Eastside Fire & Rescue firefighters tackle hot jobs

February 15, 2011

By Laura Geggel

Capt. Steve Westlake with Eastside Fire & Rescue Station 71 walks toward an incident in downtown Issaquah, where a granddaughter checking in on an elderly woman in her home had found her deceased and called 911. By Greg Farrar

From adrenaline-charged emergencies to routine calls, firefighters share gritty details

Do you know if your co-workers snore? What about their eating preferences, or whether they prefer washing dishes to cooking?

“There are very few jobs where you know people’s sleep habits,” Eastside Fire & Rescue firefighter Pete Wilson said.

Firefighters are a tight bunch, and they know just about as much about each other as they do the areas they serve. They are viewed through a glamorous lens, with their heroics of saving people from fires and helping car accident victims — not to mention the steamy firefighter calendars published annually.

But the daily routines of firefighters are not always quite as dramatic. Aside from giving grade-school students tours of their stations, firefighters perform daily inspections on fire engines and study to renew their medical and rescue certificates.

Firefighters are held in the high esteem of many. Some people might have a beef with the police, but their firefighter brothers and sisters are usually excluded from public retaliation.

Wilson said his childhood ambition aligned him with the law enforcement. As a young man, he did a ride along with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. When somebody fired a gun at them, Wilson changed his mind. He wanted to help people, and getting shot at for no good reason was not on his agenda.

“That’s when I decided to volunteer,” as a firefighter, he said.

Weighing the intense calls with the daily humdrum, firefighters say they wouldn’t trade the job for anything.

“It’s the best job in the world, as far as I’m concerned,” firefighter Jeff Storey said. “I look forward to getting up and going to work every day. We’re counselors or electricians or aid givers. There is a whole number of things we do, or if we can’t accomplish it, we try to find someone who can.”

Morning

Firefighter jobs are scarce, and some firefighters are on the road by 5 a.m., coming from as far away as Gig Harbor or Marysville so they can help people in Issaquah.

Shifts start at 8 a.m. and run for 24 hours. Their schedules runs like a flashing neon light: on, off, on, off, on, off, off, off, off — a nine-day system known as “Modified Detroit.”

Once at the station — their home away from home — the new shift of firefighters talks with the outgoing crew, making sure they know that day’s itinerary and any pertinent details from the previous day.

Then, it’s straight to work with engine inspections. Each of Issaquah’s five fire stations has some type of equipment, such as an aid car, a fire engine or a water tender — a giant water container for rural places without fire hydrants, such as Issaquah-Hobart Road Southeast or Carnation.

If the engine has a maintenance problem or a scratch on it, the firefighters know about it.

“If your hands are on it every day, you get to know it,” firefighter Steve Oltman said.

Knowing the equipment wouldn’t be very useful if they didn’t know the territory. EFR firefighters can change stations once a year, and every time they switch they need to get to know the neighbors.

Storey, who just transferred to Station 72 on Northwest Maple Street, has to do 116 business inspections, getting to know business owners and the layout of the buildings.

Firefighters also need to get certificates in building construction, so they can understand layouts and how fires might spread.

For example, some businesses on Front Street North are connected through an underground basement — a prime route for a spreading fire.

“We go out to different businesses and make sure the exits are clear and the extension cords aren’t being abused,” Storey said. “It gives us a chance to know the buildings, also.”

As the day wears on, firefighters might decide to have a bit of fun with their challenge coins. Every EFR firefighter has one, “and you have this coin on you every second of the day,” Wilson said.

A firefighter might pull out a coin. Within seconds, every firefighter in the room follows suit, showing they are part of the clan.

Firefighters rue the day they forget or misplace their coins. If caught without them, they have to treat their co-workers to coffee or ice cream — indulgences that can never be satiated, according to a fair few. The hapless firefighter without a coin is soon discovered.

“First of all, everyone who knows is going to challenge you,” Capt. John Pelliciotta said. “Once, I saw a room of 18 firefighters challenging a guy who forgot his coin. That’s a lot of coffee.”

Afternoon

Lunchtime is usually a solitary affair. Firefighters planning dinner together might shop for ingredients at local stores, parking their rig across several parking spots near a grocery store.

Back at the station, firefighters stay in shape by working out one hour a day, or exercising on their off-days. In their free time at work, they concentrate on assignments — for example, the technical rescue team. Firefighters on the rescue team review their equipment and decide whether upgrades are needed and study new guidelines about rope-, water- and a confined-space rescues.

“We have constant training,” firefighter Tim Castner said. “You just can never get on top of it just because of all of the things you have to do.”

King County Emergency Medical Services is a leader in the nation among studying better ways to save people in emergency situations. Through King County EMS, EFR has participated in countless studies, including testing whether aspirin, a blood thinner, should be administered to patients experiencing heart attack symptoms; whether firefighter EMTs should carry epinephrine pens for people with allergies; and whether firefighters should check the glucose level of disoriented patients to see if they are hypoglycemic.

“There are constant changes in medication and application in the way we treat our patients,” Castner said.

