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.”