Whatever heroic act a firefighter might engage in, he or she can be counted on to think of the task as routine. And Clearwaters firemen are no exception. Clearwater City employs 150 of the nations 305,000 firefighters. The department has grown to keep pace with the influx of residents. It now comprises six stations supporting two dozen engines and trucks, as well as boats for marine rescue.
ne thinks of a firefighter as someone who rides in a fire engine, wears special fire-retardant garb and, hose in hand, fights fires whenever and wherever they appear.
But the world has changed a lot over the last decade. Fires still make the news, but they have become fewer in number as prevention, such as sprinkler systems and inspection programs, have improved.
The saying goes that prevention is the best medicine, says Charlie Flowers, District Chief at the Clearwater Fire Department and a 22-year veteran in the field. The same is true in my business. Thats why we concentrate on preventative programs, public education and so on. But fires and emergencies do occur, and when they do we provide the very best service we can.
Flowers explains that today the emergencies handled by his department go beyond traditional incendiary concerns. We help in rescue situations both on land and in the water, he says. So many people are utilizing the waterways on the weekends, primarily over the winter season. Boats, swimmers, windsurfers, jet skis and inner tubes are crowding the waterways as much as cars do the roadways, and so accidents and injuries happen. In fact, they are on the increase.
Statistically speaking, jet skis were the biggest factor in accidents in Florida last year. When people dont really know the rules of the road or how to operate safely on the water, accidents can follow. Its really common sense to wear a personal flotation device, learn the rules of the road, show basic courtesy to others, understand the limitations of their craft and not drink and drive.
The law respecting driving under the influence applies as much on water as on the highways, and the Florida Marine Patrol is very active in enforcing the law, says Flowers. But, he adds, We are responding now to around 50 marine incidents a year, including surface water rescues, body and vehicle recoveries and evidence dives. Many more are reported to other agencies.
Hazards and rewards
Whatever heroic act a firefighter might engage in, he or she can be counted on to think of the task as routine. Yet more than one in four will be forced to take time off to recuperate from job-related injuries. On a day-to-day basis, explains Flowers, firefighters do one heck of a job and put themselves in precarious positions. We just had a call today a technical rescue on Indian Rocks Beach where an elevator repair man had become trapped in the elevator shaft between the elevator carriage itself and the wall. We got him out and hes fine.
Many of those water rescues now part of the firefighter repertoire are also hazardous. Our special dive team executes recovery operations under very poor conditions, including zero visibility, cold water, strong currents and stormy waters, says Flowers. Theyre crawling in and out of cars in automobile accidents, trying to extricate the injured and provide medical treatment, often under precarious conditions.
When they put out structure fires, the first thing on their mind is to search the building to make sure there is no one trapped inside. The primary concern is always for human lives. And although they do care about structure, they dont care about that nearly as much as they care about the victims.
Residential fires are statistically the most dangerous, partly because they occur the most frequently, but also because firefighters take them for granted. They are responsible for most injuries and deaths among firefighters.
Much of what a firefighter does today is oriented toward preserving life. We look on these actions as routine, but when you stop and think about it, firefighters are risking life and limb on a regular basis to get the job done, he adds.
A young but popular profession
A century ago, fire departments used to be locally organized bucket brigades: residents and merchants who formed a human chain from the nearest water supply to the fire. At the turn of the century, municipalities began forming professional fire departments.
In Clearwater, the department has grown to keep pace with the influx of residents. It now comprises six stations supporting two dozen engines and trucks, as well as boats for marine rescue. Although each municipality in Pinellas has its own fire brigade, they are all tied into one large system by the same communications network. It is not unusual to have several cities participating on one incident because of closest unit dispatching. The computer-enhanced 911 system (which automatically displays a callers address) knows where each fire truck or unit is and directs the closest available resource to handle an incident.