Firefighters have to be prepared for any type of call, including suicidal people calling for help, brush fires along Interstate 90 or performing CPR on a deer — which Oltman admitted was one of his stranger calls. He also once saved a cat from a raccoon nest, though he said most calls involve people, not animals.

Every 911 call requires paperwork. EFR Station 71 has a computer lab where firefighters fill out reports.

The length of the report “depends on the incident,” Storey said. “The larger the incident the more time it’s going to take to record all of the details.”

Details are key — “Sometimes you end up in court,” Wilson said. “It can make your mind remember.”

As the afternoon progresses, firefighters might spend time at a public event, working with police to do safety education workshops or serving ice cream for a charity.

Days off?

Even on their off-days, firefighters put in time. Storey volunteered to spend time with people affected by the fire in Redmond that killed a father and his four sons, helping them manage their stress and grief. He also attended the funeral of a Woodinville firefighter who died of cancer. Every fall and spring, he collects money for Jerry’s Kids and the Muscular Dystrophy Association with the Fill the Boot campaign.

“That stuff is done on our own time,” Storey said. “It’s stuff we do that we don’t get paid for, at least in terms of money.”

Men and women with big hearts connect with their brethren everywhere. They trade badges like children trade baseball cards. Many fire stations have badge boards lined with firefighter badges from departments across the Puget Sound area, the state and even the country.

Hiring, training

Securing a firefighting job can take years. Most people begin as volunteers, which pays despite the title. EFR career firefighters earn between $57,500 and $82,200 annually, money that comes from a fire district’s property taxes.

It can take years to go from a volunteer to an actual firefighter. In the 1990s, hopefuls used to compete for positions by going through a physical and agility test, a written test and interviews. If hired, they would receive much of their training on the job.

Nowadays, most firefighters train before they gain employment.

“They expect people to be ready,” EFR spokeswoman Josie Williams said. “Fire departments don’t have to spend as much money (on training) any more.”

After passing a litany of tests about CPR, EMT training and all things fire related, firefighters are hired with a one-year probation period with daily evaluations. New recruits are tested to see whether they can hook up to a fire hydrant in less than a minute and are assessed for their compatibility with their co-workers.

Many a would-be firefighter has lost a job during probation.

“You’re expected to show in one year’s period that you can do this job,” Oltman said. “If we hire you tomorrow, we’re going to work together for the next 30 years.”

Once they’re part of the team, new firefighters get a bedroom and a locker that they share with other firefighters. The lockers are the only space that is permanently theirs, and they fill it with “whatever creature comforts you want in one-third of your life,” Wilson said.

With their personal books, photos and uniforms stored in their lockers, the firefighters have to keep the rest of their buildings spic-and-span. Every day, they have a chore, such as cleaning out the vehicle bay, vacuuming, cleaning the bathroom — in essence, the firefighters are their own maids.

“We’re pretty regimented in terms of our daily activities,” Oltman said.

Nighttime

The firefighters received the call halfway through their stir-fry dinner in downtown Issaquah. They always orders their meals as take out, even if they’re staying to eat, so they can easily grab their containers and head for the door.

With headphones on, the sirens don’t sound as loud inside the truck as they do to passers-by. Using headphones, firefighters can talk to each other and to dispatch, deciding their plan before they reach their destination. They don’t even need a GPS unit, because their earlier canvassing of neighborhoods has stuck in their minds, reminding them where to make left and right turns.

As soon as they reached the house in question, the firefighters jumped out of their engine, not even turning it off, so they would save time. They soon understood the incident — an elderly woman living by herself had died. Her family, concerned when she didn’t answer the phone, had sent the granddaughter to check on her.

The granddaughter found the body. Distraught, she called 911.

The firefighters, who jovially kidded each other during dinner a few short minutes ago, transformed into counselors for the granddaughter and took charge of the situation.

“You have to put on the caring hat real quick,” Capt. Steve Westlake said. “It’s no longer fun.”

Whenever he enters a house, he looks at the environment and people, gathering clues.

“I have to think about safety,” he said. “I scan the room and see what the atmosphere is like. A real clean house tells me one thing. A real dirty house tells me another.”

Sometimes, firefighters notice photos or knick-knacks and turn it into a conversation piece for an agitated person.

“They love that we pick up on that,” Westlake said. “A lot of times, it’s about making them comfortable.”

The firefighters, after living together for so long, can communicate nonverbally, paying attention to body language and deciding when to step forward or stand back. At the woman’s house, they called a chaplain and comforted the granddaughter while filling out paperwork. Another spoke with neighbors, huddled together near the truck.

“I think when we heard the truck we all came out,” Kathy Koenenan, of Issaquah, said.

“When you see a fire engine, you’re kind of assured,” Milicent Savage said. “Then, your curiosity starts.”

The women told Westlake they wanted to help their friend’s granddaughter, and he promised to deliver their message. Once the firefighters left, the chaplain and the community would step forward to help the family with its grief.

Sometimes, people send firefighters thank you cards, which they share at their group meetings.

“It’s very rewarding when you know that you’ve made a positive difference in somebody’s life,” Storey said.

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