A Temporary Home
There are noises associated with firefighting: the distinctive wail of a siren … boots charging to the engines after the call of an alarm … water pounding from the nozzle of a hose against wood and bricks … flames crackling as a fire turns an old auto shop into a skeleton of burnt rubber, depleted oil and melted plastic.
But it’s also the sound of three dozen eggs frying in an industrial-size pan on the stove on a Saturday morning. And it’s the sound of a basketball bouncing off an unforgiving rim, much to the chagrin of the three-man team watching its hard return back into the game.
The most pervasive sound, though, is silence — the absence of any noise at all. The soft ticking of a clock or the turning of a page barely punctures the stillness of waiting.
It’s just another 24-hour shift at Station No. 1 with the Columbia Fire Department, which balances camaraderie with calamity on a daily basis.
The call comes in from Edgewood Avenue around 2:30 p.m. with three consecutive beeps signifying Station No. 1’s district. There’s no blaring red alarm, no piercing siren and definitely no long silver pole to slide down. Instead, a soothing female voice announces the details over an intercom, followed by three loud beeps. It’s neither annoying nor distinctive. To those who wait, it’s a call to action.
Roll call starts promptly at 7 a.m., with dress code enforced ― white or blue uniform shirt with the CFD crest emblazoned in golden thread over the right breast, tucked into navy blue trouser pants, black shoes laced and clean, facial hair removed, with the apparent exception of mustaches. At 7:15 a.m., as part of the routine morning test, the sirens sound and the radio crackles in each of the three fire trucks in the garage. The firefighters measure gauges, check pressures, and on Mondays, wipe down windows.
On Saturdays, they raise the ladders and lifts on the trucks to their full heights.
Fire Engineer Justin Collins drives Engine 12 onto the massive concrete driveway. Engine 12’s lieutenant, Kyle Fansler, circles the truck, gesturing when it’s deemed all clear. While meticulous and lengthy, the process is necessary. The job has little room for mistakes.
Like all companies, Engine 12 consists of an officer to communicate with headquarters, an engineer to drive the apparatus and a firefighter to respond first. The roles serve to streamline protocol at the scene of a fire so that each person knows his or her main task.
Station No. 1 is the biggest in Columbia, in part because of the attached Fire Administration office that conducts fire investigations, enforces fire codes, coordinates public relations events and handles administrative functions. Located at 201 Orr St., it currently houses Ladder 1 and Engine 12, as well as a reserve Snozzle, reserve ladder, foam truck, utility truck, rescue boat and ATV, and the division and battalion chiefs’ trucks in its vast, vaulted garage. The CFD is staffed by 129 uniformed employees across nine stations.
In the garage, the trucks sit gleaming in fluorescent light. “Fire Protection Thru Education” is displayed on the sides, along with decals of Mizzou tiger heads and Scooby Doo in full gear. The shiny, hulking masses of Engine 12 and Ladder 1 sit at the ready behind the floor-to-ceiling doors. Ladders, as the name suggests, have a 95-foot extension with a platform, longer than those on an engine or other types of fire trucks: quints, Snozzles and squads. Quints are named for their five uses: as a fire hose, aerial device, water tank, fire pump and ground ladder. A Snozzle is a fire truck with a 65-foot pointed tool meant to pump water, pierce windows and register thermal images from its mounted tip. Heavily equipped squads are used for rescue calls in more delicate situations such as high angles, automobiles, ice and caves. Each apparatus, costing around $750,000, is sent out based on the specifics of the call and the services needed.
The firefighters are out the door within seconds. Not running, but moving swiftly. When lives depend on the right response, rushing leads to mistakes. As a rule, firefighters must respond within one minute of the call. But where is the line of boots with men and women jumping and zipping and buckling and stacking and shouting?
The scene in the garage is calm. Lt. Fansler grabs his hat lying on a shelf next to an old radio, his worn jacket already slung into the waiting truck, while firefighter Kenneth Harris tosses his coat and gear on the floor in the backseat. Everyone takes their position in their respective seats: Collins grips the massive steering wheel, Fansler in the passenger seat responds on the radio and Harris sits behind him. Seatbelts fastened, headphones on: “Columbia, this is Engine 12.
