|I got into writing at the newspaper for one reason - to tell peoples' stories. Due to a small staff, I have been on the city government beat since I got there, but every now and then I get to write something that I really enjoy. This was one of those things.
I presented the idea to my editor that I go hang out with different people who work at night and we would start a series called "After Dark." Having worked night shift for many many years, I can tell you, it can be pretty damned interesting. I decided my first story would be to ride along with the guys that work at the nearby fire station. When I first got there, some were kinda' standoff-ish. My first thought was, this is going to be a long night.
Then to add to the fear I would be unable to find something to write about, hours had passed without any fire calls! Luckily, the guys warmed up to me after a while, we talked, I got to know them a bit, and even though there was only one fire call in a two night stretch, I didn't have to search far to find something to write about.
I wrote about them.
I ran into one of the subjects of the story tonight at a function and he came up to me and told me how much the story touched the guys. The two best feelings in writing, in my opinion, are when you either contribute to some sort of positive change or when you are able to really show readers something they would not otherwise see, to show the PEOPLE behind the names, badges and titles.
What follows is the over 3,000 word article!
Flagler After Dark
Palm Coast firefighters live amid slow burn
By DAVID WRIGHT
PALM COAST – The mouthwatering scent of grilling steaks fills the air of the small kitchen as the handful of firefighters move with the kind of well orchestrated synchronically that comes from years of being together. It’s Friday night and the crews of Palm Coast’s Station No. 21 are about to sit down to a dinner of steak, pork, potatoes and peas.
The mood is relaxed, jovial even. Jokes pass around the kitchen faster than the plates of food, and the scene is reminiscent of a close-nit family about to sit down for a holiday dinner. Only the diners are all wearing the same uniforms and they seem to keep one ear cocked for an alert that hasn’t yet come.
Suddenly, a high pitched series of mechanical tones fills the room, and the guys stop in their tracks, listening for what will come next. One of the men has already pulled a black iron pan with a half cooked slab of steak from the burner – just in case the call that follows the tones is for him.
A dispatcher’s voice crackles through the intercoms located throughout every room in the building, instructing medics from Station No. 21 of the nature of the emergency and where they need to go.
Four medics, one who had just sat down to eat, bolt out of the room, then through a back door to the garage bay. In less than 30 seconds, the actual alert tones themselves seem to physically launch the medics on board two waiting emergency trucks. A moment later, the medics are bolting from their Station on their way to answer the call.
“It never fails,” says one of the three firefighters left behind with a knowing smile, “Whenever you fix a nice meal, you can almost guarantee you’re gonna get called out.”
Just 30 minutes earlier, Lt. Greg Wilk and firefighters Greg Dick and Matt “Mackey” Stevens (so nicknamed due to his uncanny resemblance to the bald cop Vic Mackey, from the television show “The Shield”) were walking through the Albertson’s grocery store hunting for tonight’s dinner.
The three firefighters, dressed in their black uniforms draw glances from shoppers. Some wave, some smile, some exchange helloes – there is no doubting the charisma of the firefighters. As the guys wait in line to pick up the steaks and pork to bring back to the firehouse, Mackey catches a little boy sitting in a shopping cart staring at him, wide-eyed. Mackey smiles and talks to the boy. The scene looks like something you might see in a modernized Norman Rockwell painting.
The guys know they have to hurry with their shopping, because at any moment, the radios they carry on their belts may start whistling the tones that send them on a call to an accident, fire, or any assortment of disasters. Several times in the past, they have been called away while in the checkout lane. Once the tones go off, they drop whatever they’re doing and get to the truck.
Station 21 is the main fire station for Palm Coast, complete with three fire engines equipped with water tanks and hundreds of feet of high-pressure hoses, a few brush fire trucks, advanced life support vehicles to treat most medical crisis and a county ambulance.
During the day, the station houses not only the firefighters and paramedics, but the administration staff, including Palm Coast Fire Chief Mike Beadle. At night, the station becomes less like a command center and more like a home, complete with bedrooms, a kitchen, dining area and living room, as well as bathrooms and showers.
