Firefighters work in good company
RIFLE – The tone sounds like a super-sized buzzing alarm clock, not the unpleasant ringing bell like an old telephone, but still abrasive enough to wake you from a deep sleep. Over the radio crackles a voice that says two words – “Rifle…Fire.”That’s when they know. Time to work.Rifle Fire Protection District (RFPD) Shift Lt. Fred Glammeyer rushes down from the upstairs living quarters while engineer Dan Flinn drops down the firehouse pole. The two meet the rest of the crew – four other firefighters – in a massive garage. Within seconds, four firefighters buckle into a fire engine and await the next call from dispatch to see if it’s a go.Flinn sits ready behind the wheel for Rifle Engine Company 4111. The oversized garage door rises. Glammeyer listens to the radio for further details from dispatch. The last word was that a structure near Rulison is burning.They wait.An approximate location comes over the radio.”That’s Parachute,” Flinn says to Glammeyer.In the back seats of the large fire engine, firefighters Rob Willits and Leif Sackett wait for the call. Sackett scrambles to put on his boots and fire-resistant pants. Willits sits still, in full gear, strapped into the seat like an astronaut ready to take the ride of his life.”It’s Parachute,” Willits says to Sackett.”What?” he replies.”It’s Parachute,” Willits says again.Sackett continues to gear up for the call while Willits sits calmly and quietly, almost expressionless. Waiting.Firefighter Jarrod “JROD” Merriam and volunteer Tom Gregory approach the engine in full gear.”We going?” JROD asked Glammeyer.
“You guys stick around, we’re going for a ride,” Glammeyer said.Flinn hits the gas.With engine, lights and sirens at full throttle, the fire engine lurches forward like a big red beast from its den.The sheer size of the engine and the amount of noise it produces requires the firefighters to use headphones like a coaching staff on the sidelines of a game. As Flinn navigates the engine down a stretch of Highway 6 west of Rifle, Willits calmly watches the passing scenery. Sackett, now in full gear, is antsy and can’t keep still, anticipating what awaits the crew.What awaits isn’t too exciting.At the scene, a pile of scrap wood burns. No structure threatened. Glammeyer exits the engine to speak with the parties involved.Willits sums up the scene. “That’s why you don’t get excited. We’re all dressed up and nowhere to go.”
Fighting fires isn’t as it’s portrayed in moves like “Backdraft,” according to JROD. He’s not a fan of the 1991 movie starring Kurt Russell.”That was the biggest piece of crap movie,” he said.Just a few weeks earlier, Rifle Engine Company 4111 was “first responder” to the house fire in Silt Mesa that destroyed the home of the Murdock family. JROD recalled what it was like going into that structure full of flames.”It was hot and it was dark,” he said. “You couldn’t see anything in front of you.”In a live fire JROD said that it can be an eerie quiet. Sound doesn’t travel well through the smoke particles. It can be almost serene, he said. Inside, sound is muffled and sight limited. It’s easy to become disoriented.”Ninety percent of the time it’s the coolest job in the world,” Gregory said. “The other 10 percent, it’s the most terrifying job in the world.”But going into the fire these guys remember one thing – it’s always safety first. But sometimes they have to push caution aside in order to save another.Willits said in most cases there will be two crews; one searching for victims and the other attacking the fire. If there is only one crew, they go after the victims first and wait for another crew to begin extinguishing the fire.”There is a point when you have to ask yourself, ‘Could anyone be alive in there?'” Willits said. In his cool manner he answered his question.”Typically, we’ll take the risk,” he said.One unique aspect of the RFPD is that every person is trained to do every job. JROD said that in other companies, as in some larger cities, a firefighter may have just one specific job.Each seat in the engine company has a specific duty. Upon arrival, the operation breaks down like this:• The engineer, Flinn, would be in charge of water and running the pump after getting the crew safely to its destination. The engine is basically a big water pump, and the engineer keeps the water flowing.• Lt. Glammeyer, riding shotgun, is in command. He’s the head coach calling the plays. When he speaks, the rest of the crew listens.• Sackett and Willits, seated In the back, will be on the front lines of the battle. Sackett would be the guy facing the flames on the end of the nozzle, while Willits is in what they refer to as the “hydrant seat,” and his first priority would be to get a hose hooked up from the truck to the water supply, hydrant or otherwise. Then he would back up Sackett, who’s getting a face full of flames.”Every day you don’t know what you’re going to get when the tone goes off,” Willits said.Being in a structure that’s burning, filled from floor to ceiling with thick, choking smoke, breathing oxygen from a tank on your back and not being able to see what’s right in front of you, nothing is guaranteed. Knowing that you’ve got comrades around provides your only comfort.”You get to be a pretty tight-knit group,” Willits said. “You’ve got to know what the other person is going to do in any situation.”Counting on one another is the way it must work.
