MIDLOTHIAN, TX — The life of a firefighter is perhaps one of the most exciting yet misunderstood, dangerous though methodical, funny but frustrating professions a person could ever hope to have. In one day, in one moment, a firefighter can save a life and lose one. The timing, the ability and willingness of a firefighter can literally change the course of history. No surprise, it is also reportedly in the top three most stressful jobs, following the President of the United States.
“But I can’t imagine doing anything else,” said Deputy Chief Dale McCaskill. Both McCaskill and Chief David Schrodt have seen tremendous changes within the department. As recently as 1987, there were only six members to the department. Today, the Midlothian Fire Department is now being called a leader in fire-base, pre-hospital care. In fact, due to the extensive training and demands on the paramedics and firefighters, Midlothian is the only fire department within Ellis County that offers ambulance transport to hospitals.
Other cities and towns use privately owned, for-profit services.
The pride that these firefighters have in their department, their leaders and their work was the motivation behind starting the first Citizen’s Fire Academy. The premise was simple: Offer a seven- week course to everyday citizens, and meet once a week to learn the ins and outs of the department. While the firefighters hoped to impart some knowledge about the equipment and day- to-day functions of the department, the first-ever Citizen’s Fire Academy walked away with far more.
Just as firefighters are depicted in the movies, Midlothian’s firefighters are funny and engaging. They play practical jokes on one another and revel in all embarrassing moments of fellow firefighters. But
these escapades generally come as stress relief following a difficult call in which someone was seriously hurt. “It is,” Capt. Kevin Lucia said, “the worst part of being a firefighter. Seeing suffering, loss and uncontrollable situations is the worst. Sometimes, there is nothing that can be done to help someone, and you feel their
pain.” While the firefighters have varied personalities, they share one common trait: “We like to help people,” Capt. Lucia said.
“We’re team players,” Capt. Jeff Silva added.
Team play is certainly something the students of the Fire Academy learned, whether they teamed up to hold the 70-pound “Jaws of Life” equipment or the hose. That seemingly harmless water hose can weigh hundreds of pounds and can easily throw an ill-prepared firefighter to the ground.
“I honestly had no idea how physically demanding this job was,” said Fire Academy graduate and Navarro College English teacher, Michelle Powe.
For Donna Collins, the academy offered a real reality check. “I know I was like a lot of people who had this perception that firefighters are always at the station doing nothing, and that life was so easy for them. I had no idea,” Donna said. As the administrative assistant to the fire chief, “I respect them now so much more, having gone through the academy.”
Few people understand that heart attacks among firefighters have been an issue. In one moment, they are resting; in the next, they are desperately trying to save a life! This is one reason that the Midlothian Fire Department now does annual check-ups and mandates that its employees take part in a progressive wellness program, including fitness routines and better nutrition. But the issue of fitness was not lost on the Fire Academy students who struggled with both equipment and gear.
In the academy, students learned that each firefighter is assigned a set of gear, including: bunker pants, coat, hood, boots, gloves and helmet, as well as breathing apparatus, to enter burning structures.
“The night we practiced putting on the air tanks was really fun but a little intimidating,” Michelle said. “Just standing there in a safe, controlled environment, you have a moment of panic when you start breathing through the mask. I can’t imagine doing that in the dark, with a fire and lives on the line.”
If you stand still too long, an alarm will sound. While Fire Academy citizens practiced crawling around on the ground in full gear, sweat filling their boots, an occasional alarm would go off, indicating that one of the “firefighters” had not moved in the last 30 seconds. While the citizens laughed and performed the “firefighter shuffle,” a move that requires the sudden wiggling and shuffling of legs and hips to stop the alarm, Lt. Brancato offered a sobering reminder. In film footage of the terrorist attack on Sept. 11, those same alarms can be heard in the chaos of people running from the Twin Towers. “I can’t watch it, because I know what it means,” he said. Brother or sister firefighters were down.
The Citizen’s Fire Academy students got to see the inner workings of an ambulance, a PHI air (helicopter) ambulance, and even used the “Jaws of Life” to remove car doors and cut off the tops of two cars. “You can’t believe how hot it is in the uniforms! And we were standing in the shade with a breeze,” Michelle laughed. A typical firefighter responding to a fire or rescuing a victim from a car on the side of the highway can lose up to eight pounds in sweat alone.
With so much sweating, one would hope that the department had enough gear to supply each of the 45 firefighters on staff. Unfortunately, the city does not have enough air tanks and regulators
for each fighter. As advanced as the department is, it still needs more equipment. This would include the Pac Tracker, an innovative device that is used by the Rapid Intervention Team (RIP).
It allows a team to locate one of its own downed firefighters and execute a rescue. It is here that Capt. Silva is most passionate about team play. “It is the team approach,” he said. “We have to have each other’s backs. Our lives depend on it.”
Once again, team play was a factor upon graduation day when the first ever Citizen’s Fire Academy cadets crawled into a burning building (used for training by the academy), dragging a hose line
to put out their very first fire! While the cadets erupted into applause after everyone made it through the fire house, Chief McCaskill was pleased to have new ambassadors for the department.
Understanding the joy and stress, the labor and knowledge required for the job is so important. And always, according to Chief McCaskill, the best part of the job is, “I get to serve the citizens in a time of need. It is an honor to serve.”
Written by Alex Allred.