When I pull up to Fire Station 14 on the northeast corner of 32nd Street and Lincoln Avenue in North Park, there’s nothing to indicate that this is the city’s second-busiest station. It’s noon and the surrounding streets are empty.
The copper-roofed, neo-Mission-style building gleams in the spring sunshine, and small trees and bushes along Lincoln rustle in the gentle breeze. I park my car and walk through the open back door into the high-ceilinged garage area — I later learn to call this the “apparatus area” — where three fire rigs are parked. “Hello,” I call. “Hello,” returns a voice, and a tall, mustachioed man in blue shorts and blue T-shirt approaches from around the front of a glistening red truck. “You must be, Ernie,” he says, shaking hands with me. “Welcome. I’m Bill. Had lunch yet?”
Bill leads me through a doorway on the north side of the apparatus area into the firehouse section of the station. Immediately on the right is a chest-high counter with an office behind it. On the other side of the counter sits a tan, dark-haired man in his 40s.
“This is Captain Jon McDonald,” Bill says without stopping. We exchange greetings and I keep following Bill through another doorway and into the kitchen, where half a dozen firefighters are filing past the counter straight ahead, putting together pastrami sandwiches. McDonald, who has joined us in the kitchen, tells me, “Make yourself right at home here. Just dive in and get yourself a sandwich.”
I follow his instructions and walk through the buffet before taking a seat at the square table in the dining area.
Station 14 has stood at this location since 1943, but this building was built in 1991 and, like modern homes, has an open floor plan. The kitchen flows into the dining area, which in turn flows into the living room, or “bullpen.” Other than a high counter between the kitchen and the dining room, no walls separate the three rooms. Decoration is nonexistent and furnishings are utilitarian. The living room has no couches or coffee table. Instead, 15 identical recliners, arranged in two rows, face the TV. Conversation wasn’t what the firefighters had in mind when they set up this room.
Not that they don’t converse. As I sit at the dining room table with the members of Station 14’s A Shift, I realize this is the primary conversation spot in the firehouse. The six men and two women talk freely about work and nonwork topics and rib each other constantly. I’ve heard that firefighters, maybe because they spend too much time together, often end up disliking each other and interacting as little as possible. None of that is in evidence here, where everybody takes part in the conversation, everybody laughs and jokes with each other, and, as far as I can tell, everybody gets along.
To my right at the table is Captain Larry Carlson, a 29-year veteran of the fire department. McDonald sits to Carlson’s right around the corner of the table. I ask them about rapport among the crew members.
“We basically all get along in this little 24-hour family that we’ve got going here,” McDonald says. “We’ve got all different backgrounds of people, different interests, different hobbies, different personalities. Some of us have grown together through our careers. I’ve known Larry for the 23 years I’ve been on the job. We don’t hang out together outside of work, but we’re family here. It’s funny, we’ve got an eight-man double house here and we all get along, where sometimes you have only four guys, in a regular single-engine house, and those guys can’t stand each other. They can change stations, try to find an environment they like. But sometimes it takes a while for that to happen. In the meantime, they don’t eat together or talk much to each other.”
“Is how well you get along just left up to chance?” I ask.
“It’s all left up to chance and, somewhat, to how the captain runs his station. The department says, ‘This is your station, you figure it out.’ This is a double house, so all they want to know is that there are two captains, two engineers, and four firefighters in this station.”
“What’s a double house?”
“Double house,” Carlson responds, “means you have two rigs in a station: a pump and a truck.”
I remember seeing three rigs when I walked in.
“The third,” says fire engineer Bob Buie, who has been listening, “is a reserve engine — the one against the far wall. We just store it there in case something breaks down.”
“In the last ten years or so,” McDonald explains, “when they’ve started to rebuild old stations and build new ones, they’ve made them multiple-truck, with front and rear access — instead of the conventional two-door stations we used to have that you had to back the rigs into. So now we have space for reserve rigs. Instead of keeping them out in the sun somewhere, we keep them indoors.”
I ask how the shift system works. Carlson points to an official calendar hanging on the wall behind him. The numbers on the calendar, which is showing the month of March, are either red, green, or blue. “We’re the red days,” he explains, “so you can see we worked the 5th, 7th, 9th, and then the 11th. Then we had four days off. Then we worked 16th, 18th, 20th, and today, the 22nd. Then we have six days off. If you break it down, it works out to a 56-hour workweek over a year. Tomorrow morning, B division will be coming in. They work all of the blue days. When we’re on our four and six days off, B and C divisions will alternate. This is a perpetual calendar, so say you were going to work ten more years, you could sit down and figure out every shift you were going to work until you retired. It’s been going that way since 1969, when the department went from two divisions to three.”
“It’s a nice schedule,” adds McDonald, “because, unless we’re working overtime, we never work consecutive days. You work for 24 hours, then you go home for at least 24 hours.”
