As an RA, I oversaw countless fire drills in my four years at Ithaca College as well as endless safety sessions on candles and surge protectors. Not to mention the mattresses of my residents are all fire-proof.
All these measures had reduced the firefighting role of the South Hill station and its staff over time. Protocols and fire detectors had boiled down the station’s truck, engine three, into to a glorified first aid kit. Each day, two firefighters wait patiently in the quiet stillness of a near empty station, waiting for someone to burn their popcorn.
False alarms accounted for 1,295 of incidents responded to by the Ithaca Fire Department. With Ithaca College’s false alarms increasing from 76 to 81 from 2016 to 2017 according to the fire department’s annual report, I had to get a look at how these community members spent their days.
The red-brick South Hill fire station, known as “three,” sits quietly road-side of Ithaca College’s softball field with one of the garage doors drawn up. Four vehicles and a large white trailer rest in the garage, emblazoned with the Ithaca Fire Department icon on the front and sides.
Walking out of the garage are two firemen. Both are tall and tired, eyes red from a long night spent listening to the dispatch radio and watching television to fight off boredom. They walk past with a quiet “good morning” as I make my way into the fire station.
I quickly spot Dan, the senior fireman on this shift.
He looks at me perplexed and asks, “Can I help you?”
“I’m here for a ride along,” I said. “My paperwork should have been sent earlier this week.”
He purses his lips and thinks for a moment.
“Sure,” he says finally, shrugging with his hands on his hips.
By now, his shift partner joins us and we all shake hands next to the enormous, shining fire truck.
Dan takes me on a tour of the fire house. First we pass from the garage into a set of hallways lined with framed maps of the local area; these take us to the living room which has two desks, a television and a pair of comfortable recliners.
“Over there is the kitchen,” Dan points to a small room off to the side. We exit into a hallway. “The two exercise rooms and bathrooms are right in this hallway. We have nine rooms, but these days there’s only two people per shift.”
He tells me that the South Hill station used to have nine firefighters in residence. The central station downtown could house more than three times that number, but now in a room meant for nearly a dozen, only two cots are dressed.
“Has that made things harder?” I asked. “Going from nine to two?”
“We have just the number of people we need, sometimes less than that,” Dan says. “I guess that’s about it for the building. It doesn’t do anything interesting.”
I climb onto the roof of the truck to check the water supply with the new recruit while he points out the hoses, splitters and the primary intakes for the foam and water containers.
The new guy tells me he was in training to be a police officer but partway through the academy he changed plans and signed up to be a firefighter.
“I used to work at a body shop and I think they wanted someone who knows how to work machines,” he says
Dan mentioned something like this earlier when we had talked about required skills for firefighters, that the city would rather you knew how to shut off an overflowing toilet than how to put out a fire.
“All the fireman stuff you learn on the job,” Dan says. “But I’ll admit it takes guts, that’s one thing they can’t teach you.”
We climb down from the truck using a built-in collapsible ladder. The public address system crackles: the CO2 alarm in a Terraces dorm has gone off. We all jump into the truck. Dan and his partner don their full suits: mustard yellow jackets, black boots, fireproof hoods and helmets. The behemoth roars to life and a few tons of steel and water pull out of the garage.
Environmental Health and Safety personnel have already arrived before we got there. After checking several floors with an electronic nose, a small black box which detects hazardous particulates in the air, we pack up and leave. The solution is to open windows. There is no crisis; it is simply the first call of the day. In less than 30 minutes, we are back at the station.
“You’re not likely to see a fire today,” Dan says. “But you’re sure to see some burned popcorn,” he laughs.
I get a feeling of how the day is going to play out. Calls are going to come in and the big, expensive firetruck is going to speed down the road to pull kittens out of trees. Engine three is called to action four or five times that day, but rarely are there ever any flames or jets of water.
As we return from our third call of the day, from some kid who bumped his head without even a visible bruise to mark the event, Dan mutters, “I know we all have to be here in case the worst happened, but do they really need all of us?”
His partner and I agreed. Four different groups of personnel responded to this issue: Environmental Health & Safety, Campus police, Bangs Ambulance Service and the IFD. Nine people in total responded to this call and not even a Band-aid was handed out.
The South Hill station is not dedicated solely to the needs of the college. Like the other IFD stations in the area, it could be called to action anywhere central dispatch directs them to.
Around noon, Dan sends his partner out to do a driving check of the special operations bus, his opportunity to drive to a nearby gas station to grab a soda and a candy bar. The bus is meant to shelter people in the event of a rural fire that leaves the victims exposed to the elements. Needless to say, the vehicle grabs a fair amount of attention idling in the gas station parking lot.
By now, the thermometer is creeping into the high 80s, and all the vehicles and equipment have been inspected. Dan is making a checklist for the next five hours of the shift.
We go down to the downtown station, “central,” where the dense and aromatic smell of pasta sauce signals a hot and delicious lunch and take a few orders from the fire chief. Central is a two-story, concrete structure with three fire trucks in the garage along with a fleet of specialized vehicles. As Dan gives me a tour of the central garage he stops behind the newest and shiniest truck.
“Engine one, this is the one the chief drives,” he says.
The current truck at the South Hill station, engine three, has to be switched out for engine number five, according to Dan something does not feel right during acceleration and it is about due for a check-up.
Both engines are driven to the municipal vehicle depot off of Route 13 just before the exit to Stewart Park. City of Ithaca vehicles are spread throughout the compound; cop cars and pickup trucks bake in the heavy sun while Dan and his partner trade equipment between the two massive trucks. With the trading completed, Dan hands the keys over to one of the compound’s mechanics while the three of us jump into engine five and head back to the station.
After idling for a few hours, the next shift crew arrives, just in time to receive a call about a suspicious package left outside of Planned Parenthood. For Dan and his new partner, however, the day is over. After helping to hitch the HAZMAT trailer to a powerful V8 fire department pickup, they check their personal equipment into lockers. The new recruit has additional training tomorrow and Dan is heading off to his second job. An average week is four days on and three days off, and today was the first day on.