The home comparison is fitting, given the hours that the firefighters and paramedics spend here.
“You spend more time with these guys than your family,” says Rich Cline.
That’s not an exaggeration, at least not according to the grueling schedule these men and women keep.
There are three shifts, A, B and C, which operate on a 24-hour schedule. The crews report at 8 a.m. and don’t leave until 8 a.m. the following day (assuming there are no disasters which require them to work beyond their shift).
All of the workers are cross-trained and certified as both firefighters and at least Emergency Medical Technicians (EMT’s) or paramedics, allowing them to switch duties from fire engine to medical on a monthly basis. “It keeps them from getting burned out,” Lt. Greg Wilk explains. Switching jobs also keeps their skills fresh in both areas, Wilk points out, which makes them that much better at handling problems.
Three firefighters work an engine and a paramedic and EMT handle medical emergencies. Two county paramedics also work at the station, handling the ambulance. A captain oversees all of the workers and will sometimes go out on calls with them to help out.
When they aren’t handling emergencies, the shift workers can be found doing other work around the station or the city during the day. At night, things slow down a bit, and the crew can do their own thing, which can consist of tossing a football around, shooting some hoops, hanging out and talking in the bay over the sounds of classic rock playing on a radio, watching television or lifting weights. Later in the night – if no alarms break their much-needed slumber - crews can turn in and get some sleep.
However, the sleep isn’t the kind they get at home. They have to listen for the tones while they crash here, Wilk explains. They have to be ready at all times to respond. Some guys, like Wilk, are used to it and able to sleep pretty well in spurts. Some, who haven’t been doing it as long, find it hard to sleep well with the constant sound of the dispatch radio in their bedrooms.
When a shift is over, the crew gets two days off, working what they call, “One on, two off.”
Shift B is made up of all guys who are married and either have children, or have one on the way. When asked how their wives handle their being away from home so much, some joke that their wives have an easier time when they are gone for 24 hours rather than home for two days straight.
“Some of these guys think I’m abrasive – I’m trying to work on that,” says Lt. Wilk
Wilk, who has been with the station since he started as a volunteer in 1994, seems to be the quietest of the guys upon first impression. He plays the role of tough and gruff teacher well, though, putting rookies through their paces to make sure they have what it takes to do the job well.
Though there is a captain on shift above him, Wilk has more direct interaction with the firefighters and is in charge of making sure they are doing their jobs correctly. He pulls no punches and tells it like it is. “Sometimes people don’t like it,” he explained, but he’s not here to make friends. He’s here to do a job.
Wilk spent 12 years as a technician at an automobile plant in New Jersey, where he first began a stint as a volunteer firefighter at the urging of a friend. “I wish I’d done it 20 years ago,” he says, explaining how much he loves the job. Wilk’s automobile experience comes in handy at Station 21, where he is responsible for maintaining and repairing the fleet. “I know these things inside and out,” he says with a smile, “People will come up and describe what’s wrong and I can almost tell them what’s wrong before they’re done.”
Under his care, few trucks have ever been out of commission for more than a few hours, he boasts. “You can do all the training in the world,” Wilk says, “But if you can’t get the truck there, it’s not worth anything.”
The hours are tough, firefighters say, the actual job can sometimes be even tougher. But the firefighters and EMTs deal with the pressure in their own unconventional ways.
In a job where you face death on an almost daily basis, many police and firefighters are known to develop dark senses of humor to help them deal with the barrage of horrors. Station 21’s B Shift is no exception, as most of the guys have honed a razor sharp wit, quick with an insult at one of their brother’s expense. It’s all in good fun, though. Just try to make sure you don’t let anyone know when your birthday is, say the firemen.
If anyone at Station No. 21 finds out it’s your birthday, you’re in for a soaking…or worse. The B crew routinely sets up elaborate ways to hose down the birthday boys and girls at Station 21. One firefighter got soaked four times in one day. Another firefighter, Mackey, got doused with flour while showering, then when he jumped out, got soaked not once, but twice.