“That’s a normal shift,” Carlson explains. “Now, obviously if there’s something going on in the morning — maybe there’s a fire at 7:30 and we go on it — well, even though our shift technically ends at 8:00 a.m., we could stay there all morning. If there’s a grass fire, we may go out there and stay over all that next day. Sometimes we may stay out there for a week.”
“And it’s so flexible,” McDonald says, “it’s been worked out through our union and the city that we can do trades. The guys who work on the green or blue days, they can work for me on March 5th, 7th, and 9th, and I can take those days off. Then, I can work for them on three of my normal days off.”
“Another nice thing,” Carlson adds, “is after 15 years, you begin accruing vacation at the rate of 22 hours a month. So over the period of a year you earn about ten shifts of vacation. So you can see,” he taps the calendar, “ten shifts is pretty much a month off.”
“I just took a month off,” McDonald interjects.
“Of course,” Carlson continues, “our annual leave is also our sick leave, so it behooves you not to use it all up at once.
“A lot of people get hurt on this job, not big injuries, but you’re constantly hurting yourself. There’s a lot of lifting, a lot of twisting, a lot of awkward positions; you’re in areas where you can’t see. There are a lot of knee and shoulder injuries and backs that go bad over the years.”
“And you’re exposed to a lot of sickness,” McDonald adds.
“I don’t know anybody,” Carlson says, “who hasn’t been dinged in some way on the job.”
By 1:30 p.m., McDonald, Carlson, and I are the only ones left at the table. The rest, with no discussion of who should do what, have cleared the dishes, put away the food, and dispersed to other areas of the firehouse. I ask the two captains if Station 14, which sits in a neighborhood of multiplexes and small bungalows occupied by a broad spectrum of demographic groups, is considered a desirable post in the fire department.
“We like to think it is,” McDonald answers. “And, in fact, nobody is here just because they were stuck here. They asked to be here.”
“This is the second-busiest station in the city,” Carlson adds. “So if you like to be busy and you like a real diverse neighborhood, this is the place to be. That’s why I’m here. I love this place. A lot of firefighters want to be here. The young guys want to be in a busy house because they want to build experience.”
“And,” McDonald adds, “a lot of the real senior guys on the job don’t like it. They’ve probably done the busy houses at some point in their careers, but when they start getting older they think, ‘Let the younger guys work the busy houses. I’ll go out to the beach or I’ll go somewhere it isn’t too busy.’ But that’s not always the case. Larry’s got close to 30 years on, I’ve got almost 24 on, and we’re still doing the busy stuff.”
Captain Carlson nods in agreement. “I can’t work in the slower stations. I’d go buggy.”
“What is considered slow?”
“Well,” Carlson answers, “it’s different now. In the old days, when we just did fires, there were a lot of stations that wouldn’t have runs for weeks. But with medical aid being such a huge part of our business now, every station gets medical runs. Here, we get around 10 or 11 calls a day on the pump and 3 on the truck. Some days, we’ll do 20 on the pump, but 10 or 11 is the average. There are several stations out there that average 3.”
“When did the fire department go from just putting out fires to answering medical calls as well?” I ask.
“We’ve been emts [emergency medical technicians] since 1980,” McDonald says, “so here we are 20 years later. Before that, just a handful of guys were emts. We thought they were surgeons. When Larry and I came on, it was a basic Boy Scout first-aid class: stop the bleeding, direct pressure, Band-Aid, good luck.”
I ask if the medical revolution on the job came about because the department was looking for something for firefighters to do, as smoke alarms, sprinklers, and fire codes made fires more rare.
“Well,” Carlson answers, “filling the dead time was part of it. But the second thing is that medical technology took off at about the same time and it allowed you to put all kinds of really high technology in an ambulance or a fire engine. It’s all portable now. All of those tools that used to be big lumbering units in a hospital we carry around in a little bag now. Two people can carry an enormous amount of medical equipment into a house.”
“Everything that’s on a tray and table at the ER room,” McDonald explains. “The oxygen, all of the drugs, all of the trauma stuff, the defibrillator — two bags.”
“Which vehicle goes to the medical calls?”
“They both can,” Carlson responds, “but usually the pump goes.”
“The pump is also called the engine,” McDonald interjects.
“That’s right,” Carlson says. “So the engine goes and at the same time, somewhere in the city, an ambulance is being dispatched, and we get there usually pretty close together. We beat them most of the time. A lot of the ambulances are spread out all over the city, but our district is pretty small. So when we get on the road, we usually beat them by a minute or two. It’s a nice system because it puts a lot of bodies at the scene at the same time. Most of the time, it’s overkill. But when it’s not, we’re going to have enough people there to make a difference every time.”
