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Reporter hangs with firefighters
When Central Kitsap Fire & Rescue fire station personnel say they’ve had a long day at work, they aren’t kidding. The team works 24-hour shifts. By the end of a shift, they may have served the community in a variety of capacities: as a counselor, medic or firefighter. For some, the work they do in an hour would be more than others could handle if it were spread out over an entire eight-hour work shift. This unit does more than fight fires or the stereotypical saving kittens from trees. They work hard. Harder than most would imagine. Reporter Seraine Page tagged along for a portion of a work day. Following the adventure, Page admits she couldn’t handle a full shift.
I arrive on a particularly foggy morning at Central Kitsap Fire and Rescue Station 51 for my first responder ride-along. Ileana LiMarzi, CK Fire & Rescue public information officer, greets me as soon as I walk through the door. She introduces me to the Station 51 on-duty fire and rescue team. The fire department captain shows me my seat on the fire truck that I’ll jump in if a call beckons. I was then told I’d have to wear a fashionably ugly jumpsuit for identification purposes while out on calls.
Fair enough, I thought, zipping up. This is what I asked for, isn’t it?
I also was required to sign a waiver releasing the department from any liability if I were to be injured on the ride-along. I was warned a few days prior that ride-alongs were known for jinxing any exciting happenings, so I wasn’t too worried.
For the next two hours, I watched two firefighters, including Capt. Rick O’Rourke, check multiple items on the ladder truck. The weekly inspection includes wiping soot off the 105-foot ladder and ensuring all cables and pulleys are in working order. Amazed, I watch as four “legs” drop out of the sides of the truck to withstand the weight of the ladder. O’Rourke explains that each leg hosts about 12,000 pounds for stabilization. When I ask what the cost of a new fire truck was, he says, “almost a million” and that fire trucks have a lifetime of about 25 years. The current truck is a 1997 model.
LiMarzi tells me 80 percent of the department calls are medical, but the fire truck has to be in tip-top shape at all times. We watched the two men work, inspecting seemingly every inch of the truck.
“It’s just one big rolling toolbox,” O’Rourke says, while pulling out multiple tools. I ask what would happen if a call came in over the speaker alerting the crew a fire was in progress during their inspection. The department has one directive: drop it and go.
The department has a total of five career stations, which is how they back one another up when fires or other situations are out of hand. I get in my car and follow LiMarzi to Station 41 where Station 51 staff beat us to the location to host a regular 10 a.m. meeting. While the fire personnel hold their morning pow-wow, LiMarzi explains to me how the fire station is more than a work place. It is also a community gathering place open to the public; anyone can reserve the room — knitting clubs, car clubs and other groups frequent the department’s public meeting room.
Lt. Jay Christian tells me he can one-up my request to tour the building. He asks if I’d be interested in participating in an exercise with them. I agree, to which Christian tells his crew, “Let’s go play.”
I’m sure it is more for the crew’s amusement, but the lieutenant tells me I can wear the gear for the exercise. He warns me it’ll be a little big, which I have no doubt since most of the men tower over me. I quickly tug off my boots and step into what look to be size 13 boots attached to fire pants. I yank up the suspenders, struggling to figure out which straps go where and what to pull on to make adjustments. I can feel about 10 pounds already added to my frame, and I don’t even have the most crucial of gear on me. I ask Christian how much time they get to suit up for a call. He tells me a minute, which I’ve already used up. I can tell that I would fail a fire academy.
As the firefighters assist me with pulling on the jacket and an air tank, I can feel knots immediately forming in my shoulders. I see a mask in one fireman’s hand, and I warn the guys helping me that I am claustrophobic. Christian tells me that I can at least try, and if I don’t like it I can pull it right off. As soon as the strap tightens on my head, I can feel the panic rising in my chest. Hooking up the regulator, they tell me to breathe, which I had apparently stopped doing the second the mask went on my face. Through my speaker I say, “Yeah, I don’t think I can wear this.” They immediately unhooked everything, and I feel the cool morning air against my face once again. I took a deep breath and told them, “You guys are my heroes; I don’t know how you wear all this gear and fight a fire.” I adjust my helmet as another crew member straps on my infrared camera and radio before handing me an axe to carry. I shuffle to their dorms where the exercise will happen, praying it goes quickly. I can barely move. Thankfully, Christian pairs me up with a patient firefighter named Chad Gillespie whose gear I am wearing. Firefighters always go in pairs.
