The East Contra Costa Fire Protection District currently staffs six full-time stations year-round: Brentwood’s Stations 52 and 54 (three firefighters each); Discovery Bay’s Station 59 (three firefighters); Oakley’s Station 93 (three firefighters) Knightsen’s Station 94 (two firefighters); and Bethel Island’s Station 95 (two firefighters). In 2011, they answered 6,260 calls, an average of slightly more than 17 per day.
• 4,569 of the calls, about 12 per day, were medical emergencies or traffic accidents.
• 744 calls (two per day) were for fires or emergencies involving life-threatening hazards such as gas leaks or electrical wires down. ECCFPD Chief Hugh Henderson estimates 100 of these calls were structure or wildland fires.
• 947 (2½ per day) were for various public-service calls, including smoke alarms (without a fire), animal rescues or other incidents in which people “didn’t know who to call, so they called the fire department,” Henderson said. (More information on calls and response times will be included in Part 5 of this series: service delivery.)
No matter what the call, the emphasis is on the speed of the response. In 2011, it took an average of 6:27 (six minutes, 27 seconds) and efforts are constantly being made to whittle that down. “Everything is about getting there quickly,” said ECCFPD Engineer Ryan Pesonen. “Two seconds is a big deal.”
The effort to shave time means fire engine doors are left open while they’re parked in the station, roll-up doors operate by a switch strategically placed between the crew quarters and the engine, and station lights automatically come on when a call comes in at night. The goal is to be on the road in one minute from the time the alarm sounds.
When responding to a fire, each firefighter has specific responsibilities. A three-person crew is commanded by a captain, who rides shotgun, communicates with dispatch and navigates for the engineer driving the rig. Upon arriving at the scene, the captain first does an initial size-up to determine the nature of the call and order back-up units if needed. If it’s a building on fire, he’ll circle it to look for hazards or people in need of rescue, and turn off the gas and electrical service. He’ll also issue instructions on how the attack will be made, and command other arriving crews until a battalion chief arrives.
Meanwhile, the engineer will secure a water supply. The average fire engine in the ECCFPD holds 750 gallons, or about enough for one fully involved car fire. Anything larger requires a hydrant hookup, or if there isn’t one, a line to a 3,000-gallon water tender.
The engineer will monitor the engine’s performance, ensuring adequate pressure at the nozzle. He’ll also take whatever equipment might be needed off the engine and stage it for use in the attack.
Riding in back seat of the engine is the third firefighter, who will put up ladders, deploy hoses, and serve as one of the two-man crew that works the hose.
Unless a rescue must be made, a federal health-and-safety law known as the “two-in, two-out” rule prohibits entering a building on fire until at least four trained personnel are on scene – two to attack the fire and two to monitor the situation and rescue the first pair if necessary. A battalion chief often serves as the fourth person mandated, but the attack could be delayed until a second engine arrives.
In addition to fighting the flames, firefighters inside a burning building will attempt to save what they can from damage caused by fire, smoke and water. Furniture is moved to the center of a room and covered with a tarp, and irreplaceable items such as pictures on walls are grabbed and brought outside.
If the engine has a two-person crew, a second engine will be needed before the fire attack can begin. The reduced manpower also means it’s more difficult to do things such as putting up the 130-pound, 35-foot ladders the engines carry. (Lighter, 24-foot ladders won’t reach the roofs of many buildings in the district. The district relies on Confire out of Antioch for a ladder truck when one is needed.)
Putting out a fire, conducting salvage operations and refitting the equipment back onto the engine can take anywhere from two hours to all day.
At the scene of a car crash, firefighters can be called on to extinguish fires, provide first aid and isolate hazardous materials that might have spilled. They might also need to deploy the Jaws of Life, a hydraulic cutting and spreading tool used to free victims trapped in mangled vehicles.
The firefighters of the ECCFPD are trained to provide basic lifesaving services (BLS). This includes first aid, CPR and the use of automatic defibrillators. It does not include advanced lifesaving services (ALS), which include hooking up intravenous fluids, providing drugs and reading electrocardiograms. ALS services in the district are now provided by American Medical Response. (Paramedic service will be discussed in Part 4 of the series.)
Firefighters in the ECCFPD work 48-hour shifts. When not serving on a call, they attend to a list of daily duties that must be performed regardless of the call volume. Daily duties include checks to ensure each engine is equipped with all its tools. Once a week they’ll also make sure that each engine and tool works properly, and has the necessary attachments, blades, fuel and oil.
Other daily duties include a minimum of two hours of training. There are reports to write for every incident, as well as maintenance of the station and grounds. Maps and manuals are studied as well, repairs made on equipment and research done on improved equipment and new procedures.
“Businesses usually have janitors, construction people or research-and-development personnel who do those things,” said former Bethel Island Fire Chief David Wahl, who retired in 2005 after 30 years in the fire service. “In the fire services, it’s personnel in the stations that make those things happen.”
Although the duties are generally assigned to an individual, each will help make sure it all gets finished. “Everybody works until all of it’s done,” said Wahl.
In addition to the in-station jobs, firefighters also inspect businesses each year for fire code compliance. (Confire inspectors visit especially hazardous businesses such as gas stations.) If time allows, they also do fire prevention work, including weed abatement and public education such as firehouse tours.
Firefighters are expected to keep to fire business from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., taking breaks for meals (they buy and prepare their own food). Unless a call comes in, they’re free to relax, watch TV or pursue other interests after 5 p.m., assuming the daily duties are complete.
“That 9 to 5 is really packed,” said Wahl. “There’s a lot to being a firefighter that the public doesn’t usually see.”
Next week, Part 3: Firefighter pay and benefits.
Click here to read the first part of the series, detailing the history of fire service in East County.