In a cramped, dirty apartment on the second floor of a white, brick building on Fitzhugh Avenue, three small Vietnamese boys watch their mother lie kicking and screaming on the kitchen floor.
Dinner is not forthcoming on this hot, Friday afternoon. Instead, the boys witness Dallas Fire Department paramedics from Fire Station 17 attempting to determine how many blood pressure pills their mother took in an apparent suicide attempt.
Medic David Hill, who was sleeping on his bunk in the back of the firehouse at Belmont Avenue and Skillman Road when the call came in, loudly instructs the woman to control her breathing.
She continues to scream.
Hill’s partner Walter White picks up empty Procardia blister packages from the floor and counts the empty tabs. One of the little boys retrieves a loose pill and wordlessley hands it over.
A teenage son hits hunched over on the couch, wearing pants and a sleeveless, white undershirt, hands in his long black hair. He looks up when Hills demands: “Tell us what she’s saying.”
“If I were you, I wouldn’t waste my time with her,” the youth says. “I had enough! Enough is enough, man. I pay the rent. My mother gives me problems. My father gives me problems. I had enough!”
On the walls and shelves of the apartment, pictures of smiling people recall good times from the family’s past. The air conditioner rattles in the window. Amidst the poor furnishings is a new Sony Trinitron television set.
Hill and White are increasingly concerned about the woman’s condition and don’t seem to notice the youth’s growing agitation.
“Tell us what she’s saying,” Hill yells, advancing from the kitchen. “You gotta help us out. She’s your mother!”
The boy stands, turns and kicks the living room mirror, straight and hard. He kicks the wall again, whips off his undershirt and faces the medics, head down, wrists held out in front of him.
“Call a cop! Take me to jail, man!” the boys shouts. “I’ll do something to make you take me to jail!”
To emphasize his point, he walks to the window and smashes it with his left fist.
The medics are momentarily stunned, separated from their patient by the excited youth. Then a small, neatly dressed man – the eldest brother – arrives to intercede, allowing the medics to back out into the hallway and call for police assistance on their radios.
While Hill and White take positions at opposite ends of the hall, the youth squats in the doorway, his blood dripping into the carpet as his brother binds his injured hand.
The worst is over now.
In a few minutes, police arrive, and Hill and White follow them into the apartment. Soon they emerge carrying the limp, silent woman on a molded plastic chair. They transfer her to a stretcher and slide her into the ambulance as a group of neighbors look on.
“Did she overdose?” asks one woman, squinting against her cigarette smoke.
Along the side and front walls of the paramedic vehicle’s passenger compartment, rows of stainless steel shelves hold medical supplies in blue containers behind acrylic windows. The containers are labeled IV caths, Trauma pads, OB kits, Towels, Sponges, Ringers, Electrodes. Surgical mask, Alcohol preps, Iodine, Tongue blades, Eye shield.
The woman breathes under an oxygen mask as Hill inserts a needle into her left arm and begins intravenous fluids, while White administers an electrocardiogram.
While White calls ahead to the hospital, Hill flips on the siren and speeds down Live Oak Street to Baylor Medical Center.
A male nurse greets the ambulance with a “What have we got?” and wheels the patient through the automatic doors and into an examination room, where she’s engulfed by a medical team.
The woman sits up and rubs her eyes.
“Do you think your mother tried to commit suicide?” a doctor asks the older brother, who has arrived at the hospital by taxi.
Hill and White retrieve their stretcher and walk out of the hospital.
If the paramedics are curious about the details of the woman’s family life, they don’t show it. They’re job is to save lives, not souls. Besides, this is just one of the 19 runs they’ll make during a 24-hour shift that began at 7 a.m.
At the moment, they’re content with a five-minute break in the alley outside the emergency room door. Hill leans against the wall and chats with a friendly nurse.
“It could have been worse,” he says of the incident with the youth at the apartment. “That was no ordinary temper tantrum.”
“Do I ever want to run?,” White asks. “Damn right I do. But if I’m going to control the situation, I have to remain in control of myself. I can’t run. My first thought is, we’ve got a patient in here, and we have to do something for her.”
