Answering the call…
Just before 8 a.m. the A-shift arrives at Fire Department Engine 4 on Gorrell Street. After checking in and preparing their rooms at the Southside Hose Company where they’ll spend the next 24 hours, the guys tidy up the bay and the bright red fire engine. It’s a job each shift performs as it starts the day.
Every third day Capt. David Reid and firefighters Sherone Shoffner, Kyle Hobbs and Preston Blalock become a team, sharing their work and their lives together in the small, green-tiled fire station. Their next day together will be Friday and rain is in the forecast, so the team takes care of yard duty, cutting the grass, weed eating and blowing away dust and debris. The station has recently acquired a new lawnmower and the guys stand around the large bay door chuckling as Shoffner makes a loop around the yard with the new mower ‘— without the blades on.
‘“He really thinks he’s doin’ something,’” one of the guys chimes in. Then someone finally tells him he’s not accomplishing anything and helps him turn the blades on. Shoffner’s the rookie, so he takes a lot of flak. There’s a lot of picking on each other at the firehouse, he tells me; if nobody picked then you’d know something was wrong.
Some days the crew goes out to eat and some days they cook for themselves. Today they decide to eat in, and it’s Shoffner’s turn to cook. Shoffner jumps in his car and heads to Food Lion to pick up some items for lunch, leaving the other guys at the station.
Shoffner grew up in the nearby town of Liberty, where he still lives. There, he says, he’s seen many of his friends and relatives get hooked on drugs. The younger kids see drug dealers as heroes who are able to make lots of cash and drive fancy cars. There just aren’t many good black role models in Liberty, he says. He’s faced prejudices there, too. When he was 14 he was hit with a glass bottle while riding his bike. The case ended up in court where the defendants admitted to throwing the bottle to see if they could hit him just because he was black.
Although he still bears scars on his face and neck from the incident, Shoffner says he doesn’t hold grudges. Instead, he’s trying to be the role model to others that so many have failed to be for him, and honest work is a part of that. He hopes to show his 11-year-old brother, Aaron, that there’s a more productive way to live life.
‘“That’s my heart right there,’” he says of his brother. Although his father and uncle were both firemen, Shoffner says he couldn’t picture himself going into a burning building at first. Now, although still a rookie, he’s just completed his second level in training and is currently learning to drive the truck.
Back at the station Shoffner begins preparing lunch. He’s missed a call while at the store. Station 4 was called on a medical emergency where they met up with EMS. A majority of calls the team receives are medically related since they are a first responder and are located in such a busy area. Shoffner doesn’t seem too disappointed in the missed call, however, when Blalock describes the home they visited as smelling like ‘“pure funk.’”
While lunch is cooking there is small talk in the kitchen about television reality shows like ‘“Survivor’” and ‘“Fear Factor.’” Capt. Reid has been concerned about his dog who started throwing up last Thursday and has been at the vet since Friday. He hopes the dog gets to come home today.
Just before noon Shoffner gets on the intercom: ‘“Time to eat, time to eat.’” As the guys line up to fill their plates one of them looks into a pot of pinto beans and says, ‘“I can’t help it if it starts to smell bad in here tonight.’”
In addition to the pintos there’s kielbasa, slaw, mac and cheese, cornbread and iced tea. The food is good. While the guys wolf down large portions of their lunch they watch an afternoon newscast on a TV at the end of the table. They see their own Engine 4 at an apartment fire earlier that morning when the C-shift was working. Then just before everyone’s finished eating, someone drives up to the back bay door for help. The man is calm. He just had a dialysis treatment this morning and his arm is bleeding. He can’t get the bleeding stopped. Shoffner and Hobbs go out to his car and wrap the arm for him. The man thanks the guys before driving off.
To see who washes and who rinses dishes a pack of cards is dealt. The guys have made up their own game they call ’98’ where cards are drawn and discarded and the first two to go over 98 points are the dishwashers.
Capt. Reid has to wash and Shoffner waves his hands in the air pointing at the sink, but then Shoffner himself loses and has to rinse.
The afternoons are usually filled with training as time allows, but today training is cancelled. The guys load up in the fire truck and head out to a nearby neighborhood where some hydrants need to be checked. It’s done twice per year for pressure. At each stop Shoffner and Hobbs take one hydrant while Blalock and the captain take a connecting one. Pressure gauges are connected and the valves opened to make sure there is enough water pressure in case they have to be used in a fire.
At one stop an elderly lady comes out on her porch to ask a question. Captain Reid approaches her. She asks how she’s supposed to clear her water lines in her house ‘— they’re always muddy after the hydrants are tested, she says. Reid simply tells her to turn on her faucets and let them run a few minutes, to which she replies: ‘“Then what’re ya’ll gonna do when my water bill goes up?’”
