This past weekend I tagged along with the crew of Sterling Volunteer Fire Company’s Engine 611 on a thirteen hour shift. I was free to observe, with no responsibilities other than to stay out of the way. I learned quite a bit. I’m still processing a few things, and no doubt I’ve forgotten some of it already. But overall it was a great experience, one that I’d recommend to anyone who has the opportunity.
Lesson #1 - Fire trucks are cool.
No matter how old you are, there’s something amazing about fire trucks. Those in the business refer to them as apparatus, but I can’t bring myself to do that. I’m an amateur fan. But seriously, why shouldn’t we continue to be amazed? These things are large diesel-powered monsters, decked out in a lot of chrome and stainless steel, with lots of buttons and knobs and switches, flashing lights, sirens, lights bright enough to turn night into day, and electronics. And that doesn’t even begin to talk about the water features…
Lesson #2 - Arriving early is important.
Time is critical to first responders. Minutes can — in many cases — equate to lives saved or lost. Firefighter are no exception, and this notion was stressed both verbally and in the crew’s actions throughout the shift. If a crew’s shift is from 6pm until 7am, that means that they need to be ready to go at 6pm. Not getting dressed. Not checking our their safety gear. Ready to go.
We arrived at Station 11 plenty early. After dropping personal gear at our bunks, I was given a quick tour of the fire station. Bunk rooms, with lights that come on automatically when there’s a call. Radio room, where all the dispatcher’s calls are received and the valid ones are rebroadcast around the station. Lounge, complete with sofas and big screen. Kitchen, with gas range and two refrigerators. Very humble and functional surroundings, nothing too out of the ordinary. Bathrooms, too. Firefighters tend to relieve themselves whenever they have the opportunity, not necessarily when they have to.
At 5:42 PM we headed down to the garage. Normally home to an engine, a ladder tower, a quint (which can serve the role of both engine and ladder truck, plus other functions), and few specialty vehicles (brush unit, canteen), the space appeared pretty packed to me; the 611 ladder tower was out of service due to a mechanical issue and so a quint from another station (Quint 618) was standing in that night. The inbound crew was busy checking out the equipment, getting notes from the outbound crew (e.g. the left rear spotlight is still not working, it’s going to have to be replaced). I was given the quick overview of where I’d be seated if we got a call (back seat, center, facing forward), what to do in that case (get in quickly, buckle up), how to use the headphones, and what to do once we were on scene (generally, stay in the truck unless told otherwise).
Engine 611 is considered “in service” when the equipment is functional and it’s ready to be manned by an officer, a driver, and at least one firefighter. I think the last part depends on the county/state, but in general there’s a set number of individuals filling specific roles that need to be present. If you’ve got a flat tire, no go. If you’re missing any of the key personnel, no go. Once in service, the county dispatcher knows that the unit is available to be dispatched to a scene if necessary.
Lesson #3 - Like most industries, there’s a specific dialect.
Firefighters tend to talk in numbers and geography. They’ll say that they were headed over to 11 or 18, when they’re talking about specific fire stations. There’s a lot of radio jargon that differs from the 10-codes used by law enforcement, but it sounds similar to my untrained ear. They know which hydrant out of a thousand is a pain in the ass to open. They appear to have an encyclopedic knowledge of street addresses and direction; punching in an address to a GPS-assisted navigation system seems abysmally slow by comparison to a seasoned firefighter.
There are speakers installed throughout the fire station, many of which broadcast continual updates from the dispatcher, all in the background. Status of current calls, call-backs from dispatched units, etc. There are also display monitors posted throughout, which list the last couple calls and the status of all the equipment. Both audio and visual methods are somewhat cryptic to me, but after a while you can start to understand some of it. Not all the updates are applicable to our specific crew, as the station house hosts both the fire company and the rescue squad, but everyone there appears to be accustomed to listening to that stream of audio and carrying on conversation simultaneously. Mid-conversation some tones were dropped, some updates relayed by the dispatcher, and I’m told we’ve got a call.
Lesson #4 - Riding on a truck fire is more cool.
At 6:15 PM, Engine 611 and Engine 618 were dispatched to the scene of a car accident. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but everyone quickly and calmly boarded the truck, got strapped in, and donned their headset. The garage door rolled up and we were out the door, siren blazing and lights flashing.
