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CHFD – Far from “Vacation Station”

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By Emily Portner, on July 29, 2010

Ok, so I lied when I said the coolest thing I would do this summer was go to work at the beach. That was before I spent an entire 24-hour shift with the Chapel Hill Fire Department. I have always wondered what public safety officials do during their beats or shifts and now I can say that I’ve lived it… and boy what a different world it is.

My 24-hour shift started at 7am on Friday and ended at 7am on Saturday. I was informed by the Town’s Fire Chief before I went of what to bring. His list and directions included:

  1. Pajamas and a set of clothes (that’s right, I slept there too!) – remember that firefighters love to keep the station’s AC at sub-arctic levels
  2. Work out clothes and running shoes – if they work out, you work out
  3. Food – the station usually eats dinner together so bring your own lunch and dinner to prepare
  4. Towel and shower supplies
  5. Bedding for the fire bunk

I arrived at my shift at Station 1 (right next to Town Hall on MLK) uncertain of what to expect. Here I was, the Manager’s Intern, one of the “white shirts” (as I was informed means members of the administration) and I was invading their space. On top of that, I know absolutely nothing about fire rescue or emergency medical services (EMS). These guys are like a family, they spend more time together than apart and get to know everything about everyone. Being a firefighter is not only their job, but it is an essential part of who they are. So needless to say, I was definitely afraid of being the new guy on the outside.

That could not have been further from the case. Within a half-hour of my being there, I was taught how to slide down the fire pole without killing myself, tried on some new rain gear, and was teased for wearing jeans on one of the hottest days of the year. They took me in like I was one of their own and accepted me into their group. I understood instantly why so many people describe public safety departments as fraternal. There is something special about police and fire departments that binds these people together and makes them so passionate about their jobs that its almost inseparable from their identity. Even if it was only for a short time, I got to understand that feeling.

There’s a common perception that firefighters spend all day sitting on a couch, eating ice cream, and watching football. Yeah right, I wish.  Each firefighter is assigned a role for the shift period. There is a firefighter who is the supervisor of the shift, a driver, and then additional firefighters for support. I stayed busy all day, visiting all of the other stations, meeting all of the firefighters on that shift, learning the equipment they operate, and coming to understand how the organization responds to 911 calls.

The answer to that last piece is, “through organized chaos”.  When you’re at the station, the 911 dispatch is preceded by an uncommonly annoying tone that signals your attention. The dispatcher comes over the PA system and gives information regarding the type of call (fire response or EMS), and the location of the call. The Town’s 5 fire stations are located across town and are assigned to a certain area on the map grid. If the location of the 911 call is in your section of the grid, you’d better hope you’re not in the shower or have taken off your shoes because the truck will leave you behind. Station 1 is far from what the firefighters call “vacation stations”, or those stations that rarely ever get calls.

We responded to a number of 911 calls throughout my shift. It was exhilarating to get a call, slide down the pole, jump in the truck, turn on the sirens and the headset, and speed off to the location of a call where we were never exactly sure what we were going to find. Let me remind you, the CHFD does not operate on normal business hours. We were awoken from our sleep every time the dispatcher came over the system and had to be alert enough to discern whether or not we were responsible for responding to that call based on its location. So, there it was, 12, 3, and 5am and we’re jumping in the truck.

My experience with the CHFD was absolutely fascinating. It gives you a whole different perspective on the community, and on local government management. Especially in Chapel Hill, but in communities across the nation, the public safety functions of local governments are such huge parts of the community’s identity. Why else would Chapel Hill paint their fire truck’s Carolina blue? Because there is a recognition within the department and the community that the Town of Chapel Hill is a steward of public safety and an integral part of the community. There are so many emergency incidents that occur everyday and are handled by the CHFD that we never hear about. I learned so much about the Town and the way that local government can protect its citizens by investing in the appropriate public safety infrastructure and top-notch training. From my experience, the CHFD is far from running “vacation stations”.

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One Response to “CHFD – Far from “Vacation Station””

  1. Amy Strecker

    What a great experience!

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