Reid is as kind to her as anyone can be but still, as he is leaving, she is convinced the city is using tactics to jack up her bills, claiming, ‘“They’re always trying to do old people like that.’”
It’s now past three and still no new calls have come in. ‘“That’s the curse of the ride-along,’” Blalock says through his headset as we cruise back toward the station.
As the guys log in the checked hydrants on the office computer Fire Chief Tim Cox arrives. In the meeting room he makes small talk with the guys, asking them how things are going and urging them to keep safe on the highways. Captain Reid tells him about his dog, which leads to a conversation about dogs, which leads to dog attacks, which leads to a former employee who was infested with fleas and once contaminated an entire station.
FIRE CHIEF TIM COX
The City of Greensboro Fire Department, as a whole, is trying to reach out to the community with a more pro-active approach, Cox says.
‘“Putting out fires is reactive,’” he says. ‘“Preventing them is proactive.’”
Greensboro is rapidly growing in its minority population, says Cox, and the city is taking measures to educate them on fire safety and build their trust. In the largely Asian and Hispanic southeast corridor where a large number of fires occur annually, Cox has set up a three-blitz home inspection campaign. On Saturdays, groups of 30 firefighters are assembled and sent door-to-door to introduce themselves, check smoke detectors and put in free detectors for those who need them. A home safety checklist that explains and labels safety hazards in English and Spanish is also left at each home.
‘“Our intention is to make face-to-face contact,’” says Cox.
A program called Elderlinks takes fire safety to the elderly in churches or meetings where safety hazards are addressed and methods of prevention are given. And for children there is Flame the Clown and Ember the Dog who make appearances at schools and festivals to teach fire safety.
Since firefighters go on so many medical calls Cox says they make a point to check smoke detectors and make sure they’re working as situations allow.
Later on, between 4:30 and 5 a.m., things are again at a lull. Shoffner begins peeling potatoes and cooking supper. Suddenly we get a call. The guys naturally drop everything they’re doing, put on their turn-out gear and are in the truck with headsets on and seatbelts buckled. I feel like asking, ‘“Where do I go? What do I do?’” But there’s no time. Luckily I’ve made it into the truck. I shut the door just as the bay door rolls out of the way and we take to the streets with red flashing lights and sirens. It’s a grass fire.
Yes, the big one, I’m thinking. But no, wait, I don’t want to wish a fire upon anyone. Wow. I never knew such a huge truck could be so nimble. Cars part like the Red Sea as we speed through twists and turns on our way to the promised land. As we take a dip in the road the hydraulic driver’s seat bounces with a ‘whoosh.’ The firemen carry on a conversation and joke around. How can they do that at such heart-racing speeds while taking such hairpin turns?
‘“Well, he just stopped in the middle of the road,’” Blalock nonchalantly says of one driver who doesn’t know what to do to get out of our way.
We come to a sudden halt. As I look out the big front window I see a small grass fire working its way up an embankment in front of a vacant house. Shoffner grabs a fire extinguisher and quickly puts it out and Hobbs rakes over the area with a mini pike pole to make sure it’s dead. The fire is so small I wonder if whoever called it in didn’t set it themselves. In the time it took us to get the call and respond it couldn’t have been too big to begin with. Why didn’t someone just go out and spray it with a garden hose? Disappointing. In 10 minutes we’re back and Shoffner resumes cooking. Blalock and Hobbs go out back to give a quick wash to their cars. The captain finds out his dog is coming home. ‘“Six hundred dollars,’” he says referring to the vet bill. Supper is ready.
Grilled chicken, baked beans, mashed potatoes, brown and serve rolls and sweet tea. We watch ‘“Andy Griffith’” on the kitchen TV. The characters are all buying stocks from a man who records music and is hoping to make it big in the record industry. Andy thinks the guy’s a fake. Is he?
‘“No, he’s for real,’” says one of the firemen.
Hobbs tells me he decided to become a fireman after going to college for a year and not knowing what he wanted to do. He applied and was hired. The test just to go through the application process was grueling, he says ‘— lots of stair-climbing and carrying and pulling hoses. And it all had do be done in under six minutes or you didn’t qualify.
Blalock worked at a parts store where Capt. Reid worked part-time. Several firemen worked there also and Blalock was the manager. But he didn’t like the job ‘— no respect, little pay, always taking the blame for others. After talking to several of his co-workers he became interested in firefighting and decided to apply. Within six months he’d made the cut and was hired on.
After supper the cards are played again ‘— Captain Reid washes again and Blalock rinses.
