Fire Department Invites Elected Officials to Visit and See Its Work Up Close
ROCHESTER — It was 11 a.m. on a Monday, but the men on the Rochester Fire Department’s D Shift haven’t gotten around to eating breakfast yet.
They had been dispatched almost constantly since early that morning, responding to the types of medical calls that have been a major factor in the dramatic increase in call volume firefighters have had to handle in the years since many of the shift’s veterans first joined the department.
As of noon on Dec. 18, Rochester Firefighters had answered 2,776 calls for the year, putting them just four calls shy of last year’s total and over 2,000 more than the department answered in 1997.
So far that morning they responded to calls at 7:55, 8:57, 9:19, 9:55 and 10:40. By the late afternoon, they’d responded to two more calls for help.
“The old way of thinking, that we just sit here playing checkers and wait for the bell, is long gone,” Capt. Joe Burns said as he sat in his office catching up on morning reports. “We see a bunch of different stuff here.”
Mondays mean that Engine 5 is due for a top to bottom maintenance check, which Firefighter Jerry McKay — working overtime to cover a short-staffed shift — is leading just outside Capt. Burns’ door. He starts by washing the apparatus, which has just returned from its fifth medical call on a snowy morning, before checking its interior and lifting the cabin to do a complete check of the parts that make it run.
Those checks will be repeated for every other front-line apparatus on a daily rotation, since the department can’t afford surprises when emergencies arise.
Fire Chief Mark Klose and his staff are hoping that the city’s elected officials will capitalize on an invitation to join the department for a ride-along, which will give them an in-depth and hands-on understanding of the work Rochester’s firefighters do every day.
“We don’t sit in a cubicle, and we never know what we’re going to see every day,” said Chief Klose, who took the reins of the Rochester Fire Department this past summer after nearly three decades working in Bedford. “It’s important for people to know that just because the doors are closed doesn’t mean we aren’t busy.”
Though the job has changed dramatically, with calls for medical assistance and general aid now far outpacing the number of fires they’re summoned to extinguish, Rochester’s firefighters still say they’re working their dream job.
“Someone’s bad day is our good day because when there’s nobody else to call, they call us,” said Firefighter Pat Couch, the shift’s most senior firefighter.
“I’ve wanted to do this since I was a kid, and if I had to do it all over again, I would,” Capt. Burns said. “I wouldn’t change a thing. This job has been everything I hoped it would be and wanted it to be.”
By 1 p.m., all of the members on shift, including those assigned to the Gonic station, arrived at station one for a scheduled training on ice rescues. Deputy Chief Dennis Dube was interrupted early on in his lesson by the tones that signal a need for help. The call, a report of an odor of fire in a building that houses apartments and an abandoned barber shop, is known to firefighters simply as “smells and bells.”
Within minutes, the department’s second-floor training room and the entire shift had moved into two engines and a ladder truck, which rolled to a stop in front of the scene of the call a short distance from station one.
The crew was on scene for approximately an hour, working to determine the source of the odor while navigating narrow hallways blocked by mattresses and other obstructions. Firefighters narrowed the source of the odor to a furnace in a rear portion of the former barbershop and shut it off.
As they worked around the building, Chief Klose pointed out the variety of responsibilities firefighters have as they arrive at a scene, including determining whether there is an active fire and — if there is — what neighboring buildings are at risk and what needs to be done to keep fire from spreading.
Once that work was done, Fire Marshal and Deputy Chief Tim Wilder walked through the building with Jim Grant, Rochester’s director of building, zoning and licensing services, to determine what code enforcement issues exist within the building and begin working with the owner to correct them.
“For a department this size covering a city of this size,” Captain Burns said, “I would put us up against anybody.”
After clearing the scene, the shift members returned to the station and to their scheduled training session. Deputy Chief Dube, whose office floor is full of training-related materials, finished his walkthrough of the techniques they’d need for the exercise they’d be completing later in the week.
Then, the group moved to the apparatus bay to begin practicing with the equipment they’d need for an ice rescue. Firefighter Duane Marsh, working only his third shift since joining the department, got the ice rescue suit on just in time to hurriedly remove it and head for Engine 5 to respond to another call — a medical emergency at a home they’d been dispatched to earlier that morning.
Though no two days are identical for Rochester’s firefighters, Monday, Dec. 18 was fairly typical for the department, and they hope that city leaders will set aside time to experience a day in their lives to more fully grasp the challenges and responsibilities.
The responsibilities, the unexpected calls, their camaraderie and their shared impact on the community are ultimately part of what keeps Rochester firefighters coming back for more, even after harder days.
“I still love coming to work. I’ve got a great bunch of guys working for me who know what I expect from them and know how to do the job the right way,” said Captain Burns, a 30-year veteran. “Not everybody can come in and do this, with all of the stuff we see day in and day out.”