As the firefighters in the compartment were busy changing out of their shoes and getting into their protective gear, the driver was busy weaving through traffic, running red lights, and sharing my sheer amazement at other drivers who just do not seem to understand that they’re in the way and that a truck that size won’t stop on a dime.
Public Service Announcement: when you see or hear an engine, move out of the way. Aside from the fact that you’re impeding a crew from reaching their destination in a timely matter, you do not want to be hit by one of these things, even at slow speed. They’re big, they don’t corner well, and they weigh a lot; from the seat of a fire truck, every other vehicle looks miniscule. Put it this way, the 750+ gallons of water onboard Engine 611 alone weighs more than most vehicles on the road today. Newton’s laws of motion should be suitable reading, here.
I never felt like the rig was out of control or that we were going excessively fast, that being said I have no idea how fast we were going. I do know that it’s pretty amazing to see such a large vehicle navigate through traffic. I’m told that the trucks are geared for acceleration, not top speed; I believe it, these things can pick up and move when they have to, which is incredible given their weight. On the headset I can hear the others in the truck over the intercom, speaking normally. In the same headset but overlaid louder are updates to/from the dispatcher, units en route, and our officer asking for updated location information.
As it turns out, the car accident was on a ramp to the highway. Direction wasn’t provided as to whether it was an on-ramp or an off-ramp, so there was a lot of looking out the window to locate it. Emergency responders can only respond if they can find you. Mile markers are good I guess, but I’d think that basic directions would be better. If the caller had reported that they were on the on-ramp to highway 123 northbound, we wouldn’t have had to go looking around for two stopped cars. Granted, some folks don’t know where they’re going in general and it’s not uncommon to be disoriented after a collision. Eventually the accident scene was located, requiring our driver to reverse up the on-ramp (with assistance from the firefighters-turned-backers).
From my seat in the cab, it looked like a standard rear-end collision. The rear end of the lead car was in decent condition. The front end of the following car, very much accordion-like. The humans involved appeared to be undamaged, if not a bit shaken. Police and EMS were on the scene too, taking statements and writing reports. The crew deployed cat litter to soak up leaked fluids, the Engine stood in place blocking traffic and keeping passing cars away from all those involved.
Lesson #5 - When you eat, it’s always to-go.
At 7:00 PM we backed into the refuse/loading area at Dulles Town Center to grab dinner. Food courts provide a lot of options, so everyone can get what they want. There are fire exits and passages everywhere, and the crew uses them expertly to navigate quickly and efficiently through the back corridors of the mall. I also learned that it’s difficult to try to buy a firefighter dinner, but I’d encourage you to try. After finishing up, it was decided to go top off the tank.
Lesson #6 - You can never had enough fuel in the tank.
At 7:38 PM we arrived at Station 18, the northern fire station of Sterling. Engine 611 took on 8 gallons of diesel. According to the odometer Engine 611 might only get a mile to the gallon, which sounds pretty awful. But the engine isn’t just responsible for propulsion, so that measure is prone to inaccuracy. At the scene of a fire the transmission is placed in neutral, but the engine runs continuously and spools up to pump water as necessary. An engine might only power the transmission for 10 minutes to get to the scene, but then run for 3-4 hours. Similar to nature’s calling, you fill up when you can.
Lesson #7 - There’s a lot of water feeding the hydrant.
At 8:21 PM we arrived at Park View High School for training, play time, drills, or whatever else you want to call it. The other three trucks from the station were already present. The chief assembled the crews and explained the various drills that he wanted to see, after which each truck deployed to a space in the back parking lot. Our truck would not be involved in any drill and was moved into position for quick departure. It’s standard procedure to keep engine running (in pump gear) when the temperature is below freezing, to keep the water circulating (and as a bonus the cab is kept nice and warm).
One team was hooked up to a hydrant and was practicing dousing a trailer from a handheld hose. One team set forth with a pair of roof ladders (ladders with a pair of hooks on the end), working their way onto the various roof structures of the high school, taking the ladders with them as they moved.
One team deployed a 105-foot ladder into the sky, the instructions being that everyone had to climb up and down once.
The last team practiced what I’d call a pit-stop maneuver. The truck would drive up to a hydrant and stop. A firefighter would hop out and lash a four-inch line to the hydrant, then motion the driver to advance, thus deploying the hose out from the back of the truck. Let the truck do the heavy lifting: smart.