McDonald adds, “We’re talking six people: four in the pump, two in the ambulance.
“We had a cpr before you got here this morning,” McDonald tells me, “a really big guy. Kerin, who is our paramedic, was there, the medics on the ambulance were there, and the rest of our pump crew. We had guys doing compressions, we had guys doing ventilations on him, we had a guy pushing drugs through the IVs on him, and we had a person running the monitor and shocking him when it said to. I was talking with the people in the house, writing his medical history down, writing all his medicines down, calling his doctor. Everybody is working, and when it’s time to move this big old guy — and they’re deadweight when they’re in that state — it takes a lot of people to get him on a backboard, get him on a gurney, get him out, get him loaded up, get him gone.”
Over the station intercom, a male voice says, “Chief’s in, chief’s in.” Captain McDonald hops up and scurries away. Captain Carlson laughs and calls after him, “Run, Jon, run,” then turns to me and explains, “Our battalion chief is here, and we’re supposed to have pants on after noon.” Although Carlson is already dressed in yellow fire pants, McDonald is still in blue department-issue athletic shorts.
“A battalion chief,” Carlson explains, “is basically second-level supervisor. Jon and I, as captains, are the first level. A battalion chief has five to seven stations in his battalion. This particular chief is stationed out of Station 5, at Ninth and University. And we’re in the 5th Battalion, so he’s B-5 — Battalion Chief Five. When we go to large incidents, he’ll take command from whoever has it. Say we go to a fire, Jon and I, and maybe engine 18. That would give us two pumps and a truck. We’d be pretty busy. The first one of us that gets there will take command. Then the battalion chief will come in, the commanding captain will make a face-to-face with him, and he’ll take command. That frees you up to go do other things. In a really big fire, we may call in additional resources and he’s in charge of tracking those resources and asking for more that may be needed.”
Captain Carlson gets up to go greet the battalion chief, who leaves the station after two or three minutes. Then Carlson returns and motions for me to follow him to the apparatus area, which occupies the south half of the building. The engine, or pump, is parked closest to the living area, the truck is next, and, beyond that, against the south wall, the reserve pump. Carlson leads me to a five- by five-foot map on the wall nearest the pump.
“This is a great area to work in. Any one of these,” he points out this station and stations in Golden Hill, City Heights, and Hillcrest. “This is the heart of the city and it’s the place to be, in my mind. The interesting thing is, you can feel change in this district more than anywhere else. I’ve felt North Park, the last three or four years, turning around. People are starting to really take care of the neighborhoods. Two or three years ago we were going to stabbings and shootings and beatings constantly. We’re hardly seeing them anymore. The last year it’s been so quiet as far as violent crime goes. We still get the occasional beating or stabbing, but not anything like it used to be. Two or three years ago, New Year’s Eve, you could hear automatic weapons all over the place. This last year, I heard a couple of shots. It’s kind of cool to watch the transformation happen and see all of the new development along University Avenue. When I was first starting on the fire department, in 1971, I came to this station to train. Then I worked here for three years after that. That’s just when North Park was starting to turn bad. There were a couple of developers, they started tearing down these little houses and putting eight-unit buildings on those 50 by 100 lots. They just tacked them up and they were garbage. They packed so many people into this area, without any infrastructure. The transit system wasn’t in place for them. There was no work around for them. The streets were too narrow. There wasn’t enough parking. You would have three or four really nice-looking bungalows and on either end the shittiest-looking box of an apartment house. All the people that had been here for 30 years started getting mugged, and the robbery rate went up. They would get scared and leave, the developers would buy their lots for next to nothing, and, boom, another eightplex would go up.”
Carlson runs his finger along the nearby freeways on the map. “In addition to medical aid and fires, we do rescue work — extracting people from wrecks — and that evolves into a medical aid. We have the 805 corridor just a few blocks from here, and the 8, and the 94 not far. We spend a lot of time on those freeways responding to traffic accidents.
“Our first-in district,” Carlson continues, “extends from Juniper to El Cajon Boulevard, Texas to about 40th Street. So this is our baby right here.” He indicates those four streets on the map. “Pretty much anything that happens in this area, if we’re not committed to another incident, we’re going to end up going to it. Every station has an area which is kind of their home turf, and we want to be the first there if there’s a fire within that district. If we have a fire at 36th and Polk, it’s a sin to not be there first. If one of these other guys comes in and beats you there, shame on you. You take a little friendly heat for that.”
The fire engine we’re standing next to is not Station 14’s rig. They borrowed it from Station 5 this morning because it has an extra seat for me. Station 14’s pump has only four seats.
“This is a newer rig,” Carlson says. “Ours is somewhat older. That’s something we need to address pretty soon in this job is that our equipment is really getting worn out. This work is hard on rigs. Roads in San Diego, for one thing, are very rough, and there are a lot of dips. They haven’t been very well taken care of, especially in North Park. And these rigs are going fast, they’re braking a lot, they’re cornering pretty hard, and there’s a lot of weight going down the road.”
