11/16/09 — Workin' it -- Where's the fire?

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Workin' it -- Where's the fire?

By Laura Collins
Published in News on November 16, 2009 1:46 PM

The Job: Firefighter

The Company: Goldsboro Fire Department

The Location: Goldsboro

"We're fixing to go on a call right now," said Assistant Fire Chief Eric Lancaster.

"All of us?" I asked.

"Uh huh," he said.

"Even me and you?"


"Why are you so calm?!"

And that was how my first emergency call with the fire department went: Lancaster remained calm and cool and I panicked. I am not cool, so remaining calm under pressure is pretty much out of the question.

 We responded to a pedestrian-vehicle accident. The firefighters went right to work, stabilized the victim until Emergency Medical Services arrived and took her to the hospital.

After that first call, I decided I wanted to be a firefighter when I grow up.

I realize that ship might have already sailed, but if I had spent a day with the fire department five years ago, it would have given this whole journalism thing a run for its money.

I arrived at Station 1 Thursday morning right after the 8 a.m. shift change. I anticipated having a relaxing day, going on a couple calls and spending the rest of the time hanging out at the fire station. But once again, my assumption of what a job entails and the reality of the job were completely different.

For an hour, usually in the morning if there aren't emergencies, the firefighters do physical training. A mandatory daily workout is a new initiative set in place by Fire Chief Gary Whaley, though many of the firefighters were already working out on a daily basis.

I managed to miss most of the workout because I was trying on my gear. They didn't have boots in my size, so I was stuck wearing my hot pink rain boots with the uniform. I looked hard core.

After I had the gear on, fire engineer Ron Lee and firefighter Dwight Boswell helped me try on the oxygen tank and mask. Just to preface this, the gear I already had on weighed about 20 pounds. Also, I have bad balance. So when the 25 pound oxygen tank was strapped to my back, there was about 100 percent chance I wasn't going to remain standing. I credit Lee and Boswell with being the only reason my feet stayed on the ground.

In addition to physical training, the firefighters spend from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. in class, doing other training or maintenance, when they aren't responding to emergency calls. The difference is, at other jobs people go home after putting in eight hours. But after eight hours of class, training and emergencies, the firefighters still have 15 hours to go before their shift ends.

During lunch I got to learn a little more about the dynamic between the firefighters.

"I can get the Internet on my phone. Isn't that crazy," said Brandon Davis, the newest guy at the station. "I mean, 10 years ago I never would have thought phones would be able to do all this."

"Ten years ago you were 11. You weren't thinking about anything," said firefighter Bert Harris. They seemed to enjoy giving each other a hard time, although Davis seems to get the worst of it.

Shortly after, the station got a call for an unresponsive baby. I rode with Lancaster to the scene and got there in time to see someone from EMS rushing the baby to their ambulance. Firefighter Hezekiah Jones offered to drive for EMS so they could have more hands with the baby. I talked to him later at the hospital.

"It's nice to meet you," Jones said. "I'm sorry it had to be under these circumstances."

I was comforted by the fact that the firefighters seemed to be effected by the emergency they just dealt with, even though it's something I'm sure they see on a regular basis.

"It's a range of emotions all in one day," Chief Whaley said.

"On any day you can go from cutting up during lunch to a call like this," Lancaster said. "It makes you hug your family a little tighter when you get home."

Lancaster added that the joking around among the firefighters is much needed, and almost therapeutic after some of the emergencies they respond to.

When I returned to the station, I sat in on a class about trench rescue. It's a type of rescue that they may not get a call for once a year, if that, but being prepared for any call is part of what they do. Capt. Gilbert Hare taught the class in extreme detail and didn't even bat an eye at the "funny guy" rookie, which I'm sure he's had to deal with many times over the years.

"So if someone is pinned by a pipe in a trench, how do you get him out?" Hare asked the class.

"I'd just lift it up," the rookie said.

"You would not lift up a 1,500-pound pipe," he responded.

"Chuck Norris could do it," the rookie said. At that point, Hare decided to call on someone else.

Later in the day I did some rescue training. Capt. Dwight Olmsted, Hare, Lee and Boswell dressed me in the gear again. This time I had better luck standing. They then blacked out my oxygen mask so I couldn't see through it and said they hid a doll somewhere in the garage that I needed to find.

The firefighters do this type of training because, regardless of what Hollywood portrays, when you're in a house full of smoke, you're lucky if you can see your hand in front of your face.

On my baby doll scavenger hunt I blindly crawled around on the ground, feeling under things and narrowly avoiding running into the back of a fire truck. I was sweating doing this in a garage that was about 60 degrees. I couldn't imagine trying to rescue someone from a burning house. When I was only a couple yards from the doll, the emergency toned sounded. The scavenger hunt was cut short, though I'm not entirely sure I would have found the doll if it hadn't been. I ran to engine 1 to ride along on the call.

Fire engineer Gigi Eason, who's been a firefighter for 21 years, was behind wheel. She was able to maneuver the fire engine like it was a Ford Focus. Eason, Hare, Harris and I arrived at the location, which was a call for an unresponsive man. When we got there, it was a barely conscious elderly man sitting in a chair who could not move. I stood in a corner so I wouldn't get in anyone's way, but the other three went straight to work.

"What's wrong," Hare asked.

"I'm dying," the man said. This did not go over well with the other three.

"No, you aren't. Not while we're here," Hare said.

"Not on my watch," Eason said.

Harris lifted the man up and placed him on the stretcher. EMS took him to the hospital and we headed back to the station.

Shortly after we got back, volunteer firefighters from area towns arrived to attend a training class. This is particularly impressive because, as their name would indicate, the volunteer firefighters aren't paid for attending training and most of them came straight from their other full-time jobs. But in an effort to be prepared when emergencies happen in their town, they spent an evening in class. Granted, they did have Firehouse Chicken to look forward to.

Firehouse Chicken seems to be legend at the station. Since 9 a.m. when I arrived, almost everyone I met that day asked if I was staying for Firehouse Chicken. By the 914th time, I agreed not knowing what I was doing. Firehouse Chicken has ruined all other chicken for me. Assistant Fire Chief Eddie Sasser and Eason worked on it for several hours and what emerged was essentially the best dinner ever. From here on out, other chicken dinners will just be sub-par. Thanks a lot, Sasser.

After dinner I decided to call it a night. When I arrived at the station that morning, I only intended on being there until about 4 p.m. At 9 p.m. I was begrudgingly handing over my gear and helmet to Lancaster, reluctant to leave. I felt like after only 12 hours I understood something Lancaster said to me earlier in the day.

"Most of the guys and girls become firefighters because it's what they've always wanted to do," he said. "Most people leave work and go home. But when you leave work here, you're still a member of the fire department."