“Breakfast sausage,” Fansler orders. “Two pounds. Cheap and good.” The “probie” on duty, Mike McCord, takes copious notes in neat, small handwriting. “Probie” is firefighter speak for probationary firefighter, a rookie role held for 18 months until he or she completes their set of skills. “Two dozen eggs, shredded cheese, green pepper, sour cream,” Fansler continues with military precision. “Plain tortillas. And don’t you get those small ones like last time.” Ladder 1 Capt. Jan McCrary tosses a coupon cut from the morning’s paper on top of McCord’s notes. It’s a routine 8 a.m. Saturday morning at the station as eight men gather around the central kitchen table like an unusually muscular, mustachioed and male-dominated family.
The CFD operates differently than a typical 9-to-5 office. Three shifts rotate: 24 hours on, 24 hours off, repeated three times, and then a three-day break before the cycle begins again.
“You miss a lot when you’re here,” Walt Goodman says. He is firefighting on Engine 12 this particular day, which also happens to be tie-dye day at his daughter’s elementary school. Fires and medical emergencies don’t wait for schedules to clear. “I’ve missed my share of dance recitals and school events. But when you spend a third of your time here, it becomes home.”
Along with the six men of Ladder 1 and Engine 12, Battalion Chief Clayton Farr and Division Chief Jerry Jenkins work shift three as shift commanders. Back at the breakfast roundtable, Jenkins gets up, leaves the room and returns with a bill. “Fifty,” he says, tossing it onto the table. McCord adds his entry into a white binder under the “accounts paid” column. “We operate just like any restaurant in town, just a lot better,” says Ladder 1 Fire Engineer Greg Kome.
The “probie” heads off to the grocery store, list in hand. The rest of the men remain seated while making light conversation and watching the news on the old television hanging in the corner of the kitchen. “You know, I still can’t find that white Gatorade at the store,” Fansler jokes, pointing to Farr’s chocolate milk in a reused power drink bottle. “Oh it’s there, you just gotta look,” Farr replies. “It’s special though. So special they even put my name on it.” He points to the black scratchings he’s written to mark the drink as his own.
Many of the kitchen’s accommodations are marked as such. At least one coffee cup exclaims “World’s Best Dad.” Three white refrigerators dominate the kitchen, one for each of the three shifts. Next to them are three floor-to-ceiling pantries containing rice packets, crackers and jars of peanut butter with territorial permanent marker insignias. A massive jar of powdered protein supplement sits on the countertop, its matte black finish contrasting with the light wood of the island counter. The ice machine, dishwasher, coffeepot and oven are clean. No dishes are in the sink, but an array of desserts sits on the ledge above it, including a fresh sheet cake baked by a retired officer’s wife known throughout the department for her special recipe.
Behind the kitchen is the “blue room” for relaxing, where a couch and two comfortable recliners look plush and worn. The bottom of the footrest is a darker shade, dirtied by the feet of weary firefighters who can rest after 8 p.m. when the radios shut off, although they can still be dispatched at any time throughout the night.
The responsibilities of firefighters don’t stop after they leave the station, either. Most work on their days off, picking up small handyman jobs, working as EMTs or taking classes. With their constricted schedules, timing becomes an issue. “I’m already working 60 to 80 hours a week,” says Goodman of his alternate jobs as an emergency medical technician and band manager. “But I recognize how blessed I am to have a job. Yet when you have nothing but the spare change in your car to pay for a burrito, things are difficult.”
No one’s in the firefighting business for the pay. “We all love what we do, that’s no doubt,” McCord says. “You do it to save lives, and that’s all. In construction, I’d make a considerable amount more money and work fewer hours. But it’s been my dream to be a firefighter. Every day I’m living out my dream. My worst day at the station is still better than the best day anywhere else.”
Outside, there are two grills and one basketball hoop. According to orders from previous Fire Chief William Markgraf, exercise is not allowed until after 4 p.m., subject to the shift commander’s discretion. Although the rules have loosened since Markgraf’s retirement in 2011, the firefighters still follow his exercise and dress-code regulations. Weekends are exceptions, when on-duty firefighters are allowed to nap and work out during all hours of the day.
