For OKC firefighters, 'when the lights kick on, it's customer service time'
The rooster keeps crowing behind Oklahoma City Fire Station 31, but the “blue shift” crew beat it to work that Saturday morning.
Rig checks go smoothly and before long, it's time to shop for the day's groceries. The crew has just finished selecting produce about 9 a.m. when they get a medical call at the only nursing home in the station's district.
The cart is abandoned and the firefighters jog out of Walmart and board the rig, arriving on scene just ahead of the paramedic crew. A resident there, a 92-year-old man, is showing signs of a “lowered level of consciousness,” and will be taken to the hospital to be checked out.
The cart of groceries is still where the crew left it when they return about a half-hour later.
The meal is cooked and eaten without interruption. The Oklahoma State University football game against Central Michigan, the second of the season, starts during the meal. But as soon as the plates are cleared and floors swept, back-to-back Cowboy touchdowns in the first quarter go ignored as firefighters scatter to their respective tasks, which includes several firefighters preparing for tests to advance ranks or get paramedic certifications.
A short time later, the fire station phone rings.
Someone has reported an injured hawk in a field across from a nearby convenience store. The firefighters board the rig and go attempt to find the wounded animal before animal control officers are dispatched.
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Pulling into the convenience store, a loud crack comes from behind the crew cabin. The weld on the pump panel has given way, and the machinery now sways precariously with each turn.
A quick search of the field produces no wounded bird, and before they head back to the firehouse, the firefighters venture the hawk was just making a meal of a small mammal.
Unsafe for operation
Capt. Chris Owens makes a full assessment of the rig, which is already a replacement vehicle while their primary engine is down for maintenance. The pump panel visibly has been repaired at least once before, with timber beams shoring up part of it. Owens deems it unsafe for operation, and radios to dispatch to take it out of service.
The station's light rescue is out of service this weekend, as well. That leaves the crew one rescue ladder, which holds a four man crew, and one “chief's car,” which carries the battalion chief and her driver.
The on-call mechanic for the fire department is phoned, and he heads to the city so the crew can forage the fire department vehicle lot for an acceptable substitute.
It's just after 1 p.m. when they get to the yard. They take their pick, and after a few tries, get the motor of old Engine 30 to crank up.
That's the easy part.
The empty internal water tank has to be filled, and the aerial boom lifted and tested. All the lights and sirens on the vehicle are checked.
Everything of use or value has to be removed from the old engine and transferred to the replacement. That includes all the tools, nozzles, medical supplies, foam buckets, ladders, back boards, and roughly 2,000 feet of hose.
A fire engine weighs roughly 42,000 pounds dry. Tools and water add an extra 4,000 pounds. Adding that extra weight with four firefighters' eight hands takes about two hours.
The replacement engine makes it about two miles down the road before the motor starts getting dangerously hot. On a warm September day, the blasting heater inside the cab doesn't make the trip back to the vehicle lot any more pleasant.
The on-duty mechanic uses the engine's hydraulics to pitch the cab up and over to reveal the motor's workings beneath it. The clutch fan isn't coming on as it should in the replacement, but the mechanic rigs it so that it turns on and stays on when the engine is started.
The crew says a few words of relief when they realize they won't have to unpack and load onto a third rig that day.
They make it back to the firehouse just in time for a treat: catered Mexican from a local restaurant a couple miles from the station.
Meal time is when the spirit of the fire station shines through. The full table becomes a revolving roast where everyone takes turns in the hot seat. Stories are swapped and humorous anecdotes about crew members who have taken the day off are also fair game.
Some of the banter is wittier than other ribbing, but all of it is in good fun even if it's not always good, clean fun.
No one is spared, and the zingers fly up and down the rank structure, including some good give-and-take from the station's chief officer, Battalion Chief Cathy Hayes.
Hayes, the first female battalion chief in the department's history, has had 20 years of firefighting experience to hone her punchlines and zingers.
A California native and former softball player, Hayes came to the department after finishing college at Oklahoma City University. Deciding whether or not to return to the west coast and recalling her experience with fire departments at home, a friend convinced her to apply.
“They don't change the standard for women and men. The hiring process, everybody has to do the same exact thing. In recruit school, everyone has to do the same exact thing. Out here, if we're promoting, everyone has to do the same exact thing. They have to do the same amount of pullups as the guys. There's no way around it,” Hayes said.
Hayes said she's gotten no push back since becoming a district officer 16 months ago, but in two decades on the job, she's had to prove herself and take more than her share of flack.