The pump is a two-axle, six-wheel rig. It stretches 28 feet. The 40-foot truck has three axles and ten wheels. Both are one-piece; that is, they’re not the tractor-trailer rigs you’ve seen with a man up on top steering the back wheels.
“We still do have two tractor trailers on the job,” Carlson tells me. “One is at Station 1 downtown, First and B. The guy in back is called a tillerman. Having him steering the back wheels gives you a lot more maneuverability. You can do really tricky things with those. On downtown streets with high-rises, sometimes you have to get into odd positions. They’re very versatile in that respect. And they have a hundred-foot aerial ladder, which they can do a lot of things with.
“Our truck,” he walks around the back of the pump to where the truck is parked, “is obviously not a ladder — it’s a Snorkel boom.”
If you saw the Snorkel boom on the back of Station 14’s truck, you’d probably call it a “cherry picker.” It consists of a basket, in which two firefighters can stand, at the end of a boom that’s connected to a lower boom at an elbow joint. Hold your arm with the upper portion straight out in front of you parallel to the ground and the elbow fully bent so that your hand is on top of your shoulder. That’s what the Snorkel looks like at rest on the truck. Your elbow is over the front of the truck, your shoulder at the rear.
Extended straight up, the Snorkel reaches 75 feet. The upper boom can also reach laterally about 30 feet — maybe to rescue somebody from an upper-story window — but at full lateral extension, the Snorkel reaches only 35 feet vertically. Carlson says it’s not as versatile as an aerial ladder, but versatility isn’t the point.
“The primary purpose of this Snorkel is to provide a whole lot of water through that pipe.” Carlson points to the four-inch pipe going up the side of the booms. “You have an electrical-powered nozzle on the front of the basket. We don’t even have to have someone in the basket to use the nozzle. We can power it by remote control on the ground.”
Bob Buie, one of the two engineers in the station, walks up to where Larry and I are standing, behind the truck. “Bob here is going to tell you everything you never wanted to know about these rigs,” Carlson says before walking around the back of the pump and into the living area of the firehouse.
“Okay, this is the truck,” says Buie, a man in his 40s with blond hair and mustache. “We call it a truck because it carries a lot of tools, a lot of equipment, a lot of ladders. It doesn’t carry any water. It’s basically a big toolbox for us. It will roll on any structure fire. This is our pump here,” he moves over behind the pump, “which is also called an engine. It has hose, it has water, it carries a few ladders and some basic hand tools. The pump carries the paramedic on board. Sometimes, for training purposes, we put a paramedic on the truck company, but usually only engines have paramedics, so the pump goes on all of the medical calls.
“Now,” Buie continues, “if it’s a fire, our job as the pump crew is to rescue the people first, if there is any life hazard. But part of rescuing somebody is putting water on the fire to keep it away from the people. So that’s what our main job is: get there, get some hose lines out there, get the people out, put the fire out. We have different hoses for different types of fires, everything from a little trash-can fire to a big, giant building fire. We carry one-inch hose, inch-and-three-quarter hose, two-and-a-half-inch hose, and four-inch hose.
“Now our one-inch hose is for real small stuff, mop-up work after we get done with the main fire. Sometimes we have grass fires, and when the main fire is out and we’re cleaning up — finding the little embers and stuff — we use the one-inch for that. Inch-and-three-quarter is our next hose up. That’s the workhorse of the fire department. That’s what we use 90 percent of the time to put a fire out. That’s what the guys are dragging into the structure. That’s what we use to put car fires out. That’s what we drag down into canyons to get to fires.
“In the back here, we have our two-and-a-half-inch and our four-inch. Years and years ago, we used two-and-a-half-inch hose for all of our supply lines; now we use four-inch. A supply line brings water from the hydrant into the engine, which pumps it out through the hoses. As far as what hose we use to put out the fire, when we do school presentations, I put it like this: if your house is on fire, we use an inch-and-a-quarter to put it out. If your school is on fire, we go to a two-and-a-half-inch line. The bigger the fire, the bigger the hose.”
Buie leads me around the left side of the rig to an instrument panel just behind the passenger compartment. During a fire, the engineer operates this panel, regulating the pressure in the hose lines.
“We carry 500 gallons of water in this truck, which is basically used as a quick-attack method. When we come up on a fire, I can give the firefighters water immediately so they can make a quick initial attack. Five hundred gallons can last two or three minutes through the inch-and-a-quarter line, which is a lifetime in terms of a fire. And that gives me enough time to get from the hydrant to the pump with a supply line. Also, there are lots of times when it’s just a dumpster fire. People throw away barbecue briquettes or cigarettes and they set the dumpster on fire. We go there with our 500 gallons and we take care of the problem right now. We don’t have to lay a line from a hydrant.”
