Thursday, October 16, 2014

Smooth Looks Different from the Other Side

Many years ago, when I was driving an ambulance for my local EMS provider, I was sure to maintain consciousness about what it was like for my patient in the back.  While I was not directly providing care from behind the wheel, I was still in a position to make the patient as comfortable as possible by the way I drove.  I would always be thinking “SMOOOOOTH” as I braked, turned, and accelerated; I always tried to drive like I was on ice, or like my medic was sipping a cup of coffee.  My attendants were more vocally appreciative than my patients, but that can be expected; a trip to the hospital in an ambulance is seldom enjoyable.  

Having ridden supine in the back of an ambulance, in a C-collar and strapped to a backboard, I assure you my careful driving efforts were a significant benefit for our passengers.  Sure, I was safely delivered to the trauma center after the collision that evening, but arrived with nausea, and hand cramps from trying to hold on for the ride.  

I only point this out because it helps support my lesson that just getting the job done is not enough.  In the emergency services, we sometimes meet strangers during the most frightening, painful, grief-stricken times of their lives.  Our response and actions are easily identified when they are heroic, relieving, and life-saving.  As we all know, however, few of our responses provide opportunities for such lofty praise as heroes.  Most of the time, we are meeting strangers during the most annoying, disruptive, inconvenient times of their lives.  It is during these times where the little details must be attended to, not so much for the execution of a solution to the problem at hand, but for the bolstering of our image, trust, and support of the communities we protect. 

Last night (or should I say, “early this morning”) I was jolted from my slumber by the piercing screams of the fire alarm sounding in my apartment building.  Finally I get to play the part of the civilian during an O-dark-thirty fire alarm activation.  My first thoughts were, “wow, they are right, these things are loud and obnoxious” as I scrambled for clothes to slip on for my orderly, obedient evacuation.  As I walked down the hall toward the stairway, my next thought was, “where the hell is everybody?”   

Once outside, I regressed back to my officer days and scanned the building for clues of the location, life safety hazards, apparatus placement, etc.  There were no signs of fire or smoke, people “evacuated” to their balconies, and the moan of the fire department’s house siren in the distance.  That’s when I had the chance to “people watch”.  It was quite educational, and a bit entertaining.  I was immediately grateful that I didn’t have pets, children, or the need to wear curlers in my hair.  I was also proud of my understanding of how fire alarm systems and the fire service operate.  Quickly polling the dozen or so residents that were assembling outside the main entrance, no one reported any indication that there was any fire in the building, even Johnny Helper who was panting from his heroic dash through the corridors. 

Through the main entrance vestibule, I noticed the elevator recalled to the SECOND floor, I was quite certain that the first floor elevator lobby smoke detector was the culprit.  The glowing red LEDs on the detector base verified the readout on the lobby fire alarm control panel that I was 100% correct in my assumption.  After a quick mental self-inflicted pat on the back, I re-exited to join my neighbors and provide them with the reassuring news that the building was not likely burning down. 

That’s when the bitching began.  “What’s taking them so long?” was the question of the hour.  I took the time to explain that despite living in the state capitol city, our fire department was 100% volunteer, and responders not only had to wake up and leave their homes as we did, but respond to the station, don gear, staff the apparatus, then make the drive to our complex.  As expected, most people in the building thought ALL firefighters are paid and stay up all night dressed in their gear.  The apparatus pulled into the complex in just over 6 minutes, which admittedly really does seem like a half an hour when you are the one waiting for them to arrive.  Now it was time for me to stop “people watching”, and begin “firefighter watching”.  Would they be efficient AND provide comforting reassurance to us?  Let’s see…

Positioning the BRT (big red truck) in front of the wrong building didn’t score them any points, but it happens.  Arriving with a crew of 5 was comforting, as I have been a part of much weaker responses.  Crew members were somewhat ready for action with turnout gear, SCBA, and tools in hand; so far, so good…  Then came the interaction with the residents … totally non-existent.  This was a chance for the department to show why we should fill those envelopes during the annual fund drive, by showing just a whisper of compassion for the displaced residents; sadly, they did not.  Please understand that I completely understand the annoyance of the middle-of-the-night AFA call.  Unnecessary interruptions to a good night’s sleep for virtually no reason sucks…I get it!  You are not here to entertain or babysit, I get it!  