Firefighter Jennie Rowe sits at a desk in an office at the firehouse, tapping away on a computer. Everything in the small rectangular room has a place. On the computer screen is a picture of a house engulfed in flames.By definition a firefighter is a noun, “a person who extinguishes fires.” Rowe may have a slight variation to that definition. Besides extinguishing fires, she’s trained in water rescue, is a volunteer with the Lands End Fire Protection District near Palisade, the Mesa County Water Rescue Team and Delta County Search and Rescue. At RFPD, she is JROD’s counterpart as the training and billing assistant, but she is also an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) with extensive training in auto extraction. She’s seen her share of auto accidents.”There is a lot we see – death, destruction,” she said.There are times when the job is not just another day at the office. It’s a job she takes pride in.”Sometimes it’s a difficult job. I’ve cried on the scene, I’ve held patients on the scene and cried with them. I don’t want to change the tenderness in my heart. I want to see them through. I love doing it.”There are more good days at the station, she said, but some days are different.”When an infant or a child is involved, those are the really tough ones,” she said clasping her hands together. “The seriousness hangs over the department after a call like that.”Having been saved by firefighters herself was what made her see the good in the job. In a horrific crash, Rowe was hit and dragged by a vehicle, left on the road. Her fate was left up to who found her and how quickly she got help.She doesn’t remember anything about that accident and very little of the days that followed. What she does remember are the firefighters that helped her. That help made her want to help, too.”They’ve saved my life several times,” Rowe said. Then, the tone sounds again – “Rifle…Fire.”Rowe rushes from behind her desk to the garage to meet the others. This time it’s another department’s call. Rowe returns to her desk and the unexciting part of her job.”Dull moments, oh yeah,” Rowe said, a grin on her face. “The job is never dull, but there are mundane chores to do every day.”
Mundane chores include and are not limited to:• Each day the crew starts out by checking all the equipment and apparatus in the garage. It’s not unusual for the apparatus to be washed several times per week.• Filling out reports of calls tended to and other paperwork takes up a good part of the day.• Sleep is important but may be a luxury.”A lot of this job is preparing for the next call,” Glammeyer said. “You have to make sure that the equipment is ready when the tone sounds.”The crew takes the bad with the good, the rushing with the waiting, the car wrecks with the house fires.RFPD Fire Marshal Kevin Whelan said, “It’s easy to burn out in this business with all the stuff you see. You have to have fun to make it through the tough times.”And just like that, the tone sounds again.Nothing is ordinary. Nothing is routine.
“If we see you smoking we will assume you are on fire and take appropriate action,” reads a sign at the entrance of the Rifle Fire Protection District building.Fire department humor.Whelan said that life at the firehouse is pretty relaxed because most firefighters, in general, are really just big kids anyway.”When kids tell me they want to grow up and become firefighters, I tell them ‘that they can’t do both,'” he said.The firehouse is calm at 8:30 in the morning, just an hour and a half into the 24-hour work shift. Glammeyer, Flinn and Sackett prepare for the day in a large office with multiple work stations. Each computer screen has a fire picture, homes, wildland, something burning. A scene reminiscent of an odd fraternity house. But more than that, this place, this building of brick and stone, is a home. This crew, a family.The mundane chores keep the time passing until the tone sounds and the crew is out the door on a medical call.Upon return, the crew stops by the grocery store and collectively decides what to get for lunch. Sackett tosses some packages to Flinn about 10 feet away holding a hand basket.Back at the firehouse Glammeyer is upstairs preparing lunch in a large kitchen posh enough for a cooking show on PBS.The menu: Pork chops, some kind of chicken flavored pasta and spinach, and iced tea, soda or water for refreshment.Sackett and Gregory recline in two of seven chairs in front of a large entertainment center that is the focal point of the large living quarters. In the corner, a foosball table sits ready for a game. Behind the foosball table is a small gym with several pieces of equipment. Sleeping quarters house four single beds, all neatly made. Around here, sleep isn’t routine either.In front of a large window is a family-sized dark-wood dinner table.Over the intercom Glammeyer notifies the rest of the house, “Meat’s on.”The crew gathers around the table. They watch television while they eat, with sparse conversation.Glammeyer said that during the holidays, the crew’s other families come over to the firehouse for the holiday meal.”That way we get to spend time with our families,” he said. “The job’s pretty good about things like that.”Wives, husbands, kids, firefighters … one big happy family.The tone sounds. Time for work. They won’t know what to expect until they arrive.
Nothing ordinary. Nothing routine.Contact John Gardner: 945-8515, ext. email@example.comPost Independent, Glenwood Springs, Colorado CO
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