A fire truck has a different role at a fire than a fire engine. To really over-simplify it, a fire engine carries the water and a fire truck carries the ladders and tools. There are only two fire trucks in service in Vancouver; one at station 5 and the other at station 1, downtown. A truck is needed at every fire. Both trucks and engines take emergency medical service (EMS) calls. Vancouver Fire Department (VFD) currently staffs 3 firefighters on an engine and 4 firefighters on a truck. The truck needs a tillerman (driver in the back of the truck). Both Portland and Seattle staff 4 firefighters on an engine. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) recommends 4 firefighters per apparatus. VFD staffs well below the averages for the west coast and does not meet the national guidelines for staffing. (I'm not going to go off on that tangent here though. If you want more information on staffing levels Google NFPA 1710.)
I sat behind the driver of the truck. Next to me, in back, was the SAFER 13 recruit, riding shotgun was the Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) and the tillerman was in the back of the truck. In the truck, each person has a headset with a mic so everyone can communicate. On the ride to the grocery store, I learned that the City does not pay for food for the firefighters. The usual routine is each firefighter brings breakfast and lunch from home and they each put money in the "kitty" and buy groceries for their dinner, which they prepare at the fire station. It's not uncommon for them to be in the grocery store and have people come up to them, look in their shopping cart and say, "So, what's the City buying you guys for dinner tonight." When we went in the store, they wordlessly split up to do the shopping. I tagged along with one group as they recovered all the dropped items they had shopped for earlier. We met up with the other group, who had recovered their abandoned shopping cart. Tonight's menu was beans, coleslaw and smoked pork shoulder - to be served in mason jars. That's right, mason jars. The idea came from a food challenge seen on TV. I knew they were making a special meal on my account, and I couldn't wait for dinner.
We got the groceries back to the station and unloaded them. Prep started immediately. The meat went on the smoker and the veggies for the coleslaw were being cut when a call came in. A MVA with a medically questionable driver. I accomplished my goal of getting my ass up in the truck and not making anyone wait on me and we were off. Here was my view, as I sat in the back:
Next, the most startling realization of my day. So many people do not move to the right when an emergency vehicle is coming up behind them. I don't know if they had the music on so loud in the car (although there is no way the average car stereo can compete with the loud horns and sirens on that truck) or if they just didn't give a shit, but numerous cars did not pull over. In fact, we were passed TWICE. The next time you see those flashing lights and hear the horns and sirens, PLEASE, imagine they are on their way to save your child or mother and pull the car over to the right. The firefighters didn't get upset, didn't curse (although I think I did) but kept their cool and maneuvered that truck through traffic as safely as possible.
I had been told that I was not to get out of the truck at an accident scene, but this case allowed me to safely exit the truck onto a sidewalk and stay far enough away from traffic and the scene, so I got the clear to get out and observe. Again, the wordless teamwork of the firefighters took me by surprise. Each one instantly assessed the situation and went to work. All four of them were amazing. I know they train for situations and have gone out on numerous calls together, but it was still just amazing. It was like watching the infield of the 1974 Dodgers at the World Series - teamwork. The people involved in the accident even seemed to sense the calmness of this team and became calmer almost instantly.
Back at the station, I was being given a tour of the station when another call came in. When we returned, the tour resumed and I got to see where the firefighters sleep and shower.
All I am going to say about this being where our firefighters sleep every three days is this:
1. Google images of prison cells. 2. Compare.
Here's a shot of the three shower stalls that the seven firefighters share. The one on the right is out of order. There is a large crack in the bottom and it leaks below. The one in the center is operational. The one on the left is already occupied. Wanna see inside?
That's a lot of insects on the bottom the shower. Some of them could fly. They were coming out of the shower head.
I also toured the shop and saw where the firefighters do maintenance and simply repairs on their many tools.
After the tour, I thought about how the firefighters had given me the tour. Not once did anyone complain or go out of their way to point out something substandard. In fact, I was feeling rather like a royal shit for pointing out things I thought to be substandard. I would never dream of walking into a friend's house and trashing their bedroom or the fact that they needed so many repairs. That's exactly what I had done though. This was not just a fire station paid for with tax dollars. This was their house.
Then, it was off to see the recruit practice CPR with the assistance of a machine that analyzes when to stop compressions and shock the patient if necessary. The recruit even let me have a turn at chest compressions on the dummy and cal the shots. (He did a great job!)
There's a legend in the VFD of the "ride along curse". I guess many times, when there is a ride along, there are minimal or no calls. Several times I heard about a ride along where there were below normal calls and thirty minutes after the ride along was over a major fire call came in. The curse was elsewhere on Friday. As soon as we got back to the station, another call would come in. I went on EMS calls and MVA calls. There were no fire calls, although there was a commercial fire alarm call. Another unit was at the location and we ended up just monitoring the call until it was cleared.
After one EMS call, before we got back in the truck, they announced to the SAFER 13 recruit that they were "going on a call" at a 4 story building with smoke showing and a report of a person trapped on the 4th floor. They got in full gear, air and all and got in the truck. When we pulled back into station 5, there was a little smoke coming from the training tower. Before we were called out on our last call, they had set up a smoke machine and place a 180 pound dummy on the 4th floor for a training exercise. The recruit and a captain went into the structure in full gear while the other captain and our tillerman got the ladder ready to raise to the roof of the training tower. It was amazing to see each one perform their specific duties to get the ladder ready and raised as well as getting the necessary tools out and ready to go up the ladder to the roof.
Here's a shot of the tiller \]man going up the ladder.
The last photo is how far the tillerman got up the ladder before the next call came in. I am still awed at how quickly the ladder was down, tools away and we were pulling out of the station to get to the call. When we got back to the station, the ladder wasn't raised, but the captain and the recruit bolted up the tower in full gear to train the recruit on search and rescue. We got to go up behind them and see them carrying the heavy dummy down the four flights of stairs. We lingered at the top and I got to see how the thermal imaging tool is used to spot victims in a dark, smokey space.
We headed back to firehouse and dinner prep started. Engine 5 was back from training with the Heavy Rescue Unit and they got a call. I got to ride along with Engine 5 and her crew of three. It was an EMS call so I got to see how three responders worked vs four responders. It was very different riding in an engine. The truck rides more like a Hummer and the engine more like a sport coupe. One thing was the same - people just don't get the hell out of the way when an emergency vehicle is coming down the road.
When we returned to the fire station dinner was almost ready. The seven firefighters sat down at a long table and invited me to join them in one of the best meals I've had.
Yes, that's a dill pickle sticking up from the mason jar. The company was the only thing better than the food.
After dinner, I said my thanks and goodbyes and headed back to my life. I will never forget the day I shared with those firefighters. Every single person always acted as a true professional and a gentleman. I expected to learn a lot from my ride along. What I didn't expect was my pride and respect for these true heroes to grow even larger.