Oklahoma City Fire Station 8 gets through July 4 bangs without any whimpers
There may be holiday routines for some Oklahoma City firehouses, but Fire Station 8 doesn't observe them — not even on
It's midmorning, and the sun is already pushing temperatures into the upper 80s. But that doesn't stop Maj. Brad Smith and the rest of the Station 8 crew from donning bunker gear and running through an obstacle course maximized for firefighter training.
The first to go takes a sledgehammer to a large tire a number of times, then switches arms and takes an equal number of licks with the nondominant hand. Then it's around an abandoned outbuilding with a fire ladder and through a hole in a wooden board face-first, taking the short ladder on the other side with his hands and cartwheeling off the lower rungs and onto his feet.
Then comes the vertical lifting of a weight bar above their heads like they're tearing out an attic with a pick, while another firefighter uses a weight machine inside the station to pull a line and hold the tension. Both switch arms, then switch places with the bar and at the machine. The final stretch is getting on their hands and knees, putting on their masks and doing a “bear crawl” the length of a fire engine and back.
No one makes it through the gauntlet without collapsing into a sweaty mess with heaving chests at the rear of the fire rig. But they all do it twice. Before breakfast.
Fire Station 8 is one of two specialized houses in the city, housing the department's “dive van” and “urban search and rescue,” or USAR outfit. Fire Station 5 houses the hazardous materials unit.
Members of Station 8 are hand-picked for duty, routinely training on a half-dozen types of rescues that require specialized equipment. The specialized rescue disciplines are high-angle rope, confined space, trench collapse, structural collapse, dive and swift water.
•On high-angle rope: “High-angle rescue is something we use pretty infrequently. Part of that reason is that the topography in the city is pretty flat. We don't have a lot of people hanging off cliffs getting themselves in trouble that way, or driving rolling into ravines like you would in say Colorado,” Smith said.
•On trench rescues: “Anywhere in the city utility lines are being replaced or installed, buried underground. The worker working in a trench, and then the sides of the trench collapse. We're trained to either go and recover the body, or rescue the still-viable victim,” Smith said.
•On structural collapse: “Being in Tornado Alley, we've had our fair share of structures that have been compromised, and a handful of times a year, we'll have to go up and shore up a building that's been struck by a car. Before they let anybody back into the building, after the car has been removed, we'll go replace load-bearing member or members in a wall to make sure the building stays sound. We're shoring it up until a structural engineer can come out. We kind of put a Band-Aid on it,” Smith said.
The water rescue equipment includes a raft, two personal watercraft and assorted wet suits, diving gear, air tanks, flotation devices and rescue rope bags. This equipment is stored in the old Station 8, across the street from the current station at 1934 Exchange Ave. The ground floor of the old station holds the watercraft and gear, while the pole holes in the ceiling have been filled in and the upper floor houses dormant office space.
The urban search and rescue equipment includes sonar equipment, concrete chain saws and other specialty equipment designed to help people out of rubble caused by natural disasters and structural collapses, among other applications. These items are kept aboard a rig in the current station's garage, or “rig room.”
While maintained at a normal frequency, those vehicles and equipment aren't taken out to normal calls for service such as car crashes and fires, but lie dormant unless they're being put to specialized use or for training.
“When you show up on an incident, everyone has a job and everyone is expected to execute that job to perfection, and if they don't, things could go badly. It's motivation to
make sure each guy is up on his skills and as a crew, we're up on our skills,” Smith said.
“It takes awhile to get really proficient and to build that knowledge base to where you feel comfortable responding to anything that you might be presented. Over the last 7½ years, I think I've come a long way with that,” he said.
Once the sweat has stopped cascading from his face from the workout, firefighter Miguel Baez puts another skill to the test, whipping up brunch for the men who make up Fire Station 8's “blue shift.”
Baez has taken a long and winding road to the kitchen of Fire Station 8.
Hired in 2013, Baez was born and raised in Tampico, Mexico, on the western rim of the Gulf of Mexico. A business administration graduate, he moved to the United States in 2007.
“I was visiting my sister and when I was here on vacation, I happened to meet the woman that is my wife. We started dating, and I proposed to her. The original plan was to move to Mexico, but her parents said no way,” Baez said. “She's 100 percent American, so I started the process of moving over here and changing my status. I went through all that citizenship process. Tourist, fiance visa, resident, conditional, permanent resident, then citizenship in 2012.
“Over there in Mexico, they show some of the American shows like firefighters and police, and I thought it would be awesome if I ever had the opportunity to be part of that, but I never thought that was a possibility because, you know, I was living in Mexico, but then life takes you places you never know,” Baez said.
