Firefighters in Owensboro and Daviess County work in 24-hour shifts. In the city, normally 30 firefighters are on duty each shift. After 12 weeks of academy training–or, 440 hours–the real job begins. Probationary firefighters in their first year are the “new guys,” according to Chief Steven Mitchell of Owensboro Fire Department.
“Life at the station is like family,” said Dakota Bratcher, a first-year firefighter. Bratcher works at Station 1–arguably the busiest fire station in the city. While Bratcher is currently at Station 1, first-years tend to rotate stations more often than the rest.
“We can go to any station,” said Bratcher. “We’re all floaters.”
As for consistency, this job is not for those who get too comfortable. Three different answers were given when asked to describe a normal day on the job:
“Some days are boom-boom-boom, some days come in spurts,” said OFD Fire Chief Steven Mitchell, who mainly resides at Station 1.
“We have different days,” said Dean Jenkins, six months into his first year, currently at Station 4. “It hits when you’re in the middle of something. I’ve had 22 calls in a day, I’ve zero in a day.”
“We don’t have any set break times,” said Bratcher. “We’re who you call.”
Chief Mitchell said the OFD gets 8,100 calls a year.
While about 80 percent of their runs are medical responses, recent fires in Owensboro have increased the number of runs made and, no matter where they are, OFD firefighters drop everything and go. Whether in a busy period or not, that’s the automatic impulse.
“You’ll have a bunch of fires in a row, and then you’ll have a period without any,” said Chief Mitchell, emphasizing the roller-coaster lifestyle of those who work for OFD.
The new guys said that, on multiple occasions, they’d been out with their crew for lunch, gotten a call, and had to leave immediately, their food left behind on a table.
About seven minutes into the interview at Station 1, an alarm rang through the building, and Bratcher’s crew went into action.
“That’s us,” said Bratcher. Within thirty seconds or less, the crew and Bratcher had dressed, boarded the firetruck and sped out of the station.
“Trucks hit the street 10,000 times a year,” said Chief Mitchell afterward. Based on statistics from OFD’s website, fires accounted for 4.7 percent and rescues/EMS account for 77 percent of OFD calls in 2017. All things considered, crews at OFD are frequent flyers.
In recent days, a national story broke about Verizon Wireless throttling data for firefighters battling wildfires in California, causing many of them to lose connection in some of the most dangerous circumstances possible. Firefighters are working against the largest fire on record in California, the Mendocino Complex Fire, which now exceeds 400,000 acres. Firefighters work 24-hour shifts like the OFD. One California firefighter determined he’d spent 292 nights away from his family in 2017.
The pressure for firefighters to, not only extinguish fires, but to serve as first responders in nearly every emergency requires quick and critical thinking, intense training, versatility and a compassion for others.
“We have to be in top physical shape,” said Bratcher. “We’re all trained EMT responders. We get trained for other things, like using forcible entry tools.” Bratcher described a situation where an elevator got stuck between two floors, and his crew had to use the tools to help people escape.
Firefighters in America are facing events unfathomable to most people, and on a daily basis. Because of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), repeated exposure to trauma (RET) and depression associated with the job, many firefighters are facing issues that often go unspoken, including a higher suicide rate than normal. In 2016, 103 American firefighters committed suicide as compared to 93 line-of-duty deaths. Because of the numbers, several federal and state organizations have put more focus on firefighter suicide prevention.
Lieutenant Trason Campbell works for the Daviess County Fire Department at the airport location, and he says there’s a definite need for firefighters to communicate about the experiences they’ve been through.
“I’ve been doing this for 15 years” said Campbell. “We’ve seen some stuff we’ll never forget. We can’t keep it in. We have to talk about it to each other.”
Campbell says crews at DCFD have seen the bad stuff together, witnessing it together. Taking the job home isn’t as healthy as having open dialogue between co-workers who have first-hand perspectives of the same situations.
As for Bratcher, he’s seen some things he’d rather not talk about, but in a general sense, some runs are more emotionally challenging than others.
“You have tough times,” Bratcher said of the job. “We go on bad runs. It could be somebody’s worst day, even if it’s not the worst call we’ve had. It’s somebody’s worst day a lot, and we’re there to serve and protect. That’s the job.”
“When I first started this job, the thought was ‘If I show weakness, that means I’m weak,’” said Campbell. “Holding it in is going to make it worse. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized I’m not invincible. Now, I check on my guys to see how they’re doing afterward, and I’ll check on them a couple of times.”
At Station 4, Jenkins was in the middle of describing the slower-than-usual day he’d had, when the same-sounding alarm from Station 1 started ringing, causing Jenkins and a fellow firefighter to react instantly.
“Sorry,” Jenkins said as he ran to get prepared, the interview having only lasted five minutes. Outside–again, in 30 seconds or less–an OFD fire truck pulled out of the station and onto the street toward its newest emergency, sirens and lights blaring through an otherwise quiet afternoon.