Pranks aren’t limited to just birthdays, though.
Ask some county paramedics who a few years ago were bunking at Station 21. The firefighters, using an elaborate setup of string and ceiling tiles, had paramedics convinced that the place was haunted by ghosts. One of the frightened paramedic actually brought someone into the station to perform a séance!
The only one in the station to escape the pranks is Fire Chief Mike Beadle. “We’re not that crazy,” Wilk said.
Jeff Nunziato, a tall firefighter with a deep voice, is well known for his sarcastic comments and his ability to mimic with perfection the slow, gravely drawl of actor Billy Bob Thornton’s “Sling Blade” character. He laughs as he recalls a time he used the voice to a county dispatcher after he was done with a call. The woman paused for the longest time, Nunziato explained, then she burst out laughing.
Nunziato isn’t afraid to be the butt of a joke, either. A few shifts ago, he explains, he made a mistake that a lot of firefighters make.
A small circular object called a queue siren sits on the front of the fire engine. Its size is deceptive, though, as the siren packs a wallop in order to cut through the traffic at high speeds. One problem with the siren, though, is that the button to activate it is on the floorboard and is easily and quite often, accidentally tripped by an embarrassed driver.
Nunziato was driving to a location where police were conducting a SWAT operation, where firefighters are called just in case things go bad. As he pulled up to the scene, filled with cop cars, SWAT trucks and an array of other vehicles, Nunziato accidentally hit the queue siren button, and immediately wanted to shrink back into his seat. ‘Hi guys, we’re here,” Nunziato says, waving like the grand marshal of a parade as he tells the story.
Nunziato tells a story of the best comment he ever heard on a call. He arrived at a scene in Bunnell where a male pedestrian had been injured. The man lay crumpled on the ground, his leg twisted badly. Nunziato leaned into the man and asked if he was hurting anywhere else other than his leg.
The man’s response is one Nunziato still recalls. The man looked up at him and said, “Nothing but bad things have happened to me since I stopped doing crack.”
How they deal
“My wife says I don’t have the compassion I used to have,” County Paramedic Rich Crego says in a moment of seriousness, “I don’t know if it’s that I don’t have compassion, you just get numb to it.”
Following Friday night’s dinner, there is a bit of downtime where the guys gather in the living and rooms and talk about one of the hardest parts of the job - namely, dealing with death and sickness on a constant basis. When responding to a horrific scene, most of them can only deal by putting it in the back of their minds and not letting themselves feel anything but what they need to do to focus on the job at hand – saving lives.
“I think kids are the worst,” Firefighter Greg Dick says. Dick has been a paramedic for over 18 years, and he, like the others, still has a hard time when the victims are children.
Crego still remembers a child who died on a call he responded to. “I’ll never forget,” he says.
Another difficult part of the job, the guys explain, is that your actions can determine who lives and who dies. When a firefighter or paramedic rolls onto a scene with several injuries, they have to assess the situation and determine which victims are injured worse and which victims they can help, a practice called “triage” often used by doctors and nurses working disaster scenes like the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Though you want to help everyone, one of the firefighters explains, you would hate to spend too much time trying to save someone who is too far gone. If you do that, you may be wasting time which could be used to try to help somebody else with a better chance of living.
Every now and then, though, one of them confesses, a voice in the back of your mind will haunt you the next day, asking you if you are sure you made the right choice. Self doubt can haunt the best of firefighters.
Though he is able to shove the thoughts down while on a scene, Dick confesses,“It hits me later, when I’m sitting by myself. I can’t believe what happened last night.”
Harder still, is when firefighters and paramedics respond to a call where the victim is someone they have worked with. “It’s a lot harder to focus when you are looking at someone you know,” Dick admits.
The department offers critical stress debriefing for workers following traumatic events. The debriefing usually is done by someone out of the county, who comes in and talks to those that need help coping with the horrors that they see.