I ask Buie if they ever roll from Station 14 to rural brushfires. “Oh yeah, it happens every year,” he answers.
“How does fighting a wildfire differ from a structure fire?”
“It’s a whole different set of tactics,” he explains. “When you have a structure fire, the fire is contained inside four walls and a roof, so you kind of know what the behavior is going to be. Multistory stuff presents a problem, but it’s all still basically confined to those four sides. But when you have a grass fire or wildland fire, it’s wide open. You have wind pushing the flames in all different directions and the flames creating their own wind and you don’t know where it’s going to go. Some people get upset with us because they see us come up on the scene of a grass fire and we have to stop and look and see where it’s going and what it’s going to get into. So sometimes we’re not as fast as people would want. To them, it looks like we’re waiting and they’re saying, ‘Hurry up and go put it out.’ But sometimes you have to wait and see where it’s going, what it’s doing, before you can make a plan of attack. If you’re not careful, you can lose a house or get seriously hurt. People think grass fires are out in the open so they should be easy to fight. It’s not true. I saw a video during a training session last year in which this firefighter walked up to a little bush which was on fire. It looked like a little campfire. The main part of the fire was knocked down and they were just mopping it up. So he walked over and thought he was going to knock this bush out really quick. Well, all of a sudden a gust of wind came up, hit that flame, pushed it into the bush right next to it, and in a few seconds that bush was totally involved, tremendous heat. The guy ended up having second- and third-degree burns. It almost killed him.”
Speaking of gusts of wind, the front and back doors to the apparatus area are open and a cool breeze is blowing through the building. I’m in shorts and T-shirt and goosebumps are forming on my legs and arms. I excuse myself and walk into the living area of the firehouse to put on pants and a sweatshirt. I find my bag, which I left in the living room, and head upstairs to change in the room where I’ll sleep tonight. While I’m sitting half-dressed on the bare mattress (fire crews bring their own bedding from home), I hear four tones, similar to elevator tones, over the station intercom. I’m pretty sure that means something is on fire or someone needs medical help. I pull my pants and shoes on and run down the stairs — there is a fire pole but nobody seems to use it. When I reach for the door to the apparatus area, firefighter and paramedic Kerin Medrano opens it from the opposite direction. The relieved look on her face suggests that she has been sent to get me. “We’ve got to go,” she says. I climb into the rear of the pump and take a seat facing backward. Medrano sits directly opposite me facing forward. To her left is firefighter Leilani Liley. Bob Buie sits in the driver’s seat, Captain Carlson in the front right. Less than a minute after the tones sounded, we’re out the door and on our way.
Medrano hands me a set of headphones. Over them I can hear Carlson and Buie discussing the best way to get to the Nile Street address, about half a mile southeast of the station, where someone has passed out. Buie drives the rig hard and I feel like I’m bouncing all over the place. In front of me, Liley and Medrano sway back and forth as we corner. Eight- and ten-year veterans, respectively, they’re very used to riding in fire engines. In less than three minutes, Buie double parks the engine in front of a tiny bungalow. Medrano and Liley hop out their side doors. As I follow, I glance at my watch. It’s five minutes after three in the afternoon.
From a compartment in the right rear of the engine, they grab two duffel bags small enough to carry onto an airliner and stride toward the house. Carlson follows right behind them carrying a metal clipboard. Buie and I bring up the rear, while the rig idles in the street. The front door of the house opens directly into a cluttered, messy 12- by 12-foot living room. An older white-haired woman sits in her nightgown on the edge of a single bed against the far wall. Two white cats dart in and out of the room, frightened by the arrival of half a dozen strangers. In the middle of the room, a man about 50 with long, straight black hair sits upright in a chair. His face is pallid. Medrano addresses him immediately, “Sir, you look a little pale. How do you feel?”
“I feel a little light-headed.”
“He passed out earlier,” the elderly woman says.
“Has he been drinking?” Carlson asks her.
“He’s had about a beer and a half,” she answers.
“Where are you at?” Medrano asks the patient.
He looks puzzled. “Where am I at?”
Medrano rephrases, “Do you know where you are?”
This time the patient responds with the correct address. Medrano continues questioning him, asking if he knows what happened, if he’s in pain, where the pain is, how intense it is, whether it’s spreading. Liley meanwhile takes his pulse rate and checks his blood pressure, both of which are very low. Captain Carlson sits in a chair and sets his clipboard on a nearby table tray, writing down information that Medrano and Liley call to him. He also questions the woman and a bearded man around 50 years old, who has emerged from a back bedroom, about the patient’s medical history and any medications he might be on. The bearded man disappears down a hall and returns a minute later with a handful of prescription bottles. About that time, an ambulance shows up and the female paramedic and male driver join the fire crew in the house. Medrano tells her counterpart what she knows about the patient and the driver goes back outside and returns with a gurney. Liley, Medrano, the paramedic, and the driver help the patient out of his chair and onto the gurney. Once he’s secured, they wheel it outside and lift it into the ambulance, which is parked right behind the fire engine.