Back inside, a darkened weight room defers to the deadline. Both sexes share the adjoining sleeping quarters, which are a mixture of a dormitory and military bunkroom. Wooden shelving units divide the space and give the inhabitants as much of an illusion of privacy as possible in a six-person bedroom. The bathrooms are split male and female, but turn into two male bathrooms when no females are on duty. At Station No. 1, there are three female firefighters, two female fire engineers and two female fire lieutenants.
Battalion and division chief offices line the hallways out to the garage and have the added luxury of a bed right inside. On the walls, maps dissect Columbia into districts with the dark blue pushpins of the Boone County Fire Protection District circling the perimeters. In total, there are nine CFD stations and 14 Boone County stations.
Unlike the CFD, the Boone County Fire Protection District is unpaid and staffed by volunteers. Although each volunteer station is set up for residential living, this type of firefighting is founded on the assumption that the various volunteer firefighters, who are given protective clothing and pagers, might be closer to the scene than those at a fully staffed station.
Although they overlap when necessary, the two emergency response units usually operate as separate entities. Fire trucks also respond to medical emergencies because there are fewer active ambulances at a time.
McCord remembers his first real fire call with the CFD, a fire that’s hard to forget. It was the O’Reilly Auto Parts fire that burned for almost 10 hours on April 1, 2012, reducing the building and surrounding strip mall to ashes. As he recreates the incident from memory, his face becomes animated and he uses his hands to motion the location of the smoke plumes and the path of the fire.
Eleven units and 35 staff members from the department responded after a third alarm — the code red of firefighter language — went out for all available units in action.
“When we heard the radio announcement, guys were already rushing out to the engines pre-alert,” McCord says. “They were out there before the tone even went off.”
Because of the location and path of the fire, the firefighters were on the defensive after about an hour in, trying to let it burn itself out while keeping damage as low as possible.
A switch flips and the sirens shriek. Collins tugs a thin overheard wire to blast the horn, which alerts oncoming traffic to the engine’s presence. The faces of the people on the street turn toward the noise in awe and curiosity. Cars move to the side of the road, but Collins is relaxed. This is routine, like a familiar Sunday drive to church. Instead of music on the radio, there is the voice of the dispatcher. The men are quiet, but calm and comfortable. Less than five minutes have passed since the call first came in.
Fansler did the cooking. “As usual, nothing new here.” An assembly line forms around the center island in the kitchen. First come the plates, forks and napkins. Next, grab a tortilla and spread it with sour cream or salsa. Scoop out a heavy spoonful of eggs mixed with pepper, tomatoes and onions. Fork some hash browns onto the plate. At the end of the line sits pepper, salt, ketchup and more salsa. Get a cup and fill it with orange juice. Sit down and dig in.
Everyone finishes his first helping within two minutes. Conversation is minimal as the silence fills with forks scraping and mouths chewing. Of course, this isn’t a typical Saturday brunch. “Normally we only eat organic, all-natural health shakes and wheat grass,” McCrary jokes.
After the dishes are done, the waiting game begins.
Sometimes they lounge in the uncomfortable red plastic chairs and chat around the kitchen table. At other times, they split up, some scanning the Internet in the computer room and some talking with the division and battalion chiefs in their offices. People come in and out of the station for public relations events and training. Contrary to Hollywood’s portrayal, the mood is calm.
Although the potential for death and danger is higher than other careers, most men and women don’t go on shift thinking they might lose their lives that day. The last civilian fire death in Columbia happened in 2009, and in 2011, only five civilians and eight firefighters were injured in fire incidents during the whole year.
The only Columbia firefighter killed in the line of duty was in 1986, when the fire engine carrying Donald G. “Hector” Crum slid off rain-slicked Strawn Road, flipping over and crushing him underneath. He was strapped into a harness on the tailboard of the truck, as was custom at the time. The practice has since ceased because of the potential for danger. When Station No. 1 moved from Seventh Street to Orr Street in 1997, the building was dedicated to Crum, an engraved plaque proclaiming: “In memory of Donald G. ‘Hector’ Crum, 1946-1986, who paid the supreme sacrifice providing service to the Citizens of Columbia.”
