Life Inside The Firehouse

By+Kelli Stopczynski

Think about people you see on a daily basis – neighbors, friends, co-workers – how much do you really know about them?  Who’s the best cook?  Which one snores the loudest?  Who can spout one-liners from any movie released in the last 30 years? 

OK, so maybe you don’t know them that well.  But chances are if you venture to a firehouse near you, you’ll find a group of co-workers and friends so close they consider themselves family.  And yep, they pretty much know everything about each other.  But they should – when they’re on shift, firefighters spend hours together at their home away from home.

A typical full time firefighter works 24 hours at one time and is assigned to “A-Shift”, “B-Shift” or “C-Shift”.  At some departments like Clay Fire Territory and South Bend, firefighters on one shift work three days out of five, then have four consecutive days off.  In Elkhart, they’re at work 24 hours then off 48.

 While they’re working, it’s not unusual for area firefighters to average anywhere from 3 to 13 calls per day.  But you might wonder what else they do, especially on a slow day.  Most firefighters will tell you the public’s perception of life at the firehouse is generally skewed.

“The fire department hasn’t done a very good job selling ourselves.  A lot of people think we sit around and do nothing all day,” said Elkhart Assistant Battalion Chief Brian BeMiller.

That couldn’t be further from the truth.  Shifts begin at 7:00 a.m.  At most departments, the men and women coming on duty have to be at work, ready to go by 6:45 so they can step in for the shift coming off duty if a call comes out right at 7:00.  Their first task of the day – going over trucks and checking to make sure all the necessary equipment is working.

From there, firefighters at some stations will grab breakfast.  Others might get started on their daily chores (cleaning bathrooms, mopping floors, etc.) or head to the in-house gym for a quick workout.  Keep in mind – they might get their first call before they even get a chance to think about their daily schedule.

Between calls, they don’t get much of a chance to kick back and relax.

“There’s always a lot to do,” said Clay Fire Territory Engineer Ken Miller.  “We train every day except holidays and Sundays,” added Elkhart Lieutenant Jason Wogoman.  “We’re always refreshing our skills so we’re sharp and we know what to do and how to do it when the call comes in.”

Whether it’s reviewing pediatric and obstetrics procedures, practicing tying knots for rope rescue scenarios or going through a mock water rescue, each department has stringent training requirements. 

But when it comes time for the real thing, firefighters are sometimes faced with situations training cannot fully prepare them to handle. 

“For me, the hardest part about our job is calls involving babies,” said South Bend Firefighter Brian McLaughlin.  “We’ve had too many of those.  And when you have kids of your own it only gets worse.”

Being away from their own families for 24 hours at a time can also be tough.

Yes, we’ve got a good job.  But people don’t realize how often we miss out on family things,” said Elkhart Firefighter Ron Mishler who has a 3-year-old, a 2-year-old and a 3-month-old at home.  “I wasn’t home when my two oldest spoke their first words.”

It might sound like an intense job, and at times it is – always on the go, knowing the day could change in a split second – but life at the firehouse is also pretty laid back. 

One place you’re sure to find the crew relaxing and poking fun at each other is around the dinner table. 

“It gets us all together,” explained South Bend Battalion Chief Kevin Kolber. 

“During the day, everyone is going to different calls and we don’t really see each other.  So it’s our time to have camaraderie.”

A common misconception about firehouse food?

“The worst thing is when someone comes up to you while you’re in the grocery store and says ‘Glad to see you’re eating well on our dime,’” quipped South Bend’s Lt. Chris Baker.  “Taxpayers don’t buy our food.  We all pay out of pocket.”

Some firehouses rotate the cooking responsibility between firefighters.  Others agree to pay a certain amount each day for the cost of food and the same person cooks all the time.  That’s the case for “A-Shift” at Elkhart’s Central station on East Street.  For $9 a person, everyone on the crew eats a spectacular home-cooked meal for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day they’re on shift.

“It’s gourmet, really,” said Elkhart Paramedic Lt. Bill Sullivan. 

Firefighter Nick Hintz plans and prepares each meal off the top of his head. 

“(Battalion Chief) BeMiller taught me a lot,” Hintz said of his current Asst. Battalion Chief who used to do all the cooking before he was promoted.  “Now he’s so busy with all of his chief responsibilities he doesn’t have time to cook.  But I really love doing it.”

Jason Hacker at Clay Fire Territory cooks dinner for his shift at Station 1 on Cleveland Road.  The shy engineer used to be a General Manager at a local restaurant.  When one of his co-workers left the restaurant to become a firefighter at Clay, Hacker knew it was what he wanted to do too.  The most requested dishes on his shift?  Spicy green bean casserole and shrimp gumbo.

Don’t let Hintz and Hacker fool you though. 

“Some guys just aren’t good cooks at all.  They help by staying out of the way,’  laughed South Bend Firefighter Mike Carroll.

Firehouse kitchens are another entity altogether.  Most have industrial-size stove tops and ovens and lots of counter space.  But it’s out of necessity – a simple lunch of steak and chicken fajitas for a crew of about 15 at South Bend’s Central Station yields 14 pounds of meat, 14 peppers and 3 pounds of cheese!

At some stations, each shift has its own cupboard, refrigerator and freezer.  If “B-Shift” is on duty, it’s not uncommon to find locks on the cupboards for “A” and “C-Shifts”.  Forgetting to lock up their food could land a crew victims of a prank – finding sugar in their salt shaker or food coloring in the milk. 

As daylight fades, the hustle and bustle around the firehouse might turn into a friendly video game or a few hours of prime time television.  Eventually, they’ll call home to say goodnight to their families, climb into their twin beds in the bunk room, turn out the lights and try to get a good night’s sleep.  But crews know at any time they could wake up to a fire or medical call – or even worse – a snoring co-worker. 

At Clay Station 1, the admitted “B-Shift” snorer is  Engineer Ken Miller. 

“It’s violent!” laughed Captain Keith Kwieran.

“Kiwi (Kwieran) used to keep a water bottle by his bed and spray it in my face in the middle of the night,” Miller said, smiling.  “Now the guys just kick my bed and I’ll roll over and stop for a while.”

Regardless, life at the firehouse is a labor of love.  Like many area firefighters, Miller began as a volunteer.  He had full time jobs driving steel trucks and Fed Ex delivery trucks.  He responded to fire and rescue calls when he wasn’t on the road.

“For 15 years, I did this for free.  Now I just get paid for it.  I absolutely love coming to work every day,” he said.

Miller and other local firefighters will also tell you they live to help others.

“You can go from quiet like it is now and then in two or three minutes you get that adrenaline rush where you’re making what could very well be life-altering decisions,” said Elkhart City Battalion Chief Brett Schrock.

Next time you drive by your neighborhood firehouse on your way home from work, take time to appreciate the men and women giving up a night tucking their own kids in bed to stay on duty.  And rest assured that when you and your family are at your worst, they’ll be at their best – ready and willing to help.