Meanwhile, Buie gathers up the equipment brought in by Medrano and Liley and returns it to the engine. I follow him.
“The firefighters,” he says as we walk, “they’re the ones who do all the work on a medical-aid run like this. The captain usually writes down everything, gets all the medical history, gets whatever information he can from the patient and the family. The paramedic makes contact with the patient. She’s trying to talk to him to find out what’s wrong, what his problems are, what the signs and symptoms are. That’s Kerin. Then Leilani, she’s the firefighter, her role is to assist Kerin as best she can and help in getting information. Although she’s not a paramedic, she’s exposed to this kind of thing so much that she knows the questions to ask, she knows the information, and she helps the medic. Then I, as the engineer, am like a backup. I stand in the background, and if they need something, I get it. I go back to the rig and get the equipment. I go get the gurneys or backboards. If something else is needed, the engineer goes and does it. So we all work together as a team with specific roles. In our station, we switch rigs. Larry and I stay together all of the time whether we’re in the truck or the pump. Kerin stays on the pump all the time because she’s the medic. The other three firefighters rotate. But even though we’re not always working with the same person, everything always works really smoothly. You can take any of us out and put us in another station and take someone from another station and put them in with us, and the continuity remains the same.”
Carlson, who has walked up from behind the ambulance, says, “You’re missing the show back there. They discovered a container with what we think is cocaine in it. We’re running IVs and everything.”
The three of us walk back toward the rear of the ambulance. Buie continues his discussion of roles. “When you go to a fire, the captain runs the show, the firefighters do all the hard work, and the engineer backs them up. On a medical-aid run, Larry’s still in charge, but there’s a subtle difference. Kerin is the medic, so she’s in charge as far as patient care goes. There could be a situation where a captain says, ‘I don’t want to do X.’ Well, the medic can say, ‘I’m the medic and for the patient’s care I think we need to do X.’ It’s a funny thing. In the fire station, we run it like a democracy. Everybody gets a vote in what goes on. But once the tones go off, we turn into a tyranny. The captain is in charge. You don’t question that. You don’t have time to say, ‘Well, I don’t think that’s a good idea.’ You just do it. Then, when the incident’s over and you’re back in the station, you talk about it, and a lot of times the engineer, who’s next in line from the captain’s position, may ask, ‘Why did you do this, why did you do that?’ Firefighters want to gain knowledge and further their careers, so they’ll ask, ‘Why didn’t you do that? I thought it would have been better if you had done this.’ ”
Twenty minutes after we arrived, Medrano and Liley are in the ambulance assisting the paramedic with the patient, who is conscious but just barely. Carlson, Buie, and I stand outside looking in. The ambulance paramedic recognizes Bob and jokingly asks him if he’ll fill out the official report for her. He declines. Carlson pulls me aside and tells me in a hushed voice, “When we suspect it’s drug use, oftentimes we’ll give him a shot of Narcan. It’s a drug designed to overcome opiates. We’ll go on to people who have no pulse, no breathing. We’ll hit them with the Narcan — in a minute they’re awake and talking to you and denying everything: ‘I didn’t do any drugs, I’m telling you.’ But the only thing it works on is drugs. So if you get hit with that and all of a sudden you’re better, then you were doing drugs. There’s no getting out of it. It’s not our job to judge that one way or the other; it’s our job to get them stabilized and going to the hospital. Narcan has been around for about ten years now, and it’s saved, I’m sure, tens of thousands of heroin users in the United States. They could have no heartbeat, no breathing, and you can revive them. And the thing about it is, if you’re not on drugs, it’s benign. It doesn’t do anything to you.”
At 3:35, half an hour after we arrived, the ambulance heads to Mercy Hospital with the patient. We hop back in the pump and depart. I mention something to Medrano and Liley about the messy condition of the house.
“That wasn’t bad compared to a lot we see,” Liley says.
“It always makes me want to go home and clean my house,” Medrano adds.
When we return to the station, firefighter John Warrick asks Buie if they can “put the stick up today.” The stick is their nickname for the Snorkel boom on the truck. Buie, who is sort of the station curmudgeon, is reluctant and grumbles about being tired and wanting to take it easy. Carlson gives him some gentle persuasion, and Buie finally agrees to do it. Climbing into the driver’s seat — engineer’s seat, in firefighter lingo — Warrick asks, “How far do I need to pull it out?”