They entered, paced the hallway, pointed to the detector on the ceiling, and watched as the maintenance man (who thankfully arrived as quickly as they did) pressed the buttons on the panel, silencing the alarms and resetting the system.  Job done, time to go!  One by one, they exited the front door without so much as a word spoken to the bewildered residents.  No reassurance that everything was OK, no comforting words to the elderly woman who was trembling from the stimulation of the alarm, NOTHING!  The maintenance man must have attended the same charm school, not a peep from him either!  I found myself doing their job.  I answered a few questions, calmed a few nerves and tried my best to explain the situation to my neighbors.  What I would not do, is apologize for the way we were just treated.  In their haste to depart, they didn’t even recognize that the elevator recall was still engaged, and the car was locked open on the second floor.  I dashed to the maintenance man’s truck (OK, I walked swiftly) to ask him to reset the elevator.  He said he didn’t have the key to do it, the fire department does!  “Um, OK, how about we go reset the entire elevator controller”, I asked?  Naturally, he did not know how to do that, and was unwilling to learn.  

The balconies cleared, and the lot was empty, the night was quiet once again.  I stayed with an elderly lady and carried her walker as she slowly ascended the stairs to her apartment on the third floor.  At least I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to improve my image, even if it was just for one person.  Eva was extremely grateful for my patience, concern, and kindness.  Maybe I should do an annual fund drive in the building?  Hmmm?

My point is this…  NEVER pass up the opportunity to show your compassion for your customers.  The garbage calls are what we do most, shouldn’t we do them BEST?  A kind, reassuring word or two after a nuisance call, a gentle ride to the hospital, an understanding ear for a complainant; these are the easy parts of the job we often neglect.  People will forget what you do, but they will never forget how you made them feel!   

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Firehouse Famine - Part 3

Feasting at the firehouse has meant so many different things throughout my career in the fire service.  In this installment of “Hittin’ the Hot Spot”, I will recall the third of three stories about fighting firehouse famine.  I am sure there are more unique stories about food in the firehouse than there are firehouses, and I encourage you all to comment about some of your favorite memories about the people and procedures that helped feed the folks in your station. 
The new Central Fire Station of the TSVFD boasts a full residential kitchen, and occasionally the appliances get used to create entire meals for groups of 2 to 50.  The common gathering consists of about 8 people, career, volunteer and support members alike who pool their funds together and turn a grocery run into a “home-cooked” meal.  In the warmer weather, Grill 85 is often the appliance of choice for cooking up chicken, burgers, and dogs for a main course.  Cooler or rainy weather usually forces the menu to something pasta based, or stovetop/oven cooking. 

For a while, there was a breakfast program that grew into a local gathering of neighboring fire, police, EMS, and family members on Fridays.  The food was both yummy and scary.  Kinda like sausages, you really shouldn’t watch how it is made.  That is all I am going to say about the quality and healthfulness of these delicious meals.  The last time I questioned something this “chef” was a part of it started a snowball of political bullshit that ultimately led to my premature departure from the ranks, but I digress…

The most fascinating meal related occurrence at the 85 House involves ordering take-out.  We are blessed to be in a region that is full of great food choices.  We have multiple steakhouses, sub shops, fast food, pizzerias, restaurants, and Chinese options.  In fact, one of the kitchen drawers contains an organizer of local menus, sorted by category, and a folder full of (mostly expired) coupons for deals.  This leads to the biggest problem… decisions, decisions, and decisions.

I swear, if we were this decisive on the emergency scene, lives and property would be lost.  So many factors go into the decision of WHERE to get food; delivery or pick-up, what we had yesterday or earlier today, how much time do we have, how much money do we have, how hungry are we.  On more than one occasion, I nearly starved to death waiting for the decision to be made; and often resorted to pulling rank and turning the dining democracy into a command decision.  One time, I left, got something to eat on my own, returned, and the menus were still lying on the counter as the crew mulled over their options.  