Lt. Christian tells me I can’t chop down his real door with the axe in my hand. He redirects me to a log on the side, and tells me to give it five good chops. With everything I’m wearing, raising an axe higher than my shoulder seems impossible. I weakly crack the wood, missing my mark every time. I feel as though I’m moving in slow motion, which, apparently I am since my partner firefighter is already starting inside the hallway. Gillespie, wearing his full gear, including the mask, gives me directions to radio in to the lieutenant. After inspecting each room, we close the door to know it’s been searched.
In addition to carrying heavy gear, searching for survivors, the firefighters must also count how many rooms they searched while maintaining a sense of calm as they work their way through buildings on fire. About three rooms in we find “a baby” which looks to be a big black toolbox. I radio it in that we have a survivor, and we make our way back outside with the “baby.” Then, we head back in to finish the search, which, in real life, is why it is so crucial that doors are counted and shut. At the end of the hallway, veteran firefighter and paramedic Eric Keim is waiting to give me some additional information during our little exercise. When in a real fire, they will pull back their glove and feel the door up high with the back of their hands. He demonstrates, showing how it is done all the way down the door. If they get to a point below the door handle that is too hot to touch, it is unlikely that any person inside would survive.
After finding no other survivors, we exit the dormitory. The lieutenant greets us and tells us we did a great job, but now there’s a car fire to fight. We jump in the fire truck and ride over to the station’s training tower where a large aluminum pan is shooting up flames. I stripped off the gear immediately before getting into the truck, so now I was facing flames with an extinguisher and no gear. I brought the extinguisher close enough to be in range of the pan and sprayed it with water. The fire didn’t extinguish, so I was handed a heavier, red extinguisher and sprayed the foam in a back-and-forth motion. The fire almost immediately went out, and the foam reeked. I coughed and ran out of the smoke and foam cloud, only to be alerted there was an actual call to go on. I hopped in the fire truck and then was told to jump in the ambulance. Two minutes down the road, our call was canceled. While en route, firefighter/EMT Gillespie tells me that knowing the area is crucial when calls come in. He grew up in Bremerton, so he has an advantage over others. Monthly, the department has “map tests” to give drivers a chance to sharpen and refine road memory. The crew has a 115 square-mile coverage area, which makes road tests all the more pertinent.
Getting back to the station, I ask if I can tour the rest of the facility to see what else there is to do at a fire station. Lt. Christian agrees and he takes me around, starting with the dormitories where I drilled. Each room is tiny, but provides the basic comforts throughout a 24-hour shift. Each room has three lockers, one per person, per shift. A small bed allows weary firefighters to rest their heads. Cable television — paid for out-of-pocket by the firefighters — is also hooked up in each room.
He shows me “rip and runs” which are paper reports the department regularly used prior to computers to figure out where their calls were and the situation at hand. The system is still used for filing paperwork and completing reports, which is required for each call run.
I ask to see the training tower. Ever-patient and an excellent host, Lt. Christian takes me outside and walks me up the three-story tower, telling me the whole way about how he would love for it to be an actual “burn building” where they could practice on fires. The building is mostly used for hauling equipment up and performing rescues all while trying to see through blackened masks.
11 a.m. -11:25 a.m.
We exit the building and head for the gym. According to Lt. Christian, there are designated times to workout.
“There is an expectation that you workout every day,” he says. The friendly and competitive nature adds to the motivation to stay fit, he tells me.
The fire and rescue team do surprising things, too. Like when the medic unit is in someone’s home, if there is time, one of the medics will check the home to ensure there are working fire detectors. If not, they’ll hand out new ones or batteries to the resident. Another surprising task the department takes care of is showing someone where fire hazards may be in their yard. They’ll instruct the person on what areas should be cut back to prevent a fire. At the station, any resident can walk in and request their blood pressure be checked. As long as there’s time, the fire and rescue staff are glad to help out.