“All the way to the curb,” Buie tells him.
Warrick starts the truck, and the low, guttural sound of its diesel engine echoes in the high-ceilinged room. He pulls the truck out of the station until the front wheels are in the gutter. Leaving it running, he comes around to the back, where Buie and I are standing. Carlson appears with a yellow helmet for each of us. Helmets on, Buie walks Warrick though the steps to operate the boom. First is the deployment of outrigger arms, which come down out of the truck, two on each side, to stabilize the rig. Next is to bring the basket to ground level. At rest, the basket of the Snorkel is eight feet off the ground, so Buie guides Warrick through the process of lowering it. When it’s down, Captain McDonald emerges from the station carrying a black helmet and nibbling on a piece of pastrami left over from lunch. “I want to take Ernie flying,” he says. “Climb in there,” he tells me, “and put on one of those safety belts.”
The safety belt is like a weight-lifting belt you wear at the gym. It hooks around the top bar of the basket and fits around my waist. McDonald climbs in behind me, fastens his belt, and stands at the controls on the right side of the basket. He’s about to lift off when Liley runs out of the station and hands me a black helmet like McDonald’s. “You need a real helmet,” she says.
“Real” must be firefighter lingo for heavy because the thing feels as if it weighs 20 pounds. It’s at least twice as heavy as the football helmet I wore in high school.
McDonald lifts the Snorkel slowly. “You want to be really light on the controls,” he says. “You don’t want this thing to start moving too fast, otherwise you start rocking.”
To get to the vertical position, he has to lift us up in intervals, first one boom, then the other, then the first again. Only one can move at a time. When we’re up at the full 75 feet, McDonald rotates the basket 360 degrees. The view on this perfectly clear day is spectacular: the Cuyamaca Mountains to the east; Black Mountain and beyond to the north; Mount Soledad to the northwest; Mission Bay, downtown, and Point Loma to the west; the Coronado Islands to the southwest; Tijuana and beyond to the south. As he lowers the Snorkel, McDonald tells me, “We come out here and put the stick up once or twice a week to get the guys familiarized with how it works. See, when I was a young firefighter like John is now, I had a captain who, for lack of a better term, cared. He wanted to pass on everything he’d learned to the firefighters he trained, and I know I became a better firefighter because of that. Now that I’m a captain, I want to do the same for the firefighters under me.”
Once we’re on the ground and the truck is put away, it’s time for dinner. In fact, some people are already around the table eating steaks and baked potatoes. I’m the last guy through the buffet line. I select a rare steak out of the pan and a baked potato the size of a coffee can. I’m starving. Taking a place at the table next to Captain McDonald, I cut open my potato, mash up the steaming inside, and lay a thick pat of butter on it. While the butter melts, I cut open my steak. It’s a deep pink in the middle and juicy, just the way I like them. I’m going to enjoy this…BING…BING…BING…the tones go off and the pump crew jumps up from their plates. I take a furtive glance at my beautiful steak. “Get going, Ernie,” McDonald says with a chuckle. “You can eat that cold when you get back.”
I drop my knife and fork and run to the pump. This time, Medrano lets me sit facing forward so I can see where we’re going. We race west on Lincoln, turn right on Utah, then left on Howard. A few houses down on the right, we can see five or six people huddled around the front porch of a small bungalow with bars on its windows. As Liley and Medrano approach the scene, the group parts, revealing a man who looks to be about 80, lying on his right side on the bottom step of the stoop, facing out. Thick scarlet blood oozes from a silver-dollar-sized gash in his forehead. A bloody chunk of scalp and hair hangs on the stucco wall above him.
The crew goes into action exactly the way it did earlier this afternoon. Medrano and Liley are on their knees next to the patient, asking him questions, taking his vitals. Carlson stands nearby writing down the information they give him and talking to neighbors. Buie stands in reserve and fetches the supplies Medrano requests from the rig. Again, about two minutes after we get here, an ambulance arrives.
It takes us a little longer to depart this time because the sole eyewitness, who says the old man fell, has in the past, according to other neighbors, had physical confrontations with the patient. Carlson asks him to explain what happened again. This time, the man mentions telling the people next door, who were working in their garden 20 feet away, to call 911. Carlson stops him right there and goes in search of the people next door. Finally, he finds them sitting in the brown van parked in their driveway. They corroborate the whole story and we’re on our way.
Back at the station, I find my plate still sitting at my place. Somebody has draped a napkin over it. I take the plate to the microwave and heat it up. Like all microwaved food, the steak and potato just don’t taste as good as they would have.