Once stopped, the firefighter would work to attach the hose to the hydrant, the hose to the truck, pressurize the system by opening the valve on the hydrant. Once pressurized, those hoses are hard as concrete, yet I was told that the slightest kink in the hose could drastically reduce pressure.
Then the driver (who also operates the engine-mounted pumps) would open one of the valves on the engine to flow some water (video). A firefighter’s notion of some water is vastly different than mine; the amount of water flowed in each one of these 30-60 second tests far exceeded what I use at home in a month.
After everyone is satisfied, the whole operation has to be undone in the reverse order.
This was done three or four times that I saw, then each hose had to be purged of water, rolled up (you can see some of the rolled up coils laying on the sidewalk in the photos above), then stowed in the back of the truck properly. This particular truck has a retractable housing to store hoses.
All of this in 20° weather, not counting the wind chill.
At 9:04 PM Engine 611 was dispatched to assist with an EMS call. We climbed aboard and left the other crews behind. I’ll exclude the details due to potential HIPAA issues, but suffice to say it would have been a call where the crew would be there to provide manpower, perhaps a little extra muscle with the stretcher on the staircase, etc. An individual was loaded into the ambulance at less-than-emergency speed (read: cause for EMS was non-life-threatening, not that the crews were acting slowly). Once the ambulance departed, we headed back to the high school.
Most of the crews had finished their drills, but one was still working with a monitor. It it usually attached to the truck, but can be removed and placed anywhere. It can be fixed to direct water at particular area to keep an area wet, so that firefighters can focus their attention elsewhere (instead of having to man a hose).
Lesson #8 - Everyone needs rest.
Upon our return to the station, we set up our bunks and headed back downstairs. I picked up my stocking cap and gloves and put them into the cab with my jacket so that I’d have them for the next call. Some of the crew started watching a movie, others went to sleep, others stuck around and talked. I hung around to listen. Company politics. War stories. Eventually I started to tire, having been up for 20 hours or so. I found myself dozing off in my chair.
At 1:15 AM, we called it a night and headed upstairs to our bunks, flipped off the lights and tucked into our sleeping bags.
At some point, probably around 2:00 AM, I was awaken by tones and the voice of the dispatcher. The lights snapped on. I rolled out of bed and started getting my boots on, when I was informed that the call didn’t include us. Okay, maybe EMS only. The lights snapped out on their own in a minute or two and I went back to sleep.
Lesson #9 - Being woken up at 3:00 AM is disorienting.
At 3:03 AM Engine 611 was dispatched for reasons unknown. The tones dropped. The lights flicked on. I heard 611-something spoken. I rolled out of bed, put my boots on, tied ‘em up, put my wallet and phone in my pockets and shuffled down the stairs to Engine 611. I found the garage door open and everyone else already inside the cab. As I got in and sat down my host informed me, “you were about 3 seconds from being left behind.” Shoelaces. Now I know why his boots have zippers instead of laces.
As we bolted through now-empty streets to the destination, the officer on-board requested an update from the dispatcher. It was a self-reported 911 call from an injured person. The call had been lost. Attempts to re-dial the cell phone had gone unanswered, so GPS was being used to attempt to locate the caller. We arrived shortly after the police, so we parked a block or two away and waited for further information. Over the intercom more war stories were swapped, along with shop talk, and speculation about the accuracy of GPS devices.
At 3:50 AM we headed back to the station, the sheriff apparently having settled the matter, whatever it happened to be. Never found out. Sometimes that’s how it happens.
At 6:50 AM I got up, packed up my bunk and headed downstairs. I picked up my jacket and personal effects from the cab. Just in case the next crew were to be called at 7:01 AM, no telling when they’d be back. I fixed a cup of hot chocolate and listened to the exchange of information from the evening crew to the morning crew. Shortly thereafter, I walked out to my car and headed for home.
It was a quick 13 hours, but I don’t know how those crews do it. Two or three hours sleep in 26 hours time simply isn’t enough for me; the following day I found myself napping sporadically and uncontrollably. Riding along was a rush, no doubt about it, but also very humbling. These volunteers are from all walks of life: engineers, HVAC repair, computer geeks, community college, white collar, blue collar, you name it. Once they commit to the service of their community, they put on the uniform and work together as a single professional unit, calm and collected. It was a privilege to witness it, even without seeing a single flame. Tired but feeling good, even though I was just along for the ride.