The 12 men who have lived 24 hours on, 48 off for the past three-plus years as members of ‘C’ shift at Fire Station 17 have become family. Black, white and Hispanic, privates just a few years out of training and officers a few years from retirement, good old boys and college graduates, wise guys and reverent men, they’ve learned to tolerate each others’ presence in close quarters and watch their buddies’ backs in the heat of a three-alarm fire.
All are Dallas firefighters – even the paramedics, who split their time riding the ambulance or the fire truck or engine. After seven or eight years responding to fires, traffic accidents, shootings and stabbings, unconscious drunks, heart attacks, drug overdoses and people who dial 911 because they wake up frightened in the middle of the night, paramedics rotate off the shift for good and become full-time firefighters.
Like professional athletes, they live a child’s fantasy, nerves tensed before the big game – although their game could start at any time.
The routine repeats in triplicate at Station 17. At 7 a.m., ‘C’ shift will make way for ‘A’ shift, which will be followed by ‘B’ shift. Each has 12 men, with five assigned to the red fire engine, five to a large green ladder truck, and two to the ambulance, although two men usually are assigned for the day to other stations.
The kitchen holds three refrigerators, three pantries and 36 lockers where firefighters store personal items. The ‘C’ shift pantry door is decorated with a recipe for “Light, Tasty Biscuits” and the “Burning Desire Firefighters Shift Calendar.” Miss June, a redhead, is perched on an engine wearing a bikini, fire hat and fireproof bunker pants.
In the apparatus room, where men take their coffee and watch the morning sun pour through huge, open vehicle doors, Kevlar fire-fighting coats hang in three identical niches labeled ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’. During daytime, most men leave their rubber boots, folded into bunker pants, by the truck or engine.
When the alarm sounds, they jump into their boots, pull up suspenders, then don a coat, Nomex hood and hat, and Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA). The gear weighs 65 pounds.
Inside the open doors, tall blackboards display the box numbers (named after the old, red, alarm boxes once posted around the city) that mark intersections in 17’s first-alarm district.
The entire system is computerized now. As vehicles answer fire and emergency calls, the system assigns others to fill in for them in their home territory. Computer terminals in the firehouse, engine, truck and ambulance allow the firefighters to stay in contact with each other and the dispatcher at City Hall.
When a call comes in at the station, the nearest man answers and, if necessary, issues an alarm: one ring for the ambulance, two for the engine, one long ring for everybody.
Bunks fold out from the walls in the sleeping-recreation room. The men sleep with their boots by their beds. Each has a clothing locker, and bunker lockers hold more equipment. Members of ‘C’ shift also spend hours back here playing computer golf and baseball, keeping up a running commentary all the while.
“Hit the flag. Hit the flag, Brad. Don’t slice. Oh! Most excellent shot.”
There’s something about a firehouse that makes people want to come by and just hang out. Charlie Contreras, 11 whose father, Charlie, rides the truck and cooks for ‘C’ shift, watches the golf game with wide eyes while he sits on an empty bunk, holding a handful of basketball cards.
Charlie says he might become a fireman,”if my baseball career doesn’t work out.”
A while later, Capt. Gary Benningfield’s wife, Karolyn, visits. An insurance specialist at Baylor, she says: “I missed my calling. I would have liked to have been a firefighter.”
About 30 of the 1,600 Dallas firefighters are women.
“We were ‘firemen’ until the women came,” says Lt. Marty Shamburg of ‘B’ shift. He stayed hours after his shift to drink coffee, spit tobacco juice into a green beans can and watch ‘C’ shift roll out of the truck and engine for daily maintenance.
There are many little jobs to do around a firehouse. Today is window-washing day, and tomorrow, ‘A’ shift will mow the lawn. Each shift maintains 185 fire plugs. They even shop for their own groceries.
Also, the firefighters daily review one procedure item. A blackboard in the apparatus room shows that ‘B’ shift studied elevator rescue yesterday.
Truck and engine gleam in the daylight, just as they should.
“The citizens don’t want to see a dirty truck and engine,” says truck driver Roger Tomlinson.
The truck is one of the last green-painted vehicles in the department, which is returning to the traditional red. Tomlinson points out a more important distinction.
“The general public calls everything a fire truck. This is an engine,” he says, patting the red vehicle. “The engine carries wter to put the fire out. The truck is responsible for things like Ventilation and Rescue.
“You can make an analogy with football: The offensive linemen do the dirty work, while the running back dances though the hole and gets the glory.