The post-dinner hours in the firehouse are quiet. Some people go to sleep early, some work on the computers in the office, a few watch TV, others are in their rooms studying for the medical and fire-science classes that will help them upgrade from firefighter to engineer, engineer to captain. I sit and read at the dining room table. After a while Carlson joins me. He’s brought a fire-department album of pictures of big fires from the ’80s. As he flips through, many pictures refresh memories that bring smiles to his face. “Those were some good times,” he says softly.
I ask him what has changed in the time he’s been on the job. He closes the album and pauses to consider his answer for a minute, finally offering, “The biggest change that we made was when they brought women into the fire service, I think in 1974. It was a really misconceived thing. They hired those first five women and they came here because this was the training station. I was here at the time, and the station really wasn’t suited for it at that time. There were no facilities for them. We shared the same bathrooms and the same showers. We had dorms that weren’t private rooms. I don’t think any woman could have succeeded under those conditions, not because they were unfit for the job, but because there was so much resistance to it. God, it was like this wall of resistance. All the wives on the job were up in arms. They didn’t want women in the fire station. I mean, it was ugly. And those five women were finally let go before they finished training, and subsequently I think they won a settlement against the city. It was botched all around. From that experience, the department realized that they had to do something besides tossing women into the station and saying, ‘There you are.’ So that was a huge change. It met a lot of resistance for a long time. But I think it was a great change because the stations used to be like low-budget frat houses. We weren’t drinking or anything, but it was boys being boys all of the time. I think bringing women in civilized the stations a little bit. It’s been great. Not everyone agrees with that, but I think it has. That was the biggest social change.
“But the biggest change,” Carlson continues, “as far as the job description goes, has been the focus on the medical aid. We went from having a few bandages and an oxygen bottle to a pretty sophisticated medical fleet with highly trained medics and a well-trained group of medical support. We’re all emts now. So since the first-responder program came in, there’s no doubt in my mind that we have had an enormous impact on the well-being of the city of San Diego. There are a whole lot of people in San Diego that are either alive now or much less seriously injured than they would have been if we were still just sitting around waiting for fires. But that met with resistance as well. A lot of guys said, ‘I’m a firefighter, I don’t want to do that.’ But you change or you die. And there’s no way that a city can justify budgeting the kind of money it takes to run a fire department if firefighters are just going to sit there and wait for a fire. The fires are just not there. If there is a fire, you still have to have the guys there to fight it. But with medical aid, we help so many more people now than we ever did before.”
“What’s remained the same,” I ask him, “since you came on the job?”
“The family feeling that we have here in the firehouse,” he answers. “The fact that, even though you may be mad at somebody or not particularly care for them, if you’re in a situation where you’re working together or you’re in an emergency, that person will pull with you and give it up for you. That hasn’t changed.
“Another thing that hasn’t changed,” he continues, “is our method of fighting fires. We still retain the old style of interior attack, which is when you actually take a line into a house, find the fire, and put it out. Some cities don’t do that anymore. They won’t send their firefighters into a structure except in a rescue situation. They fight the fire through the doors and windows. God bless them, they have their reasons for doing that. But I know we save a lot more property, we save a lot more damage, and we save more people by going in the house, finding what’s burning, and putting it out right there. That’s the way we’ve always done it, and I, personally, think it’s the best way to do it.”
We chat until 11:30, when the tones go off again. We scramble to the pump. The last one there is Bob Buie, who was the only member of the pump crew that had gone to bed. He looks bemused as he climbs in and fires up the rig. “You were sleeping pretty deeply, weren’t you, Bob?” Carlson says. “Yes, damn it,” Buie says as he steers the pump out the door and heads to the 2800 block of University, where an elderly woman has passed out in a second-story walk-up apartment. Once again, the engine crew flies into action and the paramedic crew shows up a couple of minutes later. In a half-hour, the patient, who apparently has suffered a brain hemorrhage, is in stable condition at ucsd Medical Center.
“That was a really smooth medical-aid run,” Carlson says as we drive to the station. “Everything went very smoothly, she got the immediate care she needed, and she’ll probably come through this in much better shape because of that.”
We get back at about a quarter to one and everyone heads for bed. I find it hard to go to sleep, partly because of the excitement of the run, partly because I know the tones could go off at any second. The latter thought prevents me from relaxing, and it takes 45 minutes to fall asleep. BING BING BING… The tones wake me. I’m not sure how long I’ve been asleep. I hop up and while I’m pulling on my pants, someone pounds on my door to make sure I’m awake. “I’m coming,” I groan.
Out in the hall, I see Carlson, Liley, and Medrano moving sleepily toward the stairs. We all climb in the pump and are about to move when a message comes over the digital pager on Carlson’s belt. The run has been canceled. Back to bed. I glance at my watch on the way up the stairs. It’s 2:15 a.m. This time I’m so tired I fall asleep quickly. And, though I keep dreaming that I hear them, the tones never go off again. Next morning at eight, I go home like the rest of Station 14’s A Shift.