On Saturdays, those on duty are allowed to nap, but they mostly spend time relaxing in the blue room or out on a public relations event. Saturday is a busy night for the downtown station, so the rules are cut back. After 4 p.m., dark blue T-shirts with worn CFD crests printed over the right breast replace the uniform shirts. More importantly is the late-afternoon choice of footwear: sneakers.
The fire truck pulls up to the scene. There are no billowing columns of thick, black smoke, not even a small fire. It’s a beautiful old house with dark green shutters against lighter green paneling. Four stuffed animals — tigers — sit on the window ledge, their happy lopsided grins welcoming the responders to the scene. Their smiles are oblivious to the seriousness of the situation. A small group has gathered on the front porch looking distressed.
When a group of athletic men and women reside together for long periods of time, it’s inevitable a basketball league will begin. Games play to 11 points and each shot is worth one. The dark green court is painted with chipping white lines but lacks a three-point arc. All matches are self-officiated and name-calling is advised, if not encouraged. Collins emerges as one team’s leader, in charge of heckling his opponents more than anything. He is known to designate the MVP of the game. “He also has the power to take it away just as fast as he gives it,” Fansler adds. Firefighter Scott Keith both received an MVP from Collins and had it taken away in a matter of minutes, a distinction he carries with pride.
Fansler is the opposite team’s leader, speeding to the open spot on the court and passing underneath the giant legs of Kome and Collins. He’s developed a method of putting points on the board that defies his small stature.
Both on the court and on duty, firefighting is a team effort and takes a strong mentality. “You have to be careful, because people don’t see it as we do,” McCord says. “If we’re able to contain a fire to a quarter of the house, we see that as a success. That’s three-quarters of the house saved. But the homeowners see all their valuables destroyed and would be confused by our happiness.”
The firefighters can celebrate success at the scene and on the court. When a player starts hitting shot after shot, someone yells out, “He’s on fire!” to a chorus of ironic chuckles. The players read one another easily, a result of hours spent together in the station and even more hours training and responding to calls. There are back-door cuts, perfectly placed passes and no-look high fives. They harass whoever shoots a “schnoffle,” their name for the terrible shots that miss the rim or go crashing off the backboard.
On every play there’s at least one firefighter diving to prevent the ball from going out of bounds. He might almost twist his ankle on the curb along the baseline or run into the side of Chief Jenkins’ red pickup that has the honor, or misfortune, of the parking space right next to the court.
The men tire, showing their ages through heavy breathing and sweat-soaked T-shirts. As the sun sets over the court, they cool down and reminisce on rookie mistakes and how tough firefighting was when they first started out in the business. “Although it sure beats hanging sheet rock,” Harris says.
“Sure beats a lot of things,” Collins adds.
Fansler, Collins and Harris walk up to the front porch much slower than expected, given the emergency of the situation. “Cardiac arrest, 96-year-old male,” the radio dispatcher drones in the background. An ambulance arrives and a medic joins the small group assembled out front. A few words are exchanged and then the group heads back to the truck. “Kind of a different one,” Fansler remarks. “He’s dead.”
In reality, fires make up a small part of what fire departments across the country respond to each day. In Columbia, only 3.6 percent of calls deal with fire. In 2011, the CFD responded to 10,128 calls — 366 of those were related to fire. And even then, it’s often just the accidental push of an alarm or a faulty smoke detector. Otherwise, the calls are medical or rescue responses.
“Every call is different,” says Andrew Thacker, a fire engineer. “Ninety-nine percent of the time isn’t saving people. Training is just guidelines. They can’t teach you the 1 percent. How do you teach someone to deal with a mom who just lost her son to a fire? You can’t teach that in any school.”
This is what it’s like to be a firefighter in a midsize Midwestern college town. It is slow and mostly uneventful. Columbia firefighters average around 10 calls a day. In New York, that number is closer to 40.
Most of their education, their training, their time spent waiting won’t be used for years into their career. But it’s for those few calls defying statistics that make all the difference.
“Firefighters are a unique bunch,” McCord says. “We train for a long time and want our training to pay off, just like everyone else. It’s not like we want fires to happen or to wish bad things upon people, but if no fires happened, then I wouldn’t have a job, and then I wouldn’t be doing what I’ve always dreamed. When I first got the job at a station, I felt like I could finally begin living, at 29 years old.”