Once the “where” choice has been made, each individual must choose the “what” from the menu.  Most guys have a favorite dish from each locale and this part goes quickly.  But some people, who shall remain nameless, have commitment issues, and it takes them
f o r e v e r  to decide.  Then there is the challenge of assuring everyone in the place has a chance to get in on the order.  The building is spread out, with lots of places to be isolated.  Usually an announcement over the PA system clears the “orderer” from any erros of omission.  A list gets generated, and someone gets designated to “make the call”.  This is a position of great responsibility, as there are often questions about the orders that this individual must be ballsy enough to answer on behalf of the individual diners.  

Now it is time for financing the mission.  Normally the counter looks like the kitty of a high-stakes poker game as everyone antes-up.  Occasionally there are deals struck like pro sports draft days (can you spot me, and I will pay you later), or payback times (You already owe me from yesterday).  The poor slob gathering the money must keep an accurate account of the money, lest he be chastised throughout the meal.  Of course, NO ONE ever has exact change.  This can benefit the runner if the participants feel generous and “round up”, or cause bewilderment if everyone cheaps-out on the tax or up-charges for extra items.   

Finally the order is placed, the money is compiled, and someone walks in saying, “what are we getting for dinner?”  This is where things get tricky.  If the guy is a douche (every house has a few), we usually tell him a little white lie like, “we already ate”, and so he goes off to get his own meal.  If the meal organizer is feeling generous (or if he thinks the kitty is slightly underfunded) he can often work a deal to let the newcomer get in on the order in exchange for becoming the designated runner.  Late arriving regulars to the process are often invited to participate; “We just ordered food, you want in?”  

"Food's Here!" announced over the station PA brings the sharks to the day room.  These moments are sometimes stressful, as everyone sorts through the bags of goodies, looking for their grub. The runner and caller keep their fingers crossed that the order is complete and accurate, and sigh with relief once everyone has found their food.  Except for that one guy sitting at the counter looking like a lost puppy, everyone is happily munching away.  When did he arrive?  Did we forget to ask him?  
No matter what the intent of the participants, someone gets left out, forgotten, ignored, or overlooked.  It is not usually intentional, but it is uncomfortable just the same.  That’s when karma strikes in the form of a dispatch.  “Ha, bitches, now you food will be cold and soggy when we come back!  It serves you right for being so indecisive and thoughtless!”  

Group clean-up usually goes very quickly, then there is nothing left to do but wait for Mr. Softee to bring us cold, sweet desserts!


Friday, May 9, 2014

Firehouse Famine - Part 2

Feasting at the firehouse has meant so many different things throughout my career in the fire service.  In the next few installments of “Hittin’ the Hot Spot”, I will recall some of my favorite stories about fighting firehouse famine.  Before you get too excited, these stories are not going to provide you with any new recipes, rather the manner in which the food was acquired and devoured.  I am sure there are more unique stories about food in the firehouse than there are firehouses, and I encourage you all to comment about some of your favorite memories about the people and procedures that helped feed the folks in your station.  

I have so many memories from the beautiful gray stone firehouse at 2265 Noble Street.  It was in this station where my fire service career began as a junior brigade member in 1980, and the memories mounted until the apparatus was moved into the new central fire station of the TSVFD some 25 years later.  As I sit here recalling the food situation at that station, I keep stumbling over great memories of the people and events that make up the greatest portion of my fire service experiences.  I have two documents open at the moment; this blog post and a list of stories to tell from the old West Lawn Fire Company.