“In the fire department, the trucks do the dirty work while the engine goes in and squirts a little water. But the truck doesn’t mind, of course. It’s all part of a team effort.”
The truck ladder rises 100 feet and carries a powerful “Big Dog” water cannon. Firefighters climb the ladder to make high-rise rescues or reach building roofs. There, they cut holes while others use pikes to “pull ceiling,” or poke through from the inside to create “ventilation” that allows the fire to escape.
“It’s the hardest job on the fire department. Most firemen killed are truck men who fall through the roofs,” says Tomlinson, who cheerfully discusses job stress.
“Working a hot, smoky fire has worn many a fireman out. To spend 20 years laying in bed, waking from a dead sleep, with your adrenaline pumping, to be jolted every night, shift after shift, year after year…
“When you first come on, you don’t sleep – you don’t want to be left behind on a run. The veterans kid you: ‘Don’t let us leave you, rookie.’
“There’s nothing like the first time in your life you hear that alarm. Now, when the ambulance gets a run (one bell), I can just turn over and go back to sleep.”
The truck makes one call this afternoon, when everyone rolls out for a possible house fire in the 5400 block of Vickery Street. They find only a little smoke that boiled up when a woman tried to make candles in a skillet on the stove.
All the better, says Lt. “Stu” Fowler.
“A lot of people first try to fight a fire themselves, and before they can call us, it escalates,” he says. “It’s better to get us over there so it doesn’t turn into something bigger.”
Fowler has fought many big fires since he and Benningfield graduated from rookie school April 1, 1964. He’s acquired more nicknames than the average firefighter, too. His given name is Lloyd, but he picked up the “Stu” after country comic Archie Campbell sang a song about a Rhode Island Red fighting cock named Stu Fowler. The men also call him “Loo,” for lieutenant.
With his wavy, red hair, pug face with a tobacco plug in the left cheek, Fowler could fit right into a photo of a turn-of-the-century engine company.
“Me and the captain have got 28 years. It’s been good,” he says. “I’m looking at less than three years, and then I’ll be 50.”
The men are already grousing about dinner before the paramedics return from an evening run, and White turns on the television and becomes engrossed in a soap opera while he retrieves leftovers from the refrigerator.
He’s eating when one long alarm sounds and all hands race to their vehicles. Inside the ambulance, the stretcher emphasizes every speed bump by slamming to the floor. The medics are called to assist an unconscious man behind an apartment complex at Knox and McKinney.
A man sleeps peacefully on the pavement until White nudges him. “Hey, buddy.” White takes his blood pressure and the man stands woozily on the sidewalk, his shirt open.
“I get these bums out here,” says the apartment manager, a middle-aged woman soon joined by an elderly tenant.
“When I come to pick up the grounds in the morning, I find needles all over the place. All around the dumpster, I find Number Two. You don’t know what I go through.”
Two young police officers look on, amused.
“How much you had to drink today?” White asks the man, whom the apartment manager recognizes as one of the people who work a corner of Knox and Central Expressway holding “Will work for food” signs.
“What?’ the man says.
“How much you had to drink today?”
“Not enough,” the man says.
The police officers take him away.
White reacts kindly to calls that some would consider a nuisance. He came to the job seven years ago with a psychology degree from the University of Illinois-Chicago Circle and since has completed a year at the Dallas Theological Seminary. Married 14 years in June, he has children ages 12 and 11. He’ll be 35 this month.
“Things are getting worse,” White says. “When people care less and less about human life, they would just as soon take your life or mine as well as look at you.
“If you have something they want and you gotta die, you gotta die. We see some form of aggravated assault, stabbing or shooting at least once a shift.
“Until there is a change – and the change has to occur in the heart of man – there will be no change in society. It will get progressively worse. For the record, the only person who can make the change is Jesus Christ. He does have the ability to change a person from the inside. It begins with a new relationship with God through Jesus Christ. It’s a spiritual issue.”
White intends to continue studying for the ministry and may yet wind up preaching the Word. Where else, however, can he get this kind of excitement?
“There are times I feel like I’m ready to get out. But I’m enjoying it too much,” he says. At 7 a.m. Saturday, White “hires on” for another full shift.
