Oklahoma City's Fire Station 30 is ready to roll
Reporter Matt Dinger accompanied Oklahoma City Fire Station 30's red shift crew on their 24-hour shift from 7 a.m. April 7 to 7 a.m. April 8.
Photographers Jim Beckel and Paul Hellstern documented the crew's daily duties from morning to evening on April 13.
This is the first part of Open House, an occasional series appearing in The Oklahoman.
Firefighter shifts in Oklahoma City start at 7 a.m., but showing up on time is the equivalent of being late, especially if you are the rookie.
Rig checks start before the sun hits the side of Fire Station 30, 4343 S Lake Hefner Drive. Each piece of equipment and the air tanks on engine and rescue ladder are to be inspected before firefighters make any calls for the day.
Each fire vehicle — or “apparatus” — contains many storage compartments, some containing hand tools and ladders, others with medical equipment and yet others still with power tools, hose nozzles and fans. Each tool has a specific purpose — and a specific location. Anything out of place could have devastating consequences in situations where seconds can mean the difference between life and death.
The fire service is a paramilitary operation where hierarchy and the recruit and more junior members who tend to this responsibility and everything else that, to be frank, no one else wants to do.
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The recruit this rotation is Zachary Ricks. Station 30 is the first of three stations Ricks will cycle through. After a year of service, which includes his time in the academy, he will officially become a firefighter.
But it's a long first year, especially when recruits are expected to never stop moving during their three 24-hour shifts per cycle. Whenever pressing matters are complete, the recruits are expected to grab a broom, to clean any errant dishes, to keep busy any way they can.
“You're expected to be the first one there in the morning, and check the rigs off and make the tea and clean everything. It takes a while to get a rhythm and the pattern down to where you're comfortably doing it correctly and swiftly,” Ricks said.
Firefighters have long used a red-blue-green shift system where firefighters work literally around the clock and then have another full day off. So red shift works this Thursday, and green shift will show up to relieve them before dawn Friday. After three work days, red shift gets a four-day stretch off duty.
April 7 is the first shift of the rotation, and it's a slow morning not only at this station, but across the city. So that leaves some time to get the house in order.
The fire station, or firehouse, is a literal house. The garage, or “rig room,” at Station 30 opens into a living room boasting a large flat-screen television, a sofa and a score of recliners that would seat the entire shift if all were ever seated at once.
When they are, it's usually around the dinner table between the two rooms. Even meals — cooked in a fully functional kitchen with a stove, dishwasher and two full-size refrigerators — have their own pecking order. Recruits are expected to be the last to fill their plates and the first to clear them, Ricks said. And they get to do the dishes and all the perils that entails.
“The big thing is to get you wet. They're called water traps. One day they put a cup full of water in the cabinet, and I'm supposed to do the dishes, so they put the soap up in this cabinet and then they put a cup of water in there and they put a clothes hanger up in there so when you open the door, it hooks the cup and pulls the cup down on you,” Ricks said.
“Another time, the sprayer on the sink, they put tape around it so you open the thing up and it sprays you. So they caught me doing that once and I took my shirt off and I changed because I was all wet and then I left it out. Since I left it out, they put it in the fridge and they froze it,” he said.
“It's all in good fun. Hazing is not the right word. It's more like a tradition. It's something they've always done. It's not really to be mean. It's more like a welcome to the department,” Ricks said.
Since three sets of firefighters live in this house on alternating days, it's not uncommon to see several bottles of ketchup and at least three jars of grape jelly on the table.
These staples are paid for not by the taxpayers, but by the denizens of the house themselves. Each firefighter tosses in $10 per check, or $20 a month, to keep things like sugar and mustard in stock. These common items are shared between shifts at the house.
But the meals are paid for by the firefighters who eat them. Each firefighter is expected to pay $10 each shift for chow. That averages out to about $100 per month for 20 large meals, a late breakfast and a dinner in the early evening.
The best cook on the shift usually ends up in the kitchen and is relieved of some other duties. Each station has a different number of minimum required personnel, but the cook is often serving up meals for 10 or more each shift.
And like any household, someone has to go to the grocery store. The cook sets out with the assigned rig personnel and a shopping list for that day's meals.
The crew on red shift makes the grocery store rounds without interruption. Having saved some money on previous meals, the firefighters will be treated to a more expensive dinner tonight — rib-eye steaks.
But en route to pick up the meat, a smoke investigation call comes across the radio. Groceries bouncing in the cab, the crew members of Engine 30 flip on their lights and sirens and start speeding toward the address. About halfway there, they're called off by another crew that has arrived on scene and can handle it. Back for the steaks they go.
Returning to the station, breakfast is prepared without a hitch. Thursday's breakfast is a giant omelet in a 14-inch skillet. It takes about two dozen eggs to fill it. Sides of hash browns and biscuits are also on the menu. The firefighters eat when they can, so there's no dallying when food is on the table. This morning, they're all able to clear their plates without interruption.
The crew spends the early part of the afternoon in the darkened living room. With a department goal of two hours of training per shift, it's not daytime programming that holds their attention, but rather a video presentation for a new firefighting technique called “big water.”
“Big water” is what it sounds like. Utilizing different hoses, hookups on the fire apparatus and the connection to the hydrant — or “plug” — in a certain arrangement, the firefighters can get the maximum volume of water flowing through the equipment and onto a fire.
There are no glazed eyes or firefighters playing on their phones during this recorded training. Instead, they rewind the clip and watch the technique again and pull out paper and pens and diagram the circuit.