When Wilk arrives at the scene of a fire, he will oftentimes, take about 10 to 15 seconds to analyze the situation. “I’m mapping out my game plan,” he says. He has studied fires for many years and has even taken a course on the art of smoke reading. He can tell many things by looking at the smoke, such as where the fire is, how hot it is (thick black smoke indicates a hotter, stronger fire), and where it is likely to go. He also knows the strategies and factors in battling the fire, such as weather and wind conditions, the slope of the ground and the type of materials burning. They all play a role in determining the best course of action.
Wilk is constantly learning all he can to do his job better. Wilk is also responsible for teaching those working under him.
On any given night, you can find volunteer firefighters standing around with the crew as well as teenagers enrolled in the Explorer’s Program, started up by Cline, to teach young kids about the job. Wilk says that ideally, the fire department can begin teaching possible recruits young, and if they excel, they could wind up working for the city.
One standout in the program is 18-year-old Robert “Bobby” Anderson, a recent FPC graduate who has been in the program for four years. “You should have seen him, he was so shy when he started here,” Wilk says. Now Anderson is doing well in the program and is even teaching the other teens enrolled.
He spends a lot of time at Station 21. Some of the guys tease him, saying he hangs around kissing butt in hopes of getting a job with the department, which he hopes to get this summer. The guys already tease him as if he is one of their own.
“It’s like having a second family,” Anderson says, “If I get in trouble, they’ll hassle me more than my real family.”
However, getting a job here isn’t easy, Wilk says.
Just ask the line of people who apply and get rejected. “We want only the best,” Wilk explains. And even though Anderson is a standout potential employee, Wilk says that he will have to earn the job on his own.
“You have to sell yourself,” Wilk explains after Anderson has left for the night. All too often, people will apply for the job for the wrong reasons – they think it’s easy, they want a steady paycheck, but they aren’t really committed. “What do you bring to the table,” Wilk asks of potential employees. They need to be able to demonstrate impressive skills, dedication and knowledge that makes them the right fit.
In the end, though, Wilk says one of the qualities that make for the best firefighters is simply the ability to learn and retain knowledge. “Within a month, the guys who know a truck inside and out will make a good firefighter,” Wilk says.
Always be prepared. That’s not just the motto of the Boy Scouts of America, but also of firefighters and paramedics, because they never know what kind of call they are going to have to respond to or what will be waiting for them.
Some of the calls that make Wilk most nervous are when they are called to a house for a medical emergency and nobody appears to be home. “You wonder if you’re at the right address,” Wilk said, who said in the past dispatchers have made mistakes and sent crews to the wrong house.
Even if it’s the right house, Wilk said, “You never know what these people are going to have in their houses.” A routine medical call could go downhill quick if somebody is responding badly to medication or has a head wound which prohibits them from thinking or acting normally.
“Sometimes you just have people who want to beat you up,” Wilk said.
You always have to keep an eye on what’s going on,” Wilk explained, adding that he has his driver’s backs at all times.
Though he likes to come off as a tough-as-nails, no-nonsense guy to those working for him, there is no doubt that he cares about them as if they are family. The ‘98 heartbreak
One of the hardest times for Wilk was during the wildfires of 1998, which destroyed 71 homes and spread through much of the county causing a massive evacuation which few that were here will ever forget.
“That was a traumatic thing for us,” he says, remembering how firefighters had to pass by houses that were burning in order to try to save ones which they still had a chance of saving. “You’re not used to passing burning houses,” Wilk says.
While firefighters lost 71 homes, they managed to save over 950 homes.
However, Wilk still thinks about the ones that they lost.
One of the most touching scenes, Wilk admits, occurred after the fires, while he was driving through the town surveying the destruction. Among the ruined debris of the remains of homes, were handmade signs written by those who had lost everything to the fires.
The messages, clearly written to the firefighters read: “We know you guys tried.”
You wish you could have done more,” Wilk says, looking off in thought.
copyright 2007 The Flagler Times
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