“I'm sure there are still issues with some folks. I've run into issues as an officer, not as a district officer, but as a company officer, with men who we'd have to kind of butt heads a little bit, but I'd say, ‘Well, I'm your boss. I don't know what to tell you,'” Hayes said.
“If you put your mind to it and work hard, you'll reap the rewards. I try to emphasize that it was mostly men who trained me. It was mostly men that showed me this job, so without them, I wouldn't be here. I had some really good officers, and really good firefighters — men — that I worked with,” Hayes said.
“I try to show respect and I've had some fantastic officers who showed me how to be an officer. If it weren't for those guys, I probably wouldn't have made it or stuck it out,” she said.
Hayes' right-hand man is Lt. Bill Godfrey, who said he tested specifically to become her driver.
“When she made chief, she brought me all of her study material and told me, ‘You don't have a choice now,'” Godfrey said.
The two met when Godfrey had about a year on with the fire department. They worked together at a previous station and Godfrey had even helped insulate her house while off duty years ago.
“We have fun together. I trust him. There are a lot of things, personnel wise, dealing with personalities and people, especially guys. We do have a few women in my district, but the stuff that needs to be handled behind closed doors, we talk about it,” Hayes said.
“I know I can tell him my feelings and he'll listen and give me his two cents worth and we'll discuss. But then again, it doesn't matter, because I'm the boss,” Hayes laughs.
“It's a good dynamic. I think with this position, you want somebody you can trust and confide in and bounce ideas off and they can tell you, ‘Hey, that's stupid or that's a good idea.' We help each other out. It's not a my way or the highway kind of thing,” she said.
Like sports team
Godfrey compares firefighter crews and companies to a sports team.
“You have the goofing off that happens in any team environment. And then there's trying to ruffle feathers of your fellow workers and stuff just for fun, and they do it back it you. It's a give and take. But then you train really hard,” he said.
“When it's time to play, you want to win. Winning's a little different in this, but we train to be perfect. We can't be perfect because we have absolutely no idea what we're getting when the lights kick on, Godfrey said. “We're not on a baseball field or a football field or a soccer field. We have no idea. They turn the lights on because we're supposed to go make something better. You can't train for all of it, but we try.”
After dinner, the station phone rings. The recruit shoves firefighter Ryan Flores onto a recliner so he can grab the station's ringing phone from its cradle. That's the “new boy's” job, after all.
“It's so dynamic. You get a good group of people together that work well together and have fun together. But it's a family, and there are going to be times, when people, just like if you have brothers and sisters, it gets like that,” Hayes said. “But you take the adult road, we sit down and talk about it and work things out. We've been really blessed that we haven't really had those kinds of situations in this district.”
There is no such thing as procrastination on a firehouse shift, and any complaints are lodged inside firefighters' heads, immediately springing into action in whatever direction they're commanded.
‘Best job in the world'
The phrase “best job in the world” is the phrase firefighters use most often when describing their careers.
“I work for the citizens. They're the ones that pay for this, and they're the ones we take care of, and in return, they take care of us with taxes and all. I've got to take care of my customers. That's how I look at it. When the lights kick on, it's customer service time,” Hayes said.
And the next customer of the shift is a 4-year-old girl who stuck a key into an electrical outlet and got a nasty shock, it's all “yes, sir” and “no, ma'am” to the adults on scene and a slow, simple and sweet cadence to the little girl and her brother, who seem more upset by the crew of strangers than the zap.
The mother and her two children have just moved into the apartment complex, she tells firefighters, who check the outlet and test the smoke alarm while their colleagues attend to the little girl.
A half-dozen fire alarms with 10-year batteries were some of the items tossed from one engine cab to its replacement this afternoon, and one of them goes into the apartment's hallway.
The complex office told the mother that the smoke alarm was working, but Flores and Howell discover that the battery is dead. By the time paramedics arrive to take the little girl to the hospital, the old alarm has been replaced.
Heading back to the station from that call, they get another call at a nearby complex involving a hurt little girl. This time, a large picture tube television has fallen onto the stomach of a 3-year-old girl.
The girl is groaning and crying in a woman's arms upon arrival, but appears to have recovered somewhat by the time another paramedic crew arrives at this complex. A swarm of police officers are arriving as the girl is loaded into the ambulance, but the firefighters don't stick around for the report. Their job as first responders is done.
