Stop, Drop and Roll

PHOTO BY Matt Cornelius
PHOTO BY Matt Cornelius

The alarm goes off at 5:00 A.M.. every third day. We work 24 hours on and 48 hours off at Texarkana Texas Fire Department; it’s a nice schedule, if you can get used to it. I get ready in the dark, trying not to disturb the wife and three sleeping boys.

My 20 minute drive to work is filled with prayer. It’s quiet out, as the rest of the world is just waking up, so I spend my time praying for my family, friends, church family, the firemen coming on duty and those working off and for the coming day. These moments help prepare and ground me for whatever might be ahead—kind of the quiet before the storm.

For a firefighter, no two days are the same, and I never know how the day will unfold. At first, that felt a little intimidating, but now it keeps it interesting. Some days might be filled with fighting house fires, or we might be slammed with Emergency Medical Services (EMS) calls or wrecks. Being in the fire service we have three primary functions: to fight fires, respond to EMS calls and work vehicle crashes. In reality, we end up doing a multitude of other things that contribute to our mission.

Our shift starts at 7:00 A.M., but most of us show up 30 minutes early to relieve the crew working off. That’s the fireman way. We start by discussing the previous two days with the crew that’s leaving. They give us pertinent information over coffee and clear out at shift change.

After they leave, we begin with our daily chores. Most crews have three to five guys consisting of a captain, a driver and two or three plugmen. Each of them has a chore to complete in the morning: plugmen clean the station, the driver (that’s me) checks off the trucks and the captain does paperwork and checks with the chief to receive direction for the day.

My job as a driver/engineer is to ensure the truck is in tip-top shape, and to ensure all the equipment on the truck is present and in working order. When we go on calls, I drive the truck and then pump water from the truck to the fire line, so it’s important that the truck is functioning properly as we begin each day. I test all the equipment, run all the small engines, and then pull the truck out and start washing it. By this time, most of the other guys have finished their chores and jump in to help wash the truck.

Traditions are a big part of the fire service. Most people know about the history of dalmatians in the fire service, or they’ve heard of bagpipes being associated with fire departments, but there are many more traditions that are not as widely known, including the tradition of a clean truck. We take a lot of pride in having a clean truck, especially since our truck costs as much or more than most of the homes in our district. The goal is for the truck to be shiny and polished, and for it to stay that way throughout the day, which means we wash the truck, even when we know it will get dirty again. My crew is not always thrilled that I insist on washing the truck daily, but it’s important.

After the truck is washed, we reconvene with the captain and he gives us orders for the rest of the day. Since I work at station number three on Richmond Road, in the middle of the largest commercial area of our city, we spend a lot of our time testing fire hydrants and doing fire inspections of businesses to ensure our city stays safe. Not all stations spend as much time doing this as we do at number three, but I happen to like the interaction with the business owners and community.

Training also takes up a lot of our time, as we must prepare for any situation we may encounter. We may spend the day training on firefighting techniques for various buildings or practicing safely bailing out a window of a multi-story house in the instance the fire becomes overwhelming. We may practice prying a door open on a junk vehicle so we can get better and faster at rescuing a trapped victim or learning how to best extinguish a fire to cause the least amount of damage to a structure. We also spend a lot of time training on EMS techniques that help us have the best possible outcomes, because believe it or not, EMS calls comprise 80% of our overall call volume.

In our downtime at the station, we spend a lot of time cleaning. We like to cook good meals, and we work out daily. Contrary to popular belief, in 14 years on the job, I do not think I have ever played a game of dominoes. Television shows might lead you to believe we have plenty of time to lie around in recliners, and work through complicated relationship issues only to be interrupted by the tones going off, but in reality, we stay fairly busy with normal job duties.

We always get asked about the sleeping arrangements, so it’s important to add that since we work a 24-hour shift, we get to “sleep” on the job. I use quotations because while we may lie down at night, we are typically interrupted by the tones going off a couple times. We respond to many calls, from chest pains to wrecks to fire alarms and it seems that everyone waits until the middle of the night to call 9-1-1. Most firefighters I know are terrible sleepers because it is hard to adjust to the schedule we are on and the interrupted sleep patterns. So when you are at home and have the chance to sleep for ten hours straight, it can be hard to fall asleep. There’s scientific proof that this altered schedule affects your health over the years and causes hormonal shifts and insomnia. It’s just part of the job. I will admit most mornings when I work off shift I’m sleepy and cranky, but I have a toddler at home to hang out with and school-age children to take care of while my wife is at work, so there’s no time to recover.

Since I have been a fireman, I've seen the best and the worst of what mankind offers. We get fussed at frequently, and sometimes praised and often all on the same call. Whenever we are called out, it’s usually on someone’s worst day, so we always try to keep that in mind. On any day, I might console someone who has lost a loved one, cut a person out of a mangled car, pump on a chest or put out someone’s house fire. That sounds like an adrenaline rush when I write it down, and it can be, but the truth is there are a lot of moments of “waiting” mixed in, and those can be the hard ones.

The fire service is all about teamwork, and the guys we are stationed with comprise our team. From the very beginning of the shift, we do everything together. We cook, clean and run calls as a unit. On the bad calls, we deal with the stress as a team. When we have a win, we celebrate the win together. When I was graduating fire academy, our lead instructor gave a speech calling the fire service “a calling,” and he was right. The fire service is absolutely a calling, and it is tested every day. I have seen guys who did not have it, and guys who lost it, and guys who are far more called than I will ever be. I thank God every day that he gives me the opportunity to do the job I love and live out this calling.

When I was a child, our house caught fire and from that moment a seed was planted in the back of my mind that I wanted to be a firefighter when I grew up. Seeing all the big red trucks and all the guys with their gear, I knew I wanted to do the same thing when I was older. Now, when I talk to kids about my job, I love to show them around the truck, let them try on our gear and talk to them about the job.

This job takes a lot of faith in God. He helps me through the tough times. It also takes a strong wife and a strong marriage. If it were not for my wife taking care of things while I’m at work, and listening to me work through the nightmare moments, I would not be able to do the job I love. I work 110 shifts a year, and while that may not sound like a lot, every third day, or 33% of the year, she is a solo parent to those three boys of ours. It wouldn’t work without communication and patience.

One of the best parts of every day is returning home after shift and seeing those boys bolt out the door to greet me and eagerly ask about the adventures I’ve had while at work. That is when I can relax a little, breathe deep and begin to prepare for the next shift of cleaning, training, running, serving, sleeping (if we can) and living life at the fire station. Being a fireman is the best job in the world, and I could not imagine doing anything else. Serving the people of Texarkana is truly a blessing. 


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