It’s 7:30 in the morning and most of us are rolling out of bed and turning on our favorite morning show, complemented by a hot cup of coffee.
At Winston-Salem Fire Department Station Four on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in it’s time for a shift change. The day crew comes on, led by Captain Bryan Willard and Engineer William Shrewsbury. Their jobs are important, and their titles fancy, but in the workplace they are known as “Willard” and “Shrews.” They are joined by firefighters John Powell and Chadd Habersham. Normally there are five people on a crew, but today one is travelling.
On the wall in Willard’s office is a calendar with a couple pink squares colored in each week. Those are the days his crew will work this month. But he said sometimes firefighters rotate stations.
“What manpower doesn’t meet, what they need to do is look at different stations,” he said. “Hey this crew here is going to have five today, nobody’s off. Can you have one of your guys go to (station) 11?” Also on Willard’s desk is a book chock-full of tiny print and difficult-to–decipher abbreviations representing all of the station’s calls going back to the beginning of the year. This includes fires, automobile wrecks, false alarms and medical calls. There are also “good intent” calls, when someone calls in with the thought that there is a fire but it turns out to be something else.
He said the truck must be checked out every day before going into service.
“Make sure all the tools are right, make sure nothing’s missing, because when everything’s against the fan you need to know if those tools are there,” he said. “You don’t have time to be thinking, ‘wow where did I put that?” Shrewsbury is performing the daily inspection of shiny engine number four.
Red toolbox? Check. Spare bottles of compressed air? Check. Defibrillator? Check.
Moments later, the bell goes off: It’s the first call of the day.
We rush into the truck and put on our headsets. It appears to be a routine medical call, so the guys are relaxed on the way to the home.
Five minutes later we pull up to the house, only to find the EMS crew already there aiding a woman who appears tired, but is conscious and speaking clearly. As a precautionary measure, she is taken to Forsyth Medical Center. With no sense of panic, the firefighters help carry her on a stretcher into the ambulance.
The crew has started their day with a regular medical call.
Willard said this station is the city’s busiest, with the crew sometimes running as few as five calls per day, and sometimes as many as 16.
“Sometimes we sleep all night, sometimes we don’t,” he said. “Usually this station does not sleep. I think last shift they got up three times when I was on the car, which is the battalion chief car.”
The department coordinates with Forsyth County EMS for some medical calls, and some they don’t even handle, like panic attacks. Medical calls often include major hemorrhaging, major blood, CPR and trauma.
“All those calls we’re going,” he said. Willard said determining which calls are serious is something the department has been continuing to work on recently.
“Sometimes they’re legit, sometimes they’re not,” he said. “You have to take them all like they are. We’re trying to get away from the ones that are not. Our administration’s doing a good job of screening the calls.”
Between calls and back at the station the crew readies to the task of cleaning up. Willard blows leaves while Powell and Habersham clean up the bathroom and kitchen.
The crewmembers are so close that they know each other’s families. There is a sense that they have known each other since birth, but really it’s just the nature of the job. As they point out, the guys are around each other constantly for one third of every month.
“These guys here, we can punch, kick, fight, call each other names, talk about each others’ mamas,” Willard said. “But when that bell goes off all that stops and we’re back at work. Don’t get me wrong. We have some differences. But when that bell goes off, all that stops.”
Willard said there is not much employee turnover because there is incentive to climb in rank from firefighter to engineer to captain, eventually.
“The rank moves up one when someone’s off, and does their job for the shift,” he said.
Becoming a battalion chief or a captain only provides part of the incentive for taking on a life-risking profession for about $30,000 a year. Powell was a licensed security banker before he joined the department, but said the job wasn’t for him.
“Being in an office and selling all kinds of stuff like that wasn’t good,” he said. “It didn’t fit my personality. The money was good, it was better of course.”
Powell said overall the experience is rewarding and he feels better when he is doing something different every day. He said they delivered a baby a few weeks ago and visit the family every so often. Powell said the dangerous nature of the job is not great enough to faze him.
“You work with a lot of good people, and you risk your life, but it’s not as dramatic as it’s pictured, like on the Chicago Fire backdrop,” he said. “We’re smart about ours.”
Shrewsbury is a 17-year veteran with the department and started out as a volunteer firefighter with Salem Chapel Volunteer Fire Department, where he still works sometimes. He said it was his older cousin, also a firefighter, who had the most influence on him in deciding which career to pursue.
