“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.”