Clearwater City employs 150 of the nations 305,000 firefighters. They work a strange schedule, shared by three shifts. Each shift is on for 24 hours and then off 24 hours for six days straight, and then has four days off. It works out to a long work week but you wont hear many complaints. Some days, especially during the heat of the summer when they have to wear their heavy suits (called bunker gear), firefighters can lose five to ten pounds in body weight while working a fire mostly due to water loss due to dehydration and end the 24-hour shift completely exhausted. Other days, little happens at all during the 24-hour shift and most would be decidedly bored. But again, complaining isnt something you hear around the station house.
And when it comes to idling away an otherwise idle shift, there is the matter of those famous fire engines and the equipment they carry. They arent self-cleaning, says Flowers. It takes a lot of spit and polish maintenance to keep them in shape.
Firefighters start the day by checking the trucks from bumper to bumper. The last thing they want is to be in a burning house when the water flow comes to a sudden stop. Their equipment is their life, so they spend a good part of the day cleaning and servicing everything. They also have an intensive, continuing education program which includes medical and special rescue training, disaster preparedness and special technical training.
Much of what a firefighter does today is oriented toward preserving life. We look on these actions as routine, but when you stop and think about it, firefighters are risking life and limb on a regular basis to get the job done. District Chief Charlie Flowers
Then there is the fitness program which puts them through exercises part of the day. You have to be in good physical condition to break down locked doors, hold a bucking hose through which 200 gallons of water pass every minute, or carry an unconscious person through a burning building.
But if you think there is plenty of time left over for videos between calls ... youre in for some severe disappointment. Virtually the only videos watched are training programs. As soon as you would settle into the plot, the alarm sounds again, says Flowers. The same could frequently be said for meals. There are some good cooks in their ranks. But the running joke is that, almost without exception, as soon as the crew is beginning a good meal, the alarm will go off and food will grow cold around an empty table.
Still, you dont hear complaints. Firefighters enjoy their profession and being part of a team. To drive that point home, consider that the Clearwater Fire Department is about to hire eight new people to cover holes left by recent retirees but no ads will ever be placed, no notices that positions are open will ever be mailed. Already there are 260 applications on file from just the past year. Each of those applicants has already been trained as a certified paramedic and firefighter.
So eager are they to land these in-demand jobs that hopeful firefighters obtain all credentials before they even turn in applications. That means close to two years of schooling on top of two years of college where they earn associates degrees in emergency medicine, fire science or fire prevention and inspection. It will be tough choosing eight out of so many highly qualified applicants.
The result of these high standards is a tight-knit team of public-spirited and committed men and women, all of whom want to do what they are doing. The real rewards are in the thanks they receive from those they rescue. Its gratifying to help somebody when they really need it, explains Charlie Flowers. Some come in to the station afterwards to thank us personally. Others send cards and letters. It means an awful lot to firefighters.
Where are they rushing to now?
In 1997, the Clearwater Fire Department responded to 20,750 calls, or about 57 a day. Of these, 3,102 were automobile accidents, 978 were single engine responses, such as dumpster or car fires, and 838 were building fires of varying severity.
But the majority of calls two thirds of them were emergency medical calls: someone who has suffered a heart attack, for instance.
Sitting in the 911 center is an education, as one discovers just what prompts some people to dial 911. Some call because they have nightmares or need tooth extractions. One called in to have his stitches removed. Some even call 911 for the time.
These are not so hard to deal with as crank calls that have the firefighters rushing to an emergency only to find it is a hoax. It wears you out, especially at 2 a.m., says Flowers. Our job and our philosophy is to be available for emergencies. What upsets the firefighters when they respond to a crank call is that their unit was not available for a genuine emergency response. We dont mind if a person really feels they need us, even though it isnt really an emergency. We get there and help them out the best way we can.
Crank calls in Clearwater run fairly consistently at just under 7 percent of all calls. But with the volume of calls the Clearwater Fire Department responds to, that means they mobilize needlessly some 1,400 times a year.
As one of those rescued by firefighters put it, In an age where it is fashionable not to care about work or for your fellows, it is heartening to find so many who really do take pride in what they do and believe it their duty to help others.