Several companies come to mind that helped shape the cuisine at old station 5, 65, 85-2.  The most dominant ones were Chet Irwin’s, West Lawn Beverage, Clover Farms, Mays Sandwich Shop, Domino’s and Schwan’s.  Irwin’s Meats was a distributor located right across the street from the borough building that housed the fire station.  Even before I was a member, I knew that any special occasion at the hosey would have a spread that included Berks hot dogs (boxes of 50, boiled in beer, of course), New Yorker sharp cheese (sold in 5 pound blocks and often cubed in my kitchen), and hippy ring bologna from Chet’s.  The Irwins were past members who continued to support the fire company, and giving them our business was not only convenient, but the right thing to do to promote home town support.

West Lawn Beverage has been doing business for as long as I can remember, and it was a no brainer to give   From cases of beer and soda (in returnable bottles) to quarters and halves for fund-raisers zone meetings and special events, and even the peanuts and pretzels that were always on hand for the munching, “Boogie” Derr’s was always there.  Even when we phased out bottles and went to aluminum cans, WLB Co. was one of the few places where we could take our giant bags of crushed cans and sell them for scrap!  Cha-ching.
them our business as well.

Clover Farms certainly made the list of suppliers of the food chain.  Their highly addictive ICY TEA, both in regular and “unleaded” was a staple for cold refreshments, shuffleboard and pool table wagers, and for simply spreading good cheer by “buying a round” for anyone hanging around the day room.  From the little cardboard cartons, to the larger portioned cartons, to the plastic bottles, the contents of those drink containers is surely what kept the late night crew awake into the wee hours of the morning.  After chugging the deliciousness, you then had the unwritten responsibility of creativity with the waste.  Some popular activities included folding then stomping the cardboard containers to see how loud you could make them pop, and shooting from three point range into the trash can carefully tucked into the corner of the wall and the refrigerator to allow for bank shots!  If there was a downside to the Clover Farms deliveries, it was being the first one in the station on delivery day, and having to heft the four to six cases we bought every three days up the steps and then stack them all with Tetris-like skills in the fridge.  

Of course, no one could ever forget the great service we got from Denton and Bill from Mays Sandwich Shop.  Bill was a long time active firefighter who always supported the department even after he was no longer an “active” firefighter.  First there was the party catering.  Many of us could easily recite the spread that Bill would put together for our collection days, holiday parties, fundraisers and events; from the red-beet eggs, to the rolled up meats, macaroni salad to the super potent onions.  All we had to do is give Bill a number, date and time, and the food was ready to be picked up and put on the tab.  

Probably the greatest benefit we got from Mays’ is when they began to provide the food for Goodman Vending.  We became beneficiaries of their constantly refreshed stock of pre-packaged, individually wrapped, frozen and fresh sandwiches.  We enjoyed everything from cheeseburgers, to chicken patties on a roll, to Fiesta subs, and of course the fresh ham and Italians on KAISER rolls.  Those who know why I capitalized Kaiser most likely said it out loud in a high pitch voice or at least gave out a little chuckle.  I recall on more than one occasion eating Mays food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner while hangin’ at the hose house.  All these treats were sold on the honor system, with a very slim profit margin.  I am proud to say that for all those years, the contents of “box” always managed to pay the bills.  

Domino’s Pizza was a staple at this station as well.  I can’t remember how many times someone had to hang out the second floor window to tell the pizza guy that someone would “be right down” with the cash.  Everyone enjoying the pie would chip in, and the drivers learned that we were pretty good tippers.  Sadly, however, our fondness for Dominoes ended abruptly after a rather disturbing fire call at one of the driver’s houses.  Some swore off pizza altogether after that call, it was really THAT disgusting. 

My final tip of the hat goes to the Schwan’s Man.  While we had the food part covered through Mays, it was the Schwan’s man that provided the desert.  The best part of the SCHWAN’S GUY (said in a voice similar to “Kaiser Roll”) was that he carried the stuff up the steps.  There was nothing better that getting to the station to discover that there was a fresh batch of Schwan’s ice cream in the freezer.  His delivery schedule was so important that a fire prevention visit was once cut short to make sure we could be restocked.  Hey, priorities, right?   

There was no day room quite like the one at the West Lawn Station.  It was spacious, entertaining, and delicious. 