In the TV room, “Backdraft” is playing on one of the movie channels. By coincidence, the company in this fire-fighting action film is nicknamed “The Fighting 17th.”
The men pay casual attention, occasionally criticizing the movie firemen for leaving their coats open and their masks off while tromping around a burning warehouse.
“They fight a towering inferno at the end of the movie with a couple of inch-and-a-half lines (better used on grass fires),” Benningfield says. “That would never happen.”
It’s getting late now, past 11 o’clock, and most of the firefighters head for their bunks. The paramedics sleep in their clothes, prepared for a busy night.
At 1:24 a.m., they’ll drive at high-speed to a housing project in Oak Lawn to find a young man who says his left arm hurts.
At 3:58 a.m., a 68-year-old man apologizes for the inconvenience as his foot bleeds into a pan of water. The man’s wife crosses the hot, stifling living room in her walker, trailing an oxygen tube and crying: “What will I do?”
At 4:41 a.m., a man has removed his snakeskin boots and lay down to sleep in front of an apartment building on Moser.
At 5:54 a.m., a young man calls with severe stomach pain.
The calls are serious because the callers are concerned; but on another level, this is a firefighter’s idea of fun.
Paramedic Brad Allen, who can talk at length about the silly reasons that prompt people to call for ambulances says: “When I got out of college, I knew I wanted to be a fireman. It’s a good job and a respectable profession.
“I love the camaraderie, being with all the guys, the good feeling you get when you help someone. Everybody likes a fireman. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
“It’s a great life,” says Albert Kirksey, the engine driver who likes to recount his escape from Oklahoma, when he joined “Uncle Sam’s Shipping Service” (the U.S. Navy) after the 11th grade.
“What else would you be doing on a Friday night? Here you are not spending a dime, getting to pal around with the boys. The girls come and go, but the boys go on forever.”
Benningfield says: “Subconsciously, firemen take on that image of trying to be tough guys. As many life and death situations as they face, it’s like a shield they put up.
“You get a bunch of firemen together every third day, they’re like a family,” he says.
More like and extended family, actually, because they’re people who risk their lives to help others. Why do they do it?
“If you’re stranded on the road, and everybody else is passing you by, a fireman will stop and help,” Benningfield says. “That’s just their nature.”
Did You Know…
• Dallas firehouses have had no fire dogs since the death of Maynard the Dalmation in the 1980s. Maynard’s lived at Station #23 in Oak Cliff. Maynard’s children and grandchildren continue his legacy in the homes of several Dallas firefighters.
• Firefighters still slide down old-fashioned fire poles at five firehouses, including Fire Station #31, at Garland Road and Buckner Boulevard. Concerned that the poles contribute to ankle injuries, the department is phasing them out. All new stations are one story in height.
• About 9,000 fire hydrants (also known as fire plugs) serve East Dallas. Dallas Water Utilities monitors about 35,000 fire plugs in the City. Firefighters are responsible for painting and routine maintenance.
• Want to locate a fire plug at night? Look for the blue reflector in the street. Other cities coat their hydrants with reflective paint.
• Fire plugs are color-coded according to the size of the water main to which they are connected. Red hydrants have 4-inch mains; silver, 6-inch; blue, 80inch; yellow, 10-inch or larger. Water mains vary in size according to the areas the hydrants must serve.
• Fire trucks carry 180 feet of ladder, excluding the retractable ladder tower, which can rise up to 100 feet.
• Fire engines carry 1,500 feet (the equivalent of five football lengths) of 5-inch, yellow hose. It’s stored in 50-foot lengths and connected by couplings to create the necessary length.
• Arson was the leading cause of fire in 1990-91. The second-leading cause was misuse of heat.
• Fires occurred most often in single-family homes, apartments, and offices and retail stores, in that order.
• Among structure fires, most fires started in the kitchen. Bedrooms were second, structural area third.
Fire Station 17 Facts
• Opened in 1970. Size 6,600 square feet. 2.5 bays hold an engine, tuck and Mobile Intensive Care Unit (ambulance).
• In 1990-91, Engine 17 ranked 40th of 62 engines in total number of runs: 1,465, up 31 percent from the previous year.
• Truck 17 ranked 15th of 23 trucks: 357 runs, down 44 percent.
• MICU 717 ranked 9th of 22 ambulances: 4,779 runs, up 2.6 percent.
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