How I Spent My Spring Break

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What follows is the report I had to write for my fire fighting class regarding the ride along I took with the Cedar Rapids Fire Department last Friday. I like the outfit in the picture so much, I’ve started wearing it to work!

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On Friday, March 21st, 2014, I reported to the Cedar Rapids Central Fire Station at 8:00 am. The fire station is new and state of the art. The facility looks sharp, with a modern kitchen, a weight room and a workout room. Large flat screen televisions and fire helmets cover the walls of the living areas and hallways. The center piece is the large staging area where the apparatus are kept.

I was greeted by a busy crew preparing for their day. Two things were going on: breakfast and getting their blood drawn. The crew eat breakfast and lunch together, although they prepare their own individual meals. Dinner is usually a group affair, and today the drivers of the rescue truck were preparing fish for Lent. The blood work was part of the emphasis on keeping the fire fighters safe and healthy.

On duty was a sizeable crew, all male, although there was a female intern, Jessica, who is finishing her degree, and works with all the shifts. There are three shifts that work at the Central Fire Station, and each shift is 24 hours on and 48 hours off, the classic textbook schedule that we read about for paid departments. While I didn’t catch the names of all the crew, I caught enough of them to be able to talk cogently about our activities.

The first fire fighter to help me out was Captain Matt Woerner. Matt sat down and talked to me about work schedules, shifts, and benefits. He was also responsible for making sure that Captain Joel Miles had me sign off on the paper work for the city. Around the table, the fire fighters introduced themselves: Chief Andy Oleson, Captain Matt Woerner, Probationary Fire Fighter Lucas Kennedy, Brad Cowden, Josh, Jensen, Jessica Miller, and Loren Corrigan. Mike, the driver of the truck also made a brief appearance, although I didn’t meet him until later. I also met Mick Wightman, who was subbing that day at Central. It turns out I know his wife, who works at Kirkwood.

While breakfast was being served, I took the opportunity to ask Probationary Fire Fighter Kennedy some questions. Lucas filled me in on what it’s like to be a probationary fire fighter. “Imagine,” he said, “that you’ve met the girl of your dreams, and she’s finally said that she’s going to marry you. Then imagine that you have to spend the next year or two convincing her 120 older brothers that you are the right man for her.” Lucas essentially is the first to come and the last to leave. He cleans up after all the other fire fighters. He gives most of the community tours and basically is the man who does whatever needs doing that the others don’t do. Lucas also has a training regimen that he must keep practicing until he is cleared to be a fully-fledged fire fighter in September. A short man, Lucas takes a lot of ribbing about his height.

I found not only Lucas’s background interesting, but also that of many of his fellow fire fighters. Lucas was in a volunteer service for 7 years. Then he lived in a fire station in Iowa City for 2 years on call. Finally, he landed his job in Cedar Rapids. Matt went to Iowa State, worked in a bank, and decided that fire fighting was more interesting. Loren has a degree in biology. Brad spent two years as a cop. This is a group of people who are all pulled together by their desire to serve the public and help others.

After breakfast, the crew had things to do. Josh Jensen took me on a tour of the apparatus. No sooner had we started talking about the engine than we were off on our first call of the day. Since the engine was not summoned, I was allowed to go on the truck. There was a fire at Chik-Fil-A at Westdale Mall.

On the truck, we had to use headsets to communicate. This was my first ride ever on a fire truck. It was rocky and the shocks and potholes made the seatbelts entirely necessary. We arrived at the mall, and the fire was already out. Lucky for Chik-Fil-A. On the way back, we refueled, and Mike and Matt filled me in that the truck was about to be replaced. It was a Pierce from 1997, and it had many mechanical gremlins in it: electrical shorts and malfunctions that made it perform imperfectly. The truck had an aerial platform which had a nozzle, which can shoot 1200 gallons of water in a minute. It is used for ventilation and search and rescue.

Upon our return to the fire station, I hooked back up with Josh and we finished our tour. We looked at the engine, and talked about foam versus water. I had no idea that detergent made water stick better, and that foam worked on the same principle. We looked at different types and sizes of hoses, and talked about the pumper. The central engine holds 750 gallons of water and has 25 gallon foam tanks. It was a class A engine made by Pierce, which is apparently the manufacturer Cedar Rapids gets the majority of its equipment from. It is a 2008. One of the most interesting pieces of equipment for me was the Haligan, that crowbar and metal pick combo that is good for breaking and entering. I saw one paired as a married couple with an axe.