“I was at his house visiting, and they had a call and he took me with him,” he said. “I think it was a medical call. I just stayed in the truck, but I thought it was cool. That kind of sparked my interest.”
Shrewsbury said it is not likely his son will follow in his footsteps.
“He’s not shown much interest in it,” he said. “I don’t encourage it. I don’t really say one way or another. I’ll let him make his mind up what he wants to do.”
If the danger and risk involved with the job isn’t enough to discourage someone from becoming a firefighter, the weight of the equipment might be. Just attempting to put on full firefighter turnout gear might turn some off from the job. With an additional 65 pounds to carry around, you’d be better off trying to walk on the moon. When the equipment is wet it’s 80 pounds. During fires, firefighters breathe compressed air through the mask instead of oxygen, which is flammable. Shrewsbury said fires range from 800 to 1200 degrees depending on what part of the building you are in. Since heat rises most firefighters try to work from the lower floors.
At 9:06 a.m. another medical call comes in and we rush over to Sunrise Towers Apartments “” a complex this fire truck makes frequent trips to. While the firemen are tending to an elderly woman another medical call comes in over the radio, but truck 12 is already on the scene. We help get the woman onto the stretcher and then it’s back to the station.
After some down time the guys change into their official uniforms as they prepare to perform the day’s inspections of businesses in the city where they will make sure fire code regulations have been met.
The first stop on the list is a small Hispanic grocery store in East Winston. Habersham takes his computer and enters the store’s information as he prepares to go down a checklist of potential violations.
The crew begins examining the store thoroughly, not finding anything suspicious until they hit the back door. There is a metal bar across it that the owner has placed there for protection at night. Unfortunately for her, it is located under an unlit exit sign “” a fire code violation. After the crew confirms that the latch is illegal, they try to explain it to the owner. Habersham gives her another option.
“If you take the exit sign down and post it as not an exit you can keep that bar on the door,” he tells her. “But you have to take the sign down.”
After Shrewsbury and Willard explain it several more times, she agrees to remove the exit sign. They tell her she needs to hire an electrician to remove the sign and make sure she doesn’t leave the wires hanging.
There’s another problem. The fire extinguisher is hidden behind a statue.
“The extinguisher’s covered up as well,” Habersham tells the owner. “Also your extinguisher should have a service tag on it. It doesn’t have a service tag. Every year it should be serviced.”
They tell her she can get it serviced at Wal-Mart for a low price, but must do so within 30 days or she will have to pay a fine.
After leaving the store, the crew checks out two other businesses in the area and alerts the respective owners of how they can fix a couple of minor violations. The interactions are amicable, and we finish the excursion by picking up hot dogs at the crew’s favorite spot “” Kermit’s on Thomasville Road.
We get back to the station, and as we begin to chow down on our meal, a medical call comes in and we dash into the truck, only to have truck 12 beat us to the scene.
Shrewsbury said they cover an area that extends as far south as S. Main and US 52 to Carver High School at the northern end. He has only been with this station since the middle of August and is still learning his way around.
“John Powell has been here a couple years. He’s good with his streets,” Shrewsbury said.
“If we turn left out of the station, I’m pretty good because I worked at (engine) three. I worked at (engine) twelve. I worked at engine six on Academy. I know the majority of it, but if we go back south sometimes I need a little help.”
Driving the truck requires a 4-day emergency vehicle driver-training program in order to earn state certification. Shrewsbury said the department requires drivers to hold a Class B, or commercial drivers license. He said the state does not require this type of license to drive a truck but most individual fire departments do.
“It looks better on your insurance,” Shrewsbury said. “Obviously the more certifications you have, the better it looks.”
Before I leave the station I ask Shrewsbury for a try at the hose. He gets me set up and I hold the gargantuan thing, unsure of what to expect or how firm of a grip I should have. I pull back the lever and am thrusted back a couple of inches by the sheer force of the water. Shrewsbury steps in and adjusts the strength. He shows me that it works just like an ordinary garden hose, only on a larger scale. You can change the amount of water and the shape of the spray depending on the situation.
After two minutes with the hose, Shrewsbury tells me half of the water in the tank has already been used. Because of this, they try to use the hose as efficiently as possible. This is also the reason it is illegal to park in front of a fire hydrant.
The truck is refueled and goes back in the shed, but only until it is needed again. And if today is any indication, it won’t be long before number four’s siren is roaring again. !