Engine 24’s home away from home
February 25, 2014
When the red and blue lights flashed through my bedroom window, it did not take long for the blaring of the horn to follow.
Despite being woken up in my bedroom by the fire truck at 2 a.m. with Engine 24’s horn ringing through my head, it was then that I realized how much of a commitment it is to be a firefighter at Station Four of the Urbana Fire Department.
One day earlier, I walked into the firehouse’s bay, located at 1105 W. Gregory Dr. in Urbana, at 7 a.m. to see what the men described as “the changing of the guards” from the first to the second shift. Already getting the maroon truck ready, the firefighters were preparing themselves for the 24-hour shift.
For the next 10 hours, I would go on five total calls and be introduced to the lifestyle of a firefighter and the culture of the Urbana Fire Department’s Engine 24.
“It is a family,” said Lt. Keith Schafroth of the Urbana Fire Department. “Just like any other family, you have brothers and sisters, and, though you may not always get along with them, they’re family.”
With over a third of their lives spent away from their families, the men have missed countless basketball and softball games, concerts and Christmases.
“It takes a strong family to put up with it,” Schafroth said.
Even though they are away from their families, the men and women of Station Four do what they can to provide a home away from home.
While shadowing that day, I was able to see the dynamic of the family. They spend lunch around the house’s kitchen table, watching a fishing show on TV, as sandwiches and leftover meatloaf was consumed. I heard them share casual jokes, the strong bond between the men was close to that of brothers.
“If you can’t have fun at work, don’t go,” Schafroth said.
The fun began early that day, as the men teased me that most people who ride-along do not see any action. But the fear of the joke becoming a reality continued to cross my mind as the first two and a half hours of the shift were spent going over the do’s-and-don’ts of the day.
It was exhilarating when the Gamewell System finally began to blare.
The radio that had been strapped to my belt screeched, causing me to jump, but the men didn’t hesitate to react as I just tried to follow. I am not sure if it was human instinct or the countless years of fire drills, but I immediately began to run with the men toward the truck. Thirty seconds later, we were out of the garage, on the truck and on our way to the scene. The truck had a Block I logo on each side and a University of Illinois sticker on the windshield.
As I sat inside the truck behind the roaring engine, which was overpowering any sounds that weren’t through our headsets, the men glanced through the traffic for the best possible route to get to the scene. All the while, the driver dodged city buses, snow plows and students.
“When we have to go to a call that is in the heart of campus, depending on if it is passing period or not, it makes it a bit challenging because of all of the foot traffic,” said Phillip Edwards, fire marshal and formal engineer at the Urbana Fire Department, who was not on duty that day at Station Four. “Our sense of awareness is heightened because there is a greater chance of someone walking out in front of you because they are not paying as close of attention.”
The call was to the Early Child Development lab. Both Mike Jannusch, the firefighter on duty, and Schafroth stepped out of the truck to investigate the call, helmets in hand. Schafroth’s is red to show his ranking over the other two’s black helmets, but all three have a gold eagle perched on top.
We were there on the scene within three minutes — a minute earlier than the ideal four-to-six minute response time for a call, according to Edwards.
Though the call did not end up being anything too involved, we were quickly on the move again to back up another Urbana Fire Department Engine for a call at the Chemical and Life Sciences Lab.
As we sat in the truck waiting on further instruction from dispatch, the men described the remainder of the day.
Chores, a stop at the main Urbana fire station on Vine Street, a trip to County Market, lunch and more chores.
Each day, no matter who is on duty, Jannusch said that there is a typical regimen. On Mondays, the firefighters go around to buildings on campus and inspect for safety hazards and to familiarize themselves with the buildings.
On Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, the firefighters practice with live fire and tech training, something they wish they did not have to do.
“For what we train and what we do, a good day for me is a bad day for somebody else,” Schafroth said.
Fridays are filled with either inspections or inventory. But this Friday was filled with inventory.
As Jannusch and Schafroth cleaned the house and floors of the bay, the rest of the men ensured the truck was adequately packed for any type of call. One-thousand feet of five-inch hose, 400 feet of three- and two-and-a-half-inch hose, an emergency medical technician bag (not a needle out of place), a few additional air tanks and anything else they might possibly need on Engine 24.
With a few regular calls littered throughout the day and a trip to the firehouse on Vine, everything was beginning to slow down mid-afternoon. The men asked if I’d like to try wearing full firefighter gear.
I was soon weighed down in boots, the jacket with “Urbana FD” stitched across the back in highlighter yellow letters, pants and the black helmet, which sat heavy on my head until it ached. Then came the air pack, which typically weighs 17 to 20 pounds, according to the men at the house. After verifying that I was not claustrophobic, they slid the mask over my head to hide the majority of my face.
When my mask was finally sealed to the air tank that was perched on my hips, I finally understood why they wanted to make sure I was not claustrophobic. Within minutes, I was uncomfortable with my breathing and was sealed in by the black rubber edges of the mask, a terror some men cannot handle in a real fire.
“When we have all our gear including extra hose and everything, it is not uncommon to have an extra 80-100 pounds added on to our own body weight,” fire marshal Edwards said.
Smoke typically fogs the clear plastic of the mask, causing firefighters to feel more sealed in. It is something that some men can never get over in the academy.
But despite the combined 49 years of experience between the three men, the risk still remains. With an average 10 to 12 calls a shift and more than 5,000 calls received at the Urbana Fire Department last year, the men face a variety of risks within their house’s boundaries.
Station Four is the primary responder for the campus community south of Springfield Avenue, north of Windsor Road, west of Race Street and everything east from the railroads that cross Neil Street. The men face a variety of calls on a college campus, including ones involving emergency medical issues, alcohol, early morning hours and chemical leaks.
According to the International Association of Firefighters, the most common risks of being a firefighter include heart attacks, cancer, chronic respiratory disease, hepatitis and stress.
But with all of the risks of the job, the men stay humble. Though many men may go into the field for a variety of reasons, they all have one thing in common — the desire to help.
“I always liked helping people,” Jannusch said. “It is constantly doing something, there is always something to do all the time. There are never two days the same.”
But even with the anticipated high number of calls during severe weather and events such as Unofficial, Schafroth continued to say that “you can’t schedule emergencies” throughout the day. You never know what to expect.
This is why it was hard for me to feel anything but appreciation for the truck and the men inside, as I stood at my window watching them pull away from the scene down Daniel Street.
As the red and blue lights began to fade, leaving me with only the sight of the two Block I flags on the back of the truck, I was reminded of what Schafroth said to me early that day.
“The ultimate goal is to go home from where we came from tomorrow morning.”
Declan can be reached at [email protected]