Next on the tour was the highly versatile quint. It has a 75 foot ladder and is more nimble than the truck. We also talked about the rescue truck, which is dispatched for car accident and high angle rescue. Most of the departments specialized rescue equipment is in the rescue truck, including spreaders, cutters, and hydraulic equipment. The rescue truck can do some water rescue as well as high angle rescue due to its rope equipment. Also in the rescue truck is an air filtration system and spare air tanks.

The Cedar Rapids Fire Department has a surprising amount of special equipment as well. Josh showed me the hazmat trailer, which looks like a nerve center that could handle any chemical spill. I was surprised at the water rescue equipment that was available—at least three boats at Central alone.

After the tour, Josh answered my questions about the system of promotion. Once a probationary fire fighter became a fire fighter, promotions were pretty much via three routes: education, testing, and service. In order to be eligible to be a captain, a fire fighter had to meet a combination of education and experience, either 5 years of service, if the fire fighter had a Bachelors degree, coupled with a fire certificate. A fire fighter without a Bachelors degree needed 18 years of service. If a fire fighter is interested in becoming a captain, he takes a test to become eligible for advancement and new captains are awarded available positions once they are on that list. The test is valid for two years, and the chief chooses new captains. Captains who wish to become chiefs go through a similar process.

Over lunch, there was a brief update on the situation in Cedar Rapids regarding Jesus on the bucket of the truck. Apparently, since the Civil Liberties Union has become involved, something must be done. While several options were thrown out, what is being looked at is just getting rid of the image. Stay tuned, citizens of Cedar Rapids.

After lunch, Jessica and Lucas helped me try on some turnout gear and get harnessed in an SCBA. I found out that fire fighters must work out for an hour each day they are on duty. Now I know why. The turn out suit is heavy and the SCBA makes it even heavier. I felt like I could barely move, or like I was taking a moon walk. As you get used to the ensemble, it’s less intense, but I decided to try reach upwards with it, and crawling around in it. Wearing that in a burning building could be a real challenge. An SCBA has a limited 20-minute air supply under good conditions, so a fire fighter’s cardio must be topnotch as well.

It was a slow day. I experienced two more calls in the engine, both EMS calls. We were backup to both the police and the ambulance service when a suicidal drunk hyperventilated. Brad was particularly compassionate on this call, listening to the worried man and hugging him. I asked Brad if fire fighters had special training in this arena. He told me that this was compassion, and he was pretty much going with his instincts. We helped a diabetic woman at Wolf Eye Clinic, although she was mostly fine because of the interaction with medical and paramedic staff. Joel, captain on these runs, let me know that if fire fighters give primary care, a report can take up to 10 minutes to file, but if we give assisted care to paramedics, the report takes about six minutes.

At the end of our day, some of the business people of Cedar Rapids were coming to see the new station, so all the fire fighters had to dress up in their uniform shirts. Some of the visitors took rides in the engines and others went up in the aerial platform. The fire fighters took their jobs as representatives of the city of Cedar Rapids very seriously, carrying themselves with professionalism and decorum. Unfortunately, it was this tour that kept me from saying good bye to the fire fighters, as they were still in the middle of things when it was time for me to leave.

Overall, I was very impressed. I thought that the fire fighters showed a commitment to public safety and representing the city well. They were an interesting battalion, their backgrounds diverse, their personalities serious, but not too serious. I tried to boil this experience into two pages, but there was just no way. I could probably have gone on for another ten. If you have a chance to thank these fine men for me, or even if you want to share this report, I would appreciate it. I learned so much. It was great to see the things we’ve been reading and talking about in action, and this teacher appreciates the opportunity to have been taught so well.

Author: Catherine Schaff-Stump

Catherine Schaff-Stump writes fiction for children and young adults. Her most recent book, The Vessel of Ra, is the first book in the Klaereon Scroll series. She is currently working on its sequel, as well as penning the middle grade adventures of Abigail Rath, monster hunter.

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