The kitchen, by far, is the most impressive and favored room in the department’s building.
“You will be a big failure in the fire department if you don’t learn how to cook,” Christian tells me. “The deal is, there are seven hungry people down there.”
Even with finicky eaters or those with severe allergies, the crew member responsible for the evening keeps notes on who can have what. Mexican food is a favorite among the crew. Although the public may see the firefighters out in the grocery store buying food, they want the public to know that it all comes from their own paychecks. As a group, they pool money together for the family-style dinners and cable television that’s hooked up in their dorm rooms. While talking about food, a call comes in alerting the medics it is time to disperse. No time for an early lunch.
The call is for basic life support (green), which means the crew can hit the road without lights or sirens. The report was for a 72-year-old female with lower back and leg pain. We arrive at the residence of an elderly couple in a tidy mobile home community. Watching the men go from fire training to patient care is an incredible transition. One minute they’re rough and tough, the next, they’re gentle and asking “How old are you, dear?” and cracking jokes to ease patient fear. By far, witnessing that transition is the best part of the day. Upon arrival, the two first responders ask several questions, take vitals and then load the female onto a stretcher. Her husband had cleverly designed a pull-away rail that would allow items, including a stretcher, to swiftly move through the front door to the outside.
As the woman’s family watches her being loaded into the ambulance, EMT Gillespie calls the hospital to inform them a patient is on the way. We’re headed to Silverdale’s Harrison Medical Center. As Gillespie asks the patient questions in the back of the vehicle, Keim takes the wheel and heads to the center. I ask how much an ambulance ride costs: a whopping $500-$600 for a ride, depending on mileage and what’s done on the patient, Keim tells me.
“We don’t refuse service to anybody,” he says.
However, he will have a talkin’-to with folks who call 911 three or four times a week for a week or longer. On a regular basis, Keim handles calls that include those with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and the like. Part of his paramedic training was reserved for dealing with patients who may have psychological problems. I ask what kind of interesting calls he’s gotten before, and he remarks he’s had people do everything from whining about a hurt finger to faking seizures.
We arrive at the Harlow Medical Building where the female is pulled off the vehicle and wheeled into the medical center. It is clear she’s grateful to the two men assisting her. I wait in the car while they fill out the necessary paperwork. Keim comes back and sits with me in the car. I pepper him with questions, all of which he graciously answers. I find out he has nine children, and that he’s anticipating the birth of his second grandchild shortly. He’s been doing this for 30 years, 20 of which were in Orange County, Calif., where he witnessed a lot of trauma and severe injuries.
“You get used to it,” he tells me when I ask how he deals with the trauma. That, and he’s a religious man.
I turn to a lighter subject as I watch Gillespie climb into the back of the ambulance and spray his shoes with a cleaner that Keim jokes in 20 years might be the cause of cancer. I ask about the clean sheets that I now notice on the gurney. Keim says the hospital provides the sheets after a patient is brought in, which cuts down costs hugely for the fire department.
We head back, and I chatter some more, asking about Keim’s family, being a firefighter and other little things I noticed. He starts heading back to his home station, we pull in, only to realize that mine and LiMarzi’s cars are parked at station 41. He radios in that we must head back out onto the road and for what reason. The dispatcher must know where every vehicle is at all times to give proper instructions to departments.
I shake hands with Keim, thank him for his time and hop out of the ambulance. Gillespie jumps out, ready to take my shotgun seat, another symbol of my first-hand and up-close look at what our first responders do daily. I shake his hand, smile and thank him for his time. LiMarzi and I walk together to where our cars are parked, and she tells me I can give her the jumpsuit so I don’t have to drive back to the other station again.
It was so comfortable I forgot I was wearing it. I unsnap and unzip to shimmy out of it before handing it over. I thank her for accommodating me as I hand over my business card. As I get into my vehicle, I can feel the smile still on my face. Although my ride-along was a fantastic and interesting experience, I think I’ll stay in my field if only to always have the opportunity to experience just a sliver of what heroes in our communities do day in and day out.
But only if it’s for a day.