“Staying not busy?”
Those were the words shared between Fire District 1 firefighter/paramedic Dan Hargroves and another fellow firefighter at the Swedish Medical Center in Edmonds, Wash.
Hargroves had just driven to a house in Mountlake Terrace, Wash. to help a woman who had fallen in her bathroom. After Hargroves moved her onto a gurney and carried her into the paramedic car, he and fellow firefighter/paramedic Duffy Burns struggled to insert an IV into the woman’s arm.
Finally, when the IV was in, Hargroves complemented Burns on “a great IV.” Both Hargroves and Burns were in constant communication with both each other and the patient in order to keep calm and casual under such strenuous circumstances.
Hargroves, Burns and Captain Micah Gaston arrived at the Mountlake Terrace Fire Station 19 at 7:30 a.m. for their 24-hour shift that began at promptly 8 a.m. When a team arrives, the shift is typically passed on from the previous three firefighters –unless they’re on a call.
If a team member does not show up for his or her shift, someone from the previous shift must either stay or call someone else for overtime.
Each firefighter must work one shift at another station, called a “debit day,” and at least one overtime shift at their own station.
According to Hargroves, each firefighter works one 24-hour shift, has 24 hours off then one on, and then has five straight days off. And while it seems like it couldn’t be a full work week with just three days a week, Hargroves said, it still adds up to 72 hours.
Throughout their day, they received approximately six calls before 4 p.m. The average, according to Hargroves, is about seven or eight during the day and one or two at night.
When a call comes through, “Fire” by the Ohio Players plays over the intercom along with a loud buzz at the station and red lights flash. Hargroves was looking through the tools in the garage where the engine and paramedic car is parked when a call came on. As he hurried to pack up what he could, he swore quietly and jumped in the back of the medic car.
The medic car is used for about 80 percent of calls, according to Hargroves. However, “things still happen,” Hargroves said, and the engine is used on occasion.
Burns and Gaston each climbed into the front, using a laptop computer as a GPS while the sirens wailed through town.
From the back of the car, instructions and questions could be heard from the driver and passengers.
“What are we looking for?” Burns asked as he turned a corner.
“Dispatch said she’d be on her side,” Gaston responded.
Meanwhile, Hargroves could be found setting up the supplies and preparing the medicine instruments he would need.
After seeing the patient, Hargroves asked if she remembered him from the last time he took her call. She did.
Hargroves said that it can be easy to remember a patient if they’ve called multiple times. If they call excessively for reasons that don’t appear to be good uses, the team can set their patients up with resources that may keep them from calling without an emergency.
However, the team will take every call, “no matter how big or small,” Burns said.
As the medic car drove to the hospital, the IV was inserted and Hargroves called Swedish Edmonds. He informed the person at the front desk that they were about five minutes away from the hospital and would need a bed.
However, the hospital did not have an available bed at the time and the patient waited in her stretcher until one could be used.
As the team waited in the hospital, Burns waited with the patient, Hargroves inputted her information into a tablet for records and Gaston spoke with medical professionals to reserve a bed and give information on the patient.
The hospital was surprisingly calm, especially with the chaos that had just ensued in the car ride over. People spoke quietly and music played softly from a computer at the front desk. A television screen displayed trivia questions.
One of the men behind the desk looked at Hargroves and asked “one of those days?” to which Hargroves laughed and said yes.
The new Swedish Edmonds emergency room opened last year on Nov. 7. The new building is two stories and 77,000-square-feet, but doesn’t seem to have included additional beds for patients, Gaston explained.
The patient was taken to a room, covered using a curtain, to be treated and was driven home later that evening.
As for the team, they drove to Teriyaki Bowl in Mountlake Terrace for dinner. The lady behind the desk smiled upon seeing them and gave them extra spring rolls with their order.
The three ate at the station and chatted about sports as family at the table. The three joked and knocked on wood, hoping they wouldn’t get a call while they ate. It’s practice, Hargroves said, to be eating and hear the music, see the lights and jump into either the medic car or the engine and race to a call. When that happens, their food, along with whatever else they were doing, sits at the station.
It’s important, Hargroves explained, to keep your body as healthy as possible. The most common death among firefighters is cardiac arrest.
Hargroves explained how strenuous the job is and the toll it can take on one’s health.
“Imagine: you’re woken up at 3 a.m. by an alarm right by your head, you get in the car and drive above the speed limit to somewhere you probably haven’t been before, so you have to pay attention to both the road and the GPS,” Hargroves said. “When you get there, you’re having to do math and calculations in your head and guess weight and then, if it’s a fire, you have to put on 60-70 pounds of gear and crawl around a burning building. So your adrenaline is rising and your heart is racing, there’s a lot of anxiety and it can get to be a lot at once.”
It seems, he said, that people underestimate the work firefighters put into their job.
“What we do is so demanding, it’s hard for people to understand unless they’re in that environment,” he said.
Along with cardiac arrest, firefighters are also at risk of cancer, Hargroves said, due to the high level of exposure to carcinogens. With all the materials in buildings and the amount of time spent around burning buildings, firefighters collect an unbelievable amount of chemicals on their gear.
To help reduce this chemical exposure, there is a special washing machine at the station specifically for the team’s gear.
While Hargroves picked up his stained-black jacket and pants, the smell of smoke that lingered drifted into the gear. He shoved the clothes into the machine, along with the rest of the team’s gear.
As the team cleaned up their dishes, Burns retreated into one of the three private rooms to call his family, a rare treat while working.
All three of the team members were volunteer firefighters before they became professionals. Burns volunteered in college, but continued with his retail job and eventually became an assistant manager at a local Albertson’s. But one day on the job, he ran into an old college friend who continued with firefighting and saw how happy he was and missed the excitement of the job.
“Every firefighter I’ve talked to loves their job,” Burns said, smiling.
Hargroves started volunteering in high school because his father was the chief of a local fire station. He wanted a back-up plan and so attended Central Washington University (CWU) for a degree in paramedicine.
Volunteering, Hargroves said, is very different from professional firefighting. Volunteers tend to work in more rural areas and there are fewer calls, especially during the night. Now, even though the work is harder, Hargroves and Burns are glad they can be paid for 72 hours of work a week.
Gaston also attended CWU after having volunteered for about 17 years. He joined the team in 1999 and in August 2015, he was promoted to captain of the Mountlake Terrace Fire Station 19.
In these rooms, children’s drawings could be seen taped to the closets while clothes hung inside.
It’s also rare to get a full night’s sleep while working as a firefighter, Hargroves said. Returning home at 8 a.m. from work, a firefighter can either try to catch up on sleep or “dead-walk” through their day. With a family, Hargroves explained, it’s a bit harder to sleep during the day — which is something a firefighter must get used to for the job.
But lack of sleep is the only downside, Hargroves said and the team agreed.
“You’ll rarely find a firefighter who doesn’t love their job.”