While their shift will continue another 12 hours, action at the firehouse starts to wind down around dark.
But it's the University of Oklahoma players who go largely ignored this time, even after several firefighting Sooner fans make an “executive decision” to spring for the pay-per-view on the station's television.
‘Fire problem' exercise
Hayes and other officers, including two captains visiting from other stations, take over the table, setting up a “fire problem” for Maj. Russell Huffman, who is set to take the chief's test the following week.
There are numerous applicants, but only one job slot. Competition is fierce, especially nearing the zeniths of the fire department's rank structure.
The fire problem consists of being read a set of circumstances for an imagined call. Huffman has 10 minutes to complete all the necessary steps required of the incident, which includes two trapped fire victims in a third-floor apartment, three unconscious victims outside the building and a crash involving a fire department vehicle en route to the fire.
Huffman blazes through the problem, deftly handling each situation as the incident mounts in intensity and assigning numerous companies to the varied tasks. He has nearly reached the end of his commands when time is called.
A roundtable review of his performance follows with added commentary from Hayes. He's done rather well, but with such staunch opposition, every little pointer works to edge him ahead of the competition.
The rest of the evening goes calmly, playing catch-up on the day's college football and socializing.
It's just about time for bed when the fire alarm tone comes across the house speakers and activates the station lights.
This time, it's the engine and rescue ladder crews that stay behind while Hayes and Godfrey bolt from the station and to their pickup with a camper shell, known inside the department as a “chief's car.”
Godfrey hits the gas during the long, open stretches of the road, speedily making their way toward Meridian Avenue, just north of NW 39. Most drivers get out of the way well in advance. He reigns in his speed and activates the rumbler siren when he gains on an oblivious civilian driver, and again when another does the wrong thing and veers left through traffic lanes and off the road instead of pulling to the right.
Hayes doesn't even look up from the pickup's onboard laptop until they're within half a mile of the fire, instead listening to her assignment over the radio and reading the call comments.
Godfrey parks the vehicle outside a storage facility's gates next door, and it takes them about 30 seconds to get into their firefighting, or “bunker,” gear, before charging through the complex and into an apartment building billowing smoke from its second floor.
The second chief on the scene, Hayes is assigned the roles of the “safety officer,” which broadly means that she is in charge of keeping firefighters safe. Godfrey's role is to “pull the utilities,” or cut water, electricity and gas if necessary from the fire building.
The fire is quickly extinguished, the culprit being a hot water heater. Whether the heater itself caused the fire, or materials around the tank caught fire is not immediately determined. And, as safety officer, neither is it Hayes' concern.
She steps from the building reeking of scorched materials and charged with adrenaline. Nobody was hurt in the blaze and the flames were quickly contained. Hayes speaks energetically and is almost giddy when she leaves the fire ground. Godfrey's normally calm demeanor is also taken up a few notches.
This is the job they're paid to do, and they obviously love doing it.
“I love fighting fires. I like being on the back of the rig. I was the senior guy, so I had the nozzle. And that's why I stayed there for so long,” Godfrey said.
With no hose to pack up or tools to put away, they're ready to leave the fire scene within an hour of arrival. But a smoke investigation call near NW 23 and MacArthur catches their eyes and ears driving back, so they assign themselves — and their noses — to it.
Wheeling slowly through a nearby apartment complex with windows down and noses in the air, they both decide what they smell is food being cooked over burning wood, which has a decidedly different smell than burning building or synthetic materials found in modern furniture.
“I've got to be careful using this term, but we're aggressive. When we were all at 11's together, we wanted to go fight fire and we were aggressive about it. So they make fun of us here. We get in the car if 24's or one of our other stations gets a smoke investigation, we'll get in the car and start easing that way, and they'll say, ‘Oh, you all are going hunting,' “ Godfrey said.
The adrenaline wearing off, they reluctantly head back to the station, leaving the contaminated bunker gear in the rig room and heading off for quick showers before bed.
The night goes quietly, with only one call for service. An assault, and paramedics are already on scene when firefighters arrive, so they're returned to their bunks for the night.
It's dawn on Sept. 11, and the blue shift watches anniversary footage of their brethren from New York, swapping remembrances of that morning before tagging out with the red shift so they can start their watch on the 15th anniversary.
Staff Writer Matt Dinger accompanied Oklahoma City Fire Station 31's blue shift from 7 a.m. on Sept. 10 to 7 a.m. on Sept. 11. Photographs by Steve Gooch were taken Sept. 28.