Fighting Fire with Family
Sac Metro Fire Station 109 is a "Family Operation"
Carmichael, CA (MPG) - For the 27 members of Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District’s Station 109 in Carmichael, a typical day on the job most often includes everything but putting out a fire.
The reality, says Capt. Jeff Hickman who oversees a team of seven of firefighters and two EMTs comprising Station 109’s “B” shift, one of three shifts at the station, is much of the time a shift for his crew entails a regiment of equipment drills, practice runs, working out and lots of waiting.
If “The Truck” does get a call, says Hickman, it’s likely for a 9-11 medical emergency, which can range from a non-life threatening issue to a deadly roadside crash.
“I don’t know of any other job where you spend more time preparing than actually doing what it is you initially came to do,” says Capt. Hickman, 50, who launched his career at 27 as a firefighter at the American River Station in 1994. “We don’t want a fire of course, but on the other hand, that’s what we are trained to do. Put out fires.”
Make no mistake: the work is among the most dangerous, fire or no fire. As such, the hiring process is stringent. The training grueling.
Metro Fire formed in 2000 as the American River Fire and Sacramento County Fire Protection districts merged, creating the 7th largest department in California. Its 40-plus stations provide fire protection and emergency medical services to some 740,000 people across 358 square miles of unincorporated Sacramento County.
Metro Fire receives thousands of applicants to the training academy annually. If accepted, recruits spend roughly 20 weeks pushing themselves to their physical and mental limits, hoping to secure one of only a few open slots at one of 16 station houses.
Applicants must be 18 to enter the academy, and, due to the increased demand for emergency 9-11 service support, graduates must also be certified Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs). Paramedics in the academy have the edge.
“When I got here in 2003, I was the only paramedically trained firefighter in the house,” said Hickman. We now have two and the need for the training is significant.”
Initially, says Hickman, Engine 109 handled roughly 1,000 9-11 calls a month. Today, it’s about 4,500. As such, Metro Fire’s EMT services division has roughly 250 trained firefighter-paramedics on staff.
“Every firefighter has to at least be an EMT, and every truck has at least one paramedic on board,” said Hickman. “If you have paramedic training, that’s your foot in the door right there.”
Applicants begin with the Candidate Physical Ability Test (CPAT), involving a series of endurance and agility drills. According to Hickman, roughly nine out of 10 pass the CPAT, but that’s no guarantee they’ll graduate, as the academy training itself, he said, is CPAT on steroids, twenty weeks of it. There’s also a written exam.
“I think the academy dropout rate is about 25 percent,” Hickman said.
The Sit-down and The Probie
Academy grads must secure an interview for an open firefighter spot, provided there is one. According to Hickman, there are roughly five openings for every 3,000 applicants.
“If we have an opening, we’ll conduct what we call “The Sit-down,” said Hickman. “That’s where we meet with candidates and ask them why, out of 3,000 other applicants for the job we should hire them.”
Selected candidates begin with a year of probation, where their character and physical and mental skills will be scrutinized. It’s no time for resting on laurels.
“The Probie is under a microscope,” Hickman said. “We’ll test them extensively at every level. We can’t have someone in the house who is a liability rather than an asset.”
Metro Fire firefighters with paramedic training can expect a beginning monthly salary of roughly $5,300, and a full pension after 30 years of service. Shifts A, B and C at Station 109 run 48 hours on, 96 hours off. That’s two, 24-hour shifts, back to back.
“We work 10 shifts a month, and usually all night long,” says Hickman. “That’s the downside. You are always on duty when you are on your shift.”
Station 109 has 27 crew members, one is a female. Two EMTs handle the ambulance, while the rest of the crew run either The Truck or The Engine. The Truck is the brain and muscle of the operation, housing, among other things, a computerized “ER,” digital cameras, and a plethora of heavy duty tools and equipment, including extractors and the jaws of life, as well as the ladder. The Engine houses the hoses and the pump.
Station 109 is also a designated, Hazmat station. So if, for example, an abandoned barrel of liquid is found on the side of the freeway, crew members can assess its contents and advise on its safe removal. The Truck also has a full-functioning lab on board to analyze chemical and biological materials, as well as three computers and three wireless network.
“The Truck is not just a hose and ladder on wheels,” Hickman said. “You’d be surprised how self-contained it is. Even the ladder is inside the truck, not on top like everyone imagines.”
The Rush and the Risks
There are many reasons why firefighters love their work, including the blend of public service and adrenaline-pumping responsibility. But the risks, says Hickman, are high, and no firefighter gets around them.
“Firefighting is a rush like no other,” Hickman said. “But no firefighter can avoid getting injured in some way.”
Hickman said the biggest threat, aside from the obvious ones, is invisible. Cancer from long-term exposure to chemicals from burning furniture is a growing concern.
“It’s all made of vinyl, rubber and plastic now, and even though we have our protective suits on, we still get exposed to those chemicals inside. So cancer is our biggest concern.”
Stress and heart disease are also common, Hickman said, but not from smoking, as was the case some 20 years ago, but from the main attraction to the job itself: the adrenaline pumping.
“The stress from going from zero to 10 in 20 seconds is big,” said Hickman. “But it’s getting better. Thirty years ago, the average age a firefighter lived was about nine years past retirement, largely due to smoking and drinking and the job itself. Today, we have more awareness, we work out and eat healthier meals. So now it’s about 20 years past retirement.”
Station 109 is more than just a place of employment. It’s a second home, even if occupied by a revolving crew of adrenaline junkies. The furnishings are far from opulent. All crew members sleep in cubie-sized rooms on single beds, where bags are half-packed for quick end-of-shift exits. A large TV room with an army of blue recliners is the entertainment center, and there’s a makeshift gym in the truck bay.
Like most homes, the heart and soul of Station 109 is the kitchen, where crew members share three meals a shift together, jointly shopped for, cooked and consumed around a large, round wood dining table that Hickman built.
“When we sit down at this table, we call that ‘family time,’” said Hickman. “This is where we get to know each other. We spend a third of our lives here, so it’s a place for a family, and it is our house.”