this was one where nothing was happening and everybody was just in shock. That’s the one that really stuck out with me more than anything.”
Later on he brought up the time he spent at Hurricane Katrina, recalling certain memories that had affected him personally. Ray, who was part of the Orange County Fire Authority's 76-member Urban Search and Rescue Team, was one of the 4,000 firefighters that responded to Hurricane Katrina. Ray's memories of his time spent in New Orleans were both vivid and disturbing.
“It was a mess. When we got there all the water was gone [and] the city was pumped out but we still had to search every house. We found one person dead. And the houses were just so rotted. You would try to kick in the front door and the whole door would fall in. Your foot would go through the door just because the everything was water-logged. We just searched every day. They gave us block by block and we just worked our way down. We [also] found a bunch of dogs, still alive, barking. When we’d find a dog we’d call Animal Control and they’d come pick up the dog…That town was just devastated, absolutely devastated.”
When I asked him how they manage the stress and emotional hardships that inevitably come with doing the job that they do, he said that they just talk about it. There are resources that are at their disposal for dealing with the physical and emotional stresses of the job, but what people who have never met these firefighters, or been inside their fire station, aren’t privy to is the brotherhood that is established among them. Simply put, they are a family.
“When we say ‘brotherhood’ we don’t use that word lightly. It truly is brotherhood. The cool thing about being here is that you work with your best friends. There are things that we know about each other that even [our] own families don’t know about [us]. This is truly our second family. We’re here so much together and we live here together. It’s a house. We have our showers, beds, a kitchen, we have it all.”
And more than that, they are constantly learning new things from each other, helping each other become better firefighters.
“Fire service is not an individual job. You don’t ever, ever do anything by yourself. You’re working together as a team. That’s why a lot of us have played sports when we were kids. That’s why we still play sports, because we have that team attitude and that’s what keeps us going. We have to be able to work with and bounce ideas off of each other. A lot of the firemen are a “jack of all trades.” We don’t master anything, we just kind of have to know a little bit of everything. I’m learning a lot from the guys I work with. You have to have a learning attitude, and [at times] swallow your pride because you can learn so much from these guys.”
When it comes down to it, a job in fire service is not for the faint hearted. It is a job that requires dedication, bravery, and the ability to get to know and work with other people you might not always get along with for long periods of time. You sacrifice sleep and for some firefighting isn’t a job they would take on for many reasons.With an average of five to six calls a day that consist of medical aids and triggered smoke alarms, "down time" isn't something they always have. In October, when families are gearing up for Halloween celebrations, firefighters in Orange County are gearing up for brush fires, preparing for the Santa Ana winds that signal the start of fire season. And in the summer preparations are also being made as the grass becomes drier and the possibility of a fire rises.
“It could be a miserable job,” says Trevor, crossing his arms and thinking it over for a bit, “You don’t sleep, you could be miserable. People can get tired, and [some guys] just want to go home and take a load off. But we just remember we love who we work with [and] we love who we work for. We love our job.”
Another part of the sacrifice that many firefighters make is with family. While discussing the job, John Suwanpruiska, who is originally stationed in the Los Alamitos Fire Station, said the hardest thing he deals with is being away from his family.While firefighters only work ten days out of the month, what people don’t realize is that those ten days are compiled into 24 hour shifts. And even when a firefighter is not on duty he can still get called in to work when a major incident or accident occurs. A couple years ago when the San Diego fire hit in 2008 John didn't come home for twelve days. Trevor can relate to this quite well from a child's point of view. His father was also a firefighter and Trevor remembers a time when he didn’t see his dad for eighteen days straight.
“There was times he was there a lot, and times that he was gone a lot. Our birthdays [Trevor has three other brothers] were set in the station, our Christmases were at the firehouse. We wouldn’t celebrate Christmas until January.” But like Trevor says, “That’s the nature of the beast.” And, like every other firefighter I’ve talked to, he still wouldn’t trade his job for anything.
“I still pinch myself today. I’ve never regretted my decision. I love it, every second. There are times you run ragged and you don’t sleep all night and all you want to do is lay down and close your eyes, but I’ve never regretted it. I still can’t believe it’s true sometimes, that I’m actually doing this job. It’s my dream come true.”
-Over 30 hours of observation consisting of time spent at the firehouse, gym (working out with them and observing their workout routine) and ride-alongs.
-90 minutes of interviews with over 10 firefighters
-http://www.ocfa.org/_uploads/html/stn04.htm- Fire station 4 statistics and information regarding amount of calls they received in the year of 2009 etc.
-<http://www.iafc.org/displaycommon.cfm?an=1&subarticlenbr=189>-All three websites had information about orange county fire stations and their response to Hurricane Katrina
- http://www.facebook.com/steenie9#!/group.php?gid=154056877273- looked at youtube videos and pictures of firefighters posted on their site.
-http://www.ocregister.com/articles/firefighter-266872-training-ocfa.html- Looked at the article for information regarding fallen firefighter James. M Owen
-http://www.nejm.org/doi/pdf/10.1056/NEJMe078008- used the Journal for research on main causes for the death of firefighters, including the inhalation of toxic chemicals and cardiovascular complications as well.