Firefighters ready for any call

Rainier Ehrhardt/Staff
Sgt. Herbert Smith (left) and Lt. Ralph Jenkins drive the fire truck back to Fire Station No. 2 on Walton Way on a night in May after the truck was repaired.

The life of a firefighter on duty is one of uncertainty, hard work and camaraderie that forms a special bond among the men, often referred to as a second family. The shift change at Engine Company No. 2 on Walton Way begins at 8 a.m., when the previous group leaves and a new set of firefighters shows up.

The first order of business is cleanup. Sgt. Herbert Smith, the veteran of the group and the driver, scrubs down the truck.

"You never know what the truck went through on the shift before yours," he said.

In addition to regular maintenance and yard work, the crew goes to Kroger to purchase food for their shift. They prepare hearty meals for lunch and dinner and enjoy each other's company. The men pay for their own food and are very conscious of how much they spend. Lt. Ralph Jenkins says in order to eat well during a shift, they spend between $7 and $10 a person.

The rest of the time is a waiting game.

Sgt. Smith says he has worked shifts where there was not a single call and others where he responded to four or five back-to-back calls.

The men say the unpredictability of the types and times of calls is part of the job.

"You gotta have it in you," Lt. Jenkins said.

On their down time, the firefighters - usually three or four to a 24-hour period - share jokes, stories and pranks.

"We've taken a guy's keys and put them in a bowl of water and put it in the freezer," firefighter Daniel Rigdon said.

"Makes for a longer shift for the guy," firefighter Josh Davis added with a laugh.

But when the alarm sounds, their demeanor changes instantly to intense focus. They understand the dangers they might face in the coming minutes, but they have a job to do.

"We are paid to run into a burning building when everyone else is running out," Mr. Rigdon said.

Mr. Davis says he tries not to think about the dangers, especially when going to a structure fire such as the June 18 warehouse blaze in Charleston, S.C., that killed nine firefighters.

"When something like that happens and you see it on the news, then maybe you'll think about it more," he said. "But it's not something I dwell on."

"Things can happen so quickly," Sgt. Smith said. "The fire business is a risky business," he said.

In his 27 years with the fire department, Sgt. Smith was injured once when a building collapsed, twisting his knee and compressing his chest. A fellow firefighter suffered more serious injuries, breaking his back in three places. But they train to be prepared for worse, such as a fellow firefighter in trouble during a fire.

"If it's too bad, then you can't go in, but it's the guy you live with and he's in there. It's hard. If there's a way in, we'll always try it. It's a decision you don't want to make, but you have to make," Lt. Jenkins said.

"This job will put you to the test. On every call, you don't know what you're going to," he said.

ONLINE EXTRA

Click here for an audio slideshow of the photos from Rainier's day at the firehouse.

Click here for a PDF of the full-page spread of photographs.