The house chief and several others are tending to other obligations, so the required equipment and personnel are not available for the technique this afternoon. Instead the remaining crew goes out to practice and contrast two types of firefighting techniques, the “courtyard stretch” and “apartment lays.”
While it takes the crew about three minutes to lay the hose, jack into a hydrant and get water flowing, it takes about half an hour to pick it all up and get it back onto the rig.
When firefighters arrive on the scene of a blaze, the rapid deployment of firefighters and equipment looks effortless. But it's sessions like these, three hours of training on a slow day, that keep their skills sharp. They're not dusting off old techniques from the academy, or “rookie school” as firefighters call it. Firefighting strategies are always developing and evolving, as the “big water” technique and competing fire hose lays illustrate.
Each shift gets some leeway on how they like things done. The red shift at Station 30 may have better results with one technique over another and they may prefer to leave their hoses folded on the rigs in a different way than the blue and green shift firefighters. If the other crews don't like it, they can always rearrange the hose when they come on shift.
In the late afternoon, Cpl. Derek Snell returns to the kitchen. A few doze in the recliners while watching the opening round of the Masters golf tournament, while others get a little cardio in before their servings of steak and potatoes.
The chow call is given over the house intercom, and for the second time on Thursday, the entire crews of both rigs are able to finish their meals before another call comes.
After clearing their plates and the table, the firefighters scatter. A minute or so later, the sounds of a weed-eater and lawn mower are heard outside Station 30.
Chores for the house are dispersed across the week. Mondays are for general straightening, while the kitchen gets deep-cleaned on Wednesdays. Thursdays at the firehouse are lawn days.
Apart from vehicle maintenance, Station 30 is entirely self-sufficient. If firefighters don't do the firehouse chores, no one does.
Once the lawn care and volleyball court have been tended to, the firefighters change into their shorts for the night. They keep their protective firefighting uniform — or “bunker gear” — on their respective rigs. This smoke-soiled item is not allowed in the living quarters.
The weather is perfectly still, so most of the crew members begin the first third of their shift before bed relaxing in the rig room, talking about their children, projects at home and other fire department business.
“Twenty-four hour shifts are awesome. It kind of sucks being away because I'm engaged, being away from my fiancee and family and all that. It's hard on her because she misses me and she's finishing up her school and working full time, too. Sometimes she just wants me to be home. And I'm not supposed to be on my phone all that much. At all, really. I call her at night and talk to her and that's about it,” Ricks said.
Just before they're about to turn in for the night, a call comes to help someone struggling to get out of the bathroom and back into a motorized chair. Meanwhile, the rest of the crew puts out a small fire in some bushes.
Then there's a man who wiped out on his scooter avoiding an opossum in the road. They patch up a hole in his arm and his friends arrive to take him to the hospital.
After the late spate of activity, it's lights out at Station 30.
‘More than willing'
Each firefighter has a twin bed in the station bedroom. It's pitch-black in the room unless the station gets a call, which is almost certain to happen between midnight and dawn.
Another “signal 82,” or accident with injury call comes out about 1:30 a.m. The bedroom and living room lights are designed to turn themselves off as the dispatcher announces the nature of the call and who needs to make the run.
It takes less than a minute for the crew members to wake from a dead sleep, man the rig and be on the road. Aside from the sounds of the massive vehicle, the cab of the rig is quiet. As the rig gets onto the highway on-ramp, the call is canceled.
The firefighters hop from the rig and back into bed. It will be the last call of the shift.
“One of our lieutenants at the academy told us, ‘Don't be ashamed if you're tired and ready to go to bed because you're probably the only one who's worked a full day,'” Ricks said.
“There's been like three shifts where I didn't get any sleep, or maybe 2 or 3 hours. I don't care. I'm more than willing to get up and run those calls and I'm excited to do it, but it's bad when I get home and all I want to do is sleep, but I've got family stuff, I've got chores to do and then I have to come back to work the next day and you have the exact same kind of day you had before,” he said.
While 7 a.m. may be the official end of shift time, firefighters are allowed to head home when their replacements arrive to relieve them.
The green shift recruit is stuck in traffic due to a highway closure near Stroud. He has already phoned his shift officers from the stalled lanes at 5:45 a.m.
“For me, it's really earning your spot. I knew I'd have to prove myself, but you really have to prove yourself. That's probably the biggest thing, how quickly a reputation grows and declines and spreads over the department, that's probably what surprises me the most. When I go to my next station, they're going to know the good things, the bad things, all this stuff. Honestly, I think I'm doing OK here, but I really don't have any idea,” Ricks said.
The green shift recruit arrives just before 7 a.m. He probably would have been there a few minutes earlier, but he had to make another stop on the way to the station. Late recruits have to bring doughnuts.
Reporter Matt Dinger accompanied Oklahoma City Fire Station 30’s red shift crew on their 24-hour shift from 7 a.m. April 7 to 7 a.m. April 8.
Photographers Jim Beckel and Paul Hellstern documented the crew’s daily duties from morning to evening on April 13.
This is the first part of Open House, an occasional series appearing in The Oklahoman. Readers will get an inside view of the work lives of on-duty Oklahoma City firefighters in some of the city’s fire stations.
On July 4, Matt Dinger will accompany the crew of Oklahoma City Fire Station 8, which also houses the city’s water rescue team.
Oklahoma City Fire Station 30 red shift personnel for April 2016 were:
District Chief Jim Williams
Maj. Grant Roberts
Capt. Ron Robertson
Lt. Mark Calhoon
Lt. Tim Shearer
Sgt. David Garrett
Cpl. Derek Snell
Cpl. Jacob Driscoll
Cpl. Kevin Warner
Firefighter Adam Hopper
Recruit Zachary Ricks