Monday, May 5, 2014

Firehouse Famine - Part 1

Feasting at the firehouse has meant so many different things throughout my career in the fire service.  In the next few installments of “Hittin’ the Hot Spot”, I will recall some of my favorite stories about fighting firehouse famine.  Before you get too excited, these stories are not going to provide you with any new recipes, rather the manner in which the food was acquired and devoured.  I am sure there are more unique stories about food in the firehouse than there are firehouses, and I encourage you all to comment about some of your favorite memories about the people and procedures that helped feed the folks in your station.  

My first stories come from 7507 Baltimore Blvd. in College Park, Maryland.  PGFD Station 12 was my home away from home for 2 ½ years while I attended the University of Maryland.  It was a unique situation for several reasons.  First and foremost, it was a fire station.  There was a career staff on duty during the day from Monday – Friday, but the house was staffed by volunteers the rest of the time.  However, within those vollies were 12 people who actually lived at the fire station in what was called the “Sackroom”.  

Although the Sackroom itself was our little oasis away from all the normal activity of the station, we all shared one kitchen on the main floor.  Every live-in had a portion of a shelf in one of the three refrigerators, and one overhead cabinet.  Although we trusted each other, you wrote your name on everything if you actually wanted to have it there when you were ready to eat it.  Fortunately, there were alliances and partnerships that permitted sharing, but only if you had something of equal value to share.  I remember mass quantities of fish sticks, spaghetti & meatballs, mac & cheese, and P. B. & J’s coming out of that kitchen; at least until grillin’ season.  I never knew how many things could be grilled.  I also realized that I wasn’t the only wacker who enjoyed pretending a good grease fire on the grill was like a mini structure fire.  Nothing wrong with multi-tasking food prep with fire attach practical exercises, right?  I only recall one instance where gear and SCBA was actually deployed, but the squirt bottle got a good workout.

The town had the usual college town temptations as well.  I was particularly fond of Hungry Herman’s steak, egg and cheese hoagie, the Bagel Place’s breakfast sandwiches, and of course, the Domino’s Pizza joint, which was within eyesight of the apparatus ramp if you felt like peering through binoculars and watching your pizza get made.  There was one delivery guy who drove a convertible Jeep who worked every minute that store was open, 7 days a week.  He knew every corner of the campus and town, and never walked.  He even ran the stairs, elevators took too long.  I remember him telling me that he made $90,000 a year, and based on his hustle, I believe him.  I briefly considered a career path adjustment. 

Probably my greatest memory of all was the evening meals during work shifts.  During the summer and over holiday breaks in the college calendar, the fire department would hire three or four vollies to staff the station after the career staff went off duty.  Since most of the active members were college students, the house would get might lonely when everyone went home for the holidays.  It was a pretty good deal, and the selection was usually a competition.  Hang at the fire station AND get paid?  Sign me up!

The shift started at 3:00 p.m., and we had three important tasks to complete at the start of each shift: equipment checks, spot cleaning tasks, and meal planning, but not always in that order.  We would decide on the menu and post it on the chalkboard in the dayroom with a sign-up deadline time.  By 3:30, we could expect phone calls from members trying to decide what they wanted to do for dinner.  If our menu sounded good, they signed up.   

With the afternoon tasks completed, the duty crew would check the sign-up list, and do an impromptu first-due target hazard familiarization of a local grocery store.  Since we were running hot, we always tried to keep the store visit as brief as possible.  Dividing the shopping list (usually by tearing it into portions) made the trip go very quickly.  Back at the station, the preparations and calculations began.  Barring any interruptions by the communication center, our timing was usually spot-on, and we collected cash (usually between 4 and 7 dollars, depending on the menu).

I remember occasionally having leftovers, but not very often.  Either we were good planners or great eaters.  Clean-up was always as smooth as the preparation.  Everyone who ate helped clean up… it was the unwritten rule.  With great teamwork, we could have everything cleaned up and put away in less than 10 minutes.  Only then could we do dessert!