Tuesday, December 8, 2009

From today's Daily Texan: Along for the Ride

I know that many of you don't have access to this paper (it's the UT student newspaper), so I wanted to make sure I shared this so you could read it.

Along For the Ride: Firefighters exhibit versatility

By Bobby Longoria
Daily Texan Staff
Published: Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Editor's note: This is the third installment in a series that explores law and order in Travis County.

Members of the Austin Fire Department are best known for facing flames and even death in fire emergencies, but the department responds to a variety of events beyond fire control.
Firefighters are the jack-of-all-trades in critical emergency situations, serving as the first responders, along with Emergency Medical Services and police officials.
“When the alarm sounds, we all have to get into a different mode,” said Station 1 Cpt. Lonnie Owen. “You never know what you are going to see. If they don’t know who to send the problem to, they send it to the fire department.”
AFD Station 1, located downtown, was established in 1938 and is a special-operations unit that responds not only to fire calls, but technical and water-rescue calls as well. The station rotates firefighters across three shifts, each comprised of 15 members who undergo off-site medical, fire and rescue training on a routine basis.
According to the AFD 2008 annual report, Station 1 made 7,674 emergency response runs with its two engines and one quint, a hybrid engine with a 75-foot aerial ladder. The department responded to 2,767 fire, 54,797 medical, 499 rescue and 1,238 hazardous materials incidents. AFD’s 1,079 uniformed members had an average unit response time of 4.56 minutes.
Shifts last 24 hours, followed by two days off, but some firefighters may work beyond that on overtime.
“Even though there is not always a positive outcome, the satisfaction of being able to help when you can is very gratifying,” said Stephen Truesdell, president of the Austin Firefighters Association. “It’s very hard. It impacts the other family members, having someone be gone for 24 hours at a time. You really try to leave stress at the station, but you can’t always do it. Sometimes it carries over with you into your personal life.”
Dave Rossorelli has been a firefighter at Station 1 for nine years, and within that time, he has responded to incidents that can keep some firefighters awake at night.
“It’s hard being on scene, seeing someone who was in a car wreck and didn’t make it,” Rossorelli said. “Just thinking about their family — they don’t even know what’s happened yet. You are the first one to see this. Some of that gets hard to take.”

On Saturday night, Station 1 responded to a fire in a south Austin apartment complex that resulted in two deaths. Flames engulfed the building from the ground up and were extinguished by more than 10 fire trucks.
In the past 26 years, 152 Texas firefighters have died in the line of duty, four of which occurred last year. But AFD has avoided any deaths in the line of duty since 1977, when Specialist Nathaniel Kindred died of a heart attack.
According to the State Fire Marshal’s Office, of eight investigated on-duty deaths since September 2001, five were caused by heart attacks, which remain the leading cause of on-duty deaths among Texas firefighters.
Each firefighter is required to work out for at least one hour during their shift in the station’s gym. When not training, firefighters pass the time by performing routine maintenance checks of their equipment, taking required online classes, watching movies and conversing with one another.
“You come to work with your buddies. You know they got your back, and you got their back — you’re good to go,” said firefighter Keith Antista, who has been with Station 1 for five years and has a family of three. “[My wife] is going to be by herself about 72 hours with hardly any relief from the children, so she gets a little stressed out.”

Although some firefighters will be away from home this Christmas, they still make time to bring their families together. This Thanksgiving, firefighters and their families came to the station for a potluck dinner. Plans for this Christmas include a visit from Santa and a gift exchange at the station.
AFD Lt. Scott Bartell works at Station 1 and has been a firefighter for 20 years. He said the camaraderie of the station and his family of three helps him cope with the added stress.
“You may laugh about [severe incidents] at the station, but you may go home in tears. You may go home and you fall apart,” Bartell said. “For us, running into burning buildings and doing rescues — it’s what we look forward to. It all boils down to the public safety.”