Spending a day at the station with Fort Bragg's military firefighters
July 20, 2012
FORT BRAGG, N.C. - The apartment is pitch black. Dense smoke smothers what little light filters through the window blinds, betraying the bright day outside. The large living room seems small, the smoke so thick it can be felt through the heavy suit like water. The sweet smell of sweat fills the oxygen mask, and from somewhere in the dark, a siren is screeching -- another firefighter is in trouble.
Army Sgt. Jeremy Lorton, his flashlight cutting a beam through the haze, pushes through knocked over dressers and bedside tables toward the noise.
He is not alone; two more firefighters are at his side, fighting through the room toward their hurt comrade.
The group is conducting rapid intervention training, simulating a rescue of a trapped or injured firefighter. In today's scenario, a firefighter has fallen through the second floor of the burning apartment and is now impaled on a piece of rebar. Three groups of three firefighters take turns inside the simulated burning apartment, each group fulfilling their role: locating, stabilizing and removing the injured man. It is Lorton's job to reach him and assess his condition.
"Anytime there is a team inside of a building, there is a RIT team ready to go in to relieve them or rescue them. The RIT team is a backup tool and a lifeline that every firefighter who walks into a building knows they can count on," said Lorton, a military fireman who serves with 8th Ordnance Company, 189th Combat Sustainment Battalion, 82nd Sustainment Brigade.
The training fills Lorton's morning, which began at 6:45 a.m., the way every 24-hour shift at the firehouse does -- with roll call. Most weekdays, the firefighters spend their mornings conducting daily inspections of their gear and vehicles before shifting their focus to training.
"Training is one of the most important parts of what we do. You can't wait until there's a real fire or someone is really hurt to figure out how to react," said Lorton.
The RIT episode ends with the last team carrying the wounded man safety out a window. Only then can Lorton return with the rest of the crew to Station 1, the busiest of the seven stations on post, handling nearly 6,000 calls in 2011.
Once at the station, his truck, Rescue 1, is up for its daily wash.
Lorton and the other, on-shift, active-duty firefighter at the station, Spc. Kristina Gray, start washing the truck almost immediately. They have to work as a team if they want to accomplish the task.
It's a job that for the Soldiers, can often feel like pulling double duty, Assistant Fire Chief Patrick Davenport explains.
"The one thing every department runs short on is manpower. Having the extra people integrated into the stations is a huge benefit."
Just over 12 percent of the approximately 160-man, Fort Bragg Fire and Emergency Services Department are active-duty Soldiers.
But, about 9 out of 10 are military veterans, Davenport explains.
"Balancing the two sides is difficult sometimes," admits Lorton. "There are days that you get off a busy 24-hour shift and have to go into the unit for Army training.
"That's the rough side of the job," he said, "but the good outweighs the bad."
Once the truck is clean and pulled back into the bay, Lorton reheats catfish caught and fried the night before for lunch. He and the other firefighters on duty sit around two large tables talking and laughing about the training. In the dark, one of their buddies tripped and fell down a flight of stairs the instructors had laid a piece of plywood over to simulate a collapsed staircase.
"Once we knew he was okay, it was hilarious," said Lorton. "You have to be able to laugh about the little stuff in this job."
The crews form very close bonds with each other, Lorton explains, spending as much time together as with their Families.
"We work 24 hours on, 24 hours off," he said. "Seeing each other every other day -- on holidays, birthdays, we really do become extended Family."
Lunch ends and Lorton spends his time putting new rubber mats into a tool drawer on Rescue 1. Others turn sheets of plywood into a storage box for paperwork.
A summer storm brings torrential rainfall just before 2 p.m. and the first call of the day comes shortly after.
The tone sounds loudly in the bay and everyone stops to hear the call.
"Fire alarm activation, Irwin Elementary," a woman's voice echoes off the walls. "Engine 11, Rescue 1, Truck 10."
The crew drops what they are doing and runs for their gear and trucks. Sirens blaring, the trucks are flying down the street within 60 seconds of hearing the call.
Rain is still falling hard and fast when they arrive at the school a short time later. Engine 11 arrives first, leaving Lorton on standby to hear if his truck is needed. The alarm was caused by a lightning strike and is quickly turned off. Rescue 1 returns to the station without anyone getting out of the vehicle.
Within an hour, a second calls echoes from the loudspeakers, this time coming from a four-story barracks building. Again, the alarm was a result of the storm, so Rescue 1 returns to the station without incident.
Lorton resumes the drawer project, which includes devising a new foam storage area for two oxygen tanks and the station officer in charge comes over to look at it.
"I don't like it at all," says Capt. Nick Androlowicz, shaking the tanks that now lay separated by a foam neck brace and strapped down with Velcro tourniquets.
Proud of his handiwork, Lorton looks surprised. "What?"
"Rome wasn't built in a day," replies Androlowicz, smiling at the attempt that didn't quite work. "You don't know until you try."
Lorton shrugs and begins taking apart the improvised contraption. "It's just busy-work sometimes," he said. "Between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. we are gainfully employed. After that, we can relax and work on other things if we want."
By 5 p.m., the hard rain has become a drizzle and those who didn't bring food with them decide to order pizza for dinner.
Lorton orders separately from the group and then phones his wife.
Thirty minutes later, a slender, glowing brunette walks in, a blue T-shirt stretched tight across her pregnant belly. The pizza has already arrived, but Lorton chose to wait to eat with his wife.
"I try to come have dinner with him when I can," said Christina, who is nearly six months pregnant with the couple's first son.
The schedule can be hard sometimes, Christina confesses, so she enjoys spending extra time with her husband. But, as any good wife might, she still worries about him when he's working.
"It comes with the job," she admits. "It makes him happy, but it worries me too."
The TV show Cops plays in the background while they eat, until someone gets up to turn the baseball game on. Slowly, people filter out of the common room to sleep or watch movies. Some retire to sleep in their individual dorm-like bunkrooms.
Three calls come in throughout the night, pulling the firefighters from their calm. All in all, Lorton says, it was an unusually slow night.
As morning approaches and the sun begins to rise, station control is handed over to Bravo shift. Lorton's long day is over.
"We couldn't function as military firefighters without the (civilian stations)," he says."Being able to work at a station like this, we get the opportunity to mold ourselves into what best serves the military, especially when we deploy. We are very lucky, and it's an awesome opportunity that I think we're all grateful for."