Just before seven we get another call. This time it’s a medical. As we speed down the road again the guys put on blue surgical gloves. Again we speed through twists and turns, not sure of the exact nature of the call. We’re looking for a church at Walker and Tate Streets, but when we arrive we don’t see anything, just the row of restaurants and shops where many UNCG students hang out. Then, just up Walker Avenue, we see a little white church. There doesn’t appear to be any kind of emergency ‘— students are lounging on the grass and coming in and out of the front door. EMS arrives at about the same time. Shoffner and Hobbs go onto the church porch. There on a swing sits a man who appears to be homeless and is plastered-drunk ‘— he says something about chest pains. They walk the man down the steps and load him into the ambulance and then get back into the fire truck.
‘“He’s one of our regulars,’” one of the guys says. They pick him up every couple of weeks, they say. There are several regulars like him, they tell me.
Back at the station they pick up a game of golf on the Playstation in the lounge. They tee off every night after supper for a quick, relaxing game.
Afterwards everybody kind of takes some time to themselves. Capt. Reid retreats to his room. The other guys trade off on taking showers. Blalock and Hobbs work out on the weights a little and call their wives and children to chat a while and tell them goodnight. About 10 p.m. the lights go out in the little room with four simple beds. Blalock is sound asleep and Hobbs watches a little baseball on ESPN. Shoffner is still up somewhere in the firehouse. I wonder if the alarm will really wake us. Blalock said you get used to hearing it and waking up. I think about what Shoffner told me in a conversation earlier in the day: ‘“ The tones go off, you hear ‘flames’ and your heart just starts pounding.’” I slowly drift off to sleep.
At 3:30 a.m. the tones go off: ‘“BuuuuuBeeeeep.’” The guys jump out of bed and take off out the door like rockets. I can barely keep up, but do make it into the truck on time. We’re not the first responders so we take our time on the road. A fire alarm has been pulled in an A&T dormitory. There is yawning in the headsets as we make our way down the road.
When we arrive there are two other trucks there that I can see. Someone from another station is checking the building while college kids stand outside draped in blankets. While we wait in the truck the conversation turns to head sizes. A television sportscaster had a head size of seven and three-eighths.
‘“Dang,’” someone says.
‘“That’s almost as big as my head,’” says the captain. Nobody really wants to respond to that because they know it’s true.
Hobbs’ head is about an inch smaller, he says. He always looked liked he had a head on top of his head when he wore a hat in little league baseball.
We’re called off. Station 2 reports on the radio they’re on their way back to the station. ‘“They probably called in from bed,’” one of the guys says and everyone else laughs. They joke as they imitate sleeping Station 2 firemen calling in from warm beds.
Blalock says to Shoffner: ‘“Sherone, you probably wear your hat backwards don’t you?’”
‘“Yep,’” he says.
‘“Don’t you know a hat’s for keeping the sun out of your eyes?’” Blalock asks.
‘“That’s your hat,’” Shoffner responds. It’s the kind of conversation that arises from being awakened from a deep sleep.
At the station everyone has to pee. ‘“You always have to pee after getting back from a call,’” Shoffner says. Everyone goes back to bed, but I find it hard to fall back asleep.
A little past 5 a.m. we’re called again. The call goes out as a 63-year-old woman with chest pains. The address is at the intersection of Davie Street and Friendly Avenue. When we arrive we find ourselves at a parking garage. We wait in the road until being signaled over. Police have a man on the ground in handcuffs. He is bleeding from the head.
‘“I’m gonna sue you!’” he shouts to police. ‘“Mother f*ckers.’”
His body is shaking and he claims he was hit in the head with a billy club. We don’t know what’s taken place. Firemen and EMS don’t ask any questions and the police offer no answers. Rescue personnel try to stop the bleeding and bring a stretcher. As the handcuffs are removed an officer stands nearby with a tazer. Shoffer and Hobbs roll him to the ambulance and put him in the back.
At 5:30 we go back to bed. There are no more calls throughout the night.
THE NEXT MORNING
At 7:30 the guys are up having breakfast and packing their things. Captain Reid chats with Captain Danny Lynch of the B-shift in the bay as they sip coffee. Guys on the B-shift make their beds, put on their work clothes and prepare for the day ahead.
No day is typical at the firehouse. Station 4 is the busiest in Greensboro. Some days they’ll only have two calls while on others they may have 20, or a couple of house fires. Each day is different, and that’s why they like it.
‘“You never know what you’re going to get,’” was the response I heard from almost every guy.
As the morning light pours in through the large bay windows the guys from the A-shift pick up their bags and leave through the back door one by one.
The crew is gone and I’m with a new shift of guys who look fresh and ready to go. Suddenly I feel like there are strangers in my home. I don’t even know their names, though they’re friendly enough.
Each shift of guys works together every three days. In the past 24 hours I feel like I’ve become one of them. It’s this type of camaraderie combined with training that keeps them so fast and fluid, like a well-oiled machine. Whether it’s the same group of guys or a different bunch, as I leave I’m thankful to know that if I ever have an emergency I can count on them.