When the call comes, feet rush without hesitation and fire engines roar, leaving behind a vacant building. With every passing minute, there is a potential difference between life and death that can make a firefighter’s blood rush with adrenaline.
For the past 87 years at the DeWitt Fire Department, the crew knows an emergency call can come at any moment, even if they’re eating, sleeping or training; but firefighters continue to risk their own lives for the people they protect.
Sitting in the lounge area as natural light filters through one of its large windows, full-time firefighter paramedic Mark Fedorov, a U.S. Navy veteran, recalls the past year at the department as he taps his index finger on his thigh and listens for the keyword in the dispatcher calls overhead: “DeWitt.” As he runs to the apparatus bay, he visualizes the approaching scene and the decisions he may need to make.
“You could be relaxing in bed, drifting off to sleep, and all of a sudden — BAM! — the bell rings. Your heart is immediately going 1,000 miles an hour,” said Fedorov. “You learn to use it to your advantage and become more alert.”
According to the National Fire Protection Association, there were about 1.3 million fire calls, 23.5 million medical calls and 2.9 million false alarms made in 2018 nationwide. Fires are occurring less and less based on NFPA’s statistics, which makes the majority of calls medical aid requests. The DeWitt Fire Department’s call volume is roughly 70% emergency medical service and 30% fire-related, which required the department to facilitate training inside their station to stay updated with medical knowledge requirements.
The smell of the 10-year-old building is distinct. A tinge of gasoline fumes seeps from the five resting fire trucks, and sunlight illuminating the bay sets a soft yellow tone as firefighters walk in for the day shift. While preparing his gear, full-time firefighter paramedic Connor DuPree, a third-generation DeWitt fireman, begins his shift.
“Regardless of how my day goes, or [what] emotional roller coaster I might be on with calls, tours or lack of calls, I’ll walk through those doors and feel a sense of belonging,” said DuPree in the machinery room as he polishes a metal Halligan bar used to open doors. “I really feel a sense of self-worth just doing what I do, both on calls for the public and for just what I do here for the department.”
Inside the station, firefighters share duties and living spaces during their 10-to-14-hour shifts. One person will make a hearty meal, another will clean the fire trucks, and another person will file the reports required after every call. These critical duties are considered to be as important as emergency response obligations because they help maintain the crew’s mental and physical well-being, keeping them at the ready 24/7.
“I think the best part of the day is just the unknown part of it,” said Fedorov. “I come into work, and I never know what I’m going to be doing. It could be a slow day where we don’t really do much of anything, or we could get a fire call or a really bad medical service call where we actually save someone.”
–By Zarah Myers