“Two weeks after I became a citizen, that's when I went and applied and started the process, and I made it on the first shot. I thought, you know, I don't think it's too late to follow my dream.
“It's fun to be here doing this, and now that I'm the cook, I'm enjoying that, too. It helps me to perfect my cooking skills.”
His handiness in the kitchen isn't the only extra skill Baez brings to the table.
“We have a big Hispanic community in this part of town, so that comes in handy and especially when there's a language barrier. They feel at peace with someone that they can communicate with,” Baez said. “Sometimes we've had some really bad car wrecks or people that get hurt working on construction or whatever, so when we get there and I can communicate, I can pinpoint the real issue that they're going through. It helps us, and it helps EMSA.”
Learning the ropes
Once the table is cleared and the temperatures are well into the mid-90s, the crew takes a trip to Bricktown.
As they're climbing flights of stairs with gear in hand to prepare for an afternoon training session, they get called to a “high-rise alarm” at a downtown hotel. The automatic alarm has gone off, and hotel patrons are standing outside the building when firefighters arrive.
Inside, lights are flashing while a computerized voice blares over the building's speakers. Hotel employees have not found any smoke.
The building's water pump keeps turning itself on in the control room, and some firefighters have issues accessing the floor through stairwells. They avoid the elevators in case there is undiscovered fire in the building.
Fire Station 8's crew comes out about 20 minutes later with no culprit for the alarm found. Another station's crew remains at the hotel until a representative of the alarm company arrives.
No holiday game is being played yet at Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark, and the firefighters of Station 8 know that because they can see directly into the ballpark while repelling from the upper levels of the parking garage across the alley.
In a complicated setup involving ropes fed through a pulley system mounted on a large tripod, the crew members practice their rescue skills while suspended several stories in the air.
Firefighters up top slowly feed the lines, allowing a slow descent to the ground and to other firefighters acting as imaginary victims who are trapped dangling dozens of feet above the sizzling concrete.
The firefighters finish taking turns getting themselves and their comrades down from the side of the garage and decide to stop by the Bricktown Sonic for a drink on Maj. Smith's dime before returning to the station.
People stare, wave, nod or greet the crews of the two rigs as they make their way down Mickey Mantle Drive.
An ESPN crew thinks it might have hit the jackpot for street interviews, but even though they all have opinions on Kevin Durant's announcement to leave Oklahoma City made that afternoon, they have a strong sense of decorum and decline to comment while in uniform.
Durant, and an ongoing debate about whether a grizzly bear or a gorilla would win in a cage match, still are being discussed and argued around the table when the burgers come off the grill.
The sun has started making its western descent. It's the first time in years they haven't received a drowning call on July 4, they mention.
But with nightfall come the sounds and sights of illicit fireworks. The firefighters take one of the rigs to fill up on gasoline at the new Fire Station 6 on the east edge of Bricktown.
Downtown streets already are choked with traffic, with some motorists parking their cars on grassy medians and shooting off fireworks along the streets and in parking lots.
Firefighters on duty don't enforce the bans or issue citations to anyone breaking the law. A handful of people wave with one hand with unlit fireworks in the other, but firefighters are there only to put out any fires that might accidentally be sparked.
By the time the rig is refueled and the crew is headed back across the Oklahoma River to the station, the river banks and surrounding grassy areas look like a war zone. Firecrackers go off individually or in clusters of small explosions. The crew decides to stall a few minutes in the middle of a bridge to wait, just in case.
The neighborhoods around the fire station are also rife with smoke and the smell of gunpowder. People on the street behind the station are setting off small displays while the firefighters, now in their T-shirts and shorts for the night, watch from afar and relax, chatting among themselves.
It's close to lights out when the station gets a call on a vehicle fire. When they arrive, people are lining the curbs of the southwest Oklahoma City neighborhood watching flames jumping out of a construction trailer full of refuse.
An errant firework has set the contents ablaze, but the walls of the metal container contain the flames.
Hand-held fire hoses get a start on battling the flames, and the aerial boom, a hose mounted on a ladder, makes quick work of the rest.
From the time water is on the fire until it becomes a smoldering mess is about 60 seconds. It takes about half an hour to lower the boom and get everything back in place before they can leave the scene and head to bed.
The sound of fireworks exploding slows before midnight, but continues through the night.
Fire Station 8 receives no fire or rescue calls the rest of the shift, and with the exception of a brief alarm call just before dawn, sleep through the night.
“I'm very lucky that I've got nine guys here that are all-in and that are committed to being good at skills that we may never use in our entire careers,” Smith said.
“If we didn't enjoy being busy and having that additional responsibility, we wouldn't be here. And shouldn't be here,” he said.