They say (or at least they should say) that spending half a day with a group of people can tell you an awful lot about that group’s goals, fundamentals, and underlying character.
On Tuesday, July 19, I spent more than half a day— 8 hours and 15 minutes, to be exact— with crew 3 of the Ottumwa Fire Department at the city’s Central Station.
During that time, I learned that the OFD’s “squad” is better than any around.
The team was more than generous to both me and Indian Hills Community College student Kelsey Link during those hours: I was there to gather experience for my internship with Ottumwa Radio Group; and Link was present to gain hours of observation and training for her EMT degree.
The day began with a lighthearted breakfast at 7 in the morning; after half an hour of camaraderie and cereal, the team shifted its priorities to cleaning the station, checking radio equipment, and thoroughly scanning each vehicle for the presence of needed emergency materials.
Crew members Robert Vaughn and Ron Klein walked us through the station’s Squad 1, a small pickup truck usually used for medical calls and small fires. They check duffel bags and medical kits in the vehicle for such items as latex gloves, air packs, splints, gauze, cold packs, triage tags, report sheets, blankets, and backboards.
Around 8:25, crew member Andy Ewing began to clear ice chunks out of the garage’s outdated freezer.
Ewing noted that he cleans out the freezer “about once every couple months,” as the outdated refrigerator technically belongs to him and needs plenty of TLC.
Just five minutes later, at 8:30, Vaughn and Klein rushed Link and me towards Squad 1. The station had just received a medical call that required urgent attention.
In less than two minutes the medical team had reached the scene.
Vaughn and Klein began providing first-responder care to the patient immediately. After the initial assessment, the two gave Link the chance to gain tactical field experience by taking the patient’s vitals.
By 8:45, Squad 1 was back at Central Fire Station and the medical report was being filed by Vaughn.
“We treat patient privacy very highly,” Vaughn noted as he discreetly explained the sections of the report in relation to the medical call we had just returned from.
Around 9:05, south-side crew members Jeff Box and Josh Chance reported to Central Station for department-wide training.
Because of the heat, however, the team decided to prepare the station for next week’s 70 expected RAGBRAI guests instead.
After a brief cool-down and light discussion among the crew, we headed back to the kitchen around 9:40, where the crew sorted through outdated food in the refrigerator.
Ewing explained the team’s “schedule” during the downtime: members of each shift work three 24-hour days (with a day off in between each working day) and have four days free. In addition, crew members always work together within the same unit or crew (unless they leave the department or retire) and are required to live within a 10-mile radius of the station.
Around 10:30, the team invited me to try on the traditional turnout gear for size. The fitting took around 10 minutes to complete (in an emergency situation, a fireman would have one-and-a-half minutes to put his or her gear on, but can usually complete the task even faster than that).
The gear itself was bulky and hot (the boots were so heavy that even walking was a chore), and the equipment was cumbersome. By the end of the transformation, I was wearing boots, pants, a jacket, gloves, a cap, an oxygen mask, and a pressurized air tank.
Per the crew’s suggestion, I tested the gear out by walking up and down a flight of stairs (very difficult) and crawling on my hands and knees through the dark kitchen to “rescue” an individual (even harder).
After putting the gear away, the crew offered to set up Tower 1 so that Link and I could take a ride in the truck’s 100-foot expendable tower.
Ewing secured Link and me to the bucket with safety harnesses and took the captain’s wheel as the tower rose 100 feet in the air. The view was breathtaking and unlike anything I’ve ever seen. As Ewing put it, “Ottumwa looks way better from up here”.
After we were back on solid ground, the crew put Tower 1 away and gave us the signal for lunch.
The lunch break lasted for two hours (11-1), during which time the crew ate, relaxed, and completed minor tasks. According to Assistant Chief Mike Craff, the team occasionally takes unconventionally long breaks to make up for the extended hours they work and the many calls they respond to daily.
That Tuesday, I watched two hours’ worth of A&E’s Storage Wars.
Craff explained that the crew pays for its own meals, cable television, and newspapers through different staff contributions.
They never know when the radios will go off and end the break early. Craff also noted that because of the many calls the station receives, “we’ve thrown away a lot of food over the years…[and] there’s a lot of movies [we] never see the ending to”.
After lunch, the crew went out to the garage and folded some laundry.
Next, members from the department’s station on the south side hooked up a hose to one of the fire trucks and gave both Link and me the chance to handle a real-life fire hose.
With Ewing’s assistance and very low PSI, the fire hose was relatively easy to manage (I’ll have to work on building some arm strength for next time, though).
All that fun nearly emptied the truck’s tank, so south-side crew member Chance used a water valve on the garage’s ceiling to refill the truck.
For the first scenario, I played the role of “patient” by climbing into the passenger side of one of the station’s vehicles and acting as though I had been injured in a car accident.
The scenario gave Link a chance to respond to a human “patient” and react according to that patient’s behavior and needs. It also gave each of the OFD crew members a chance to share real-world advice with Link and walk her through certain procedures.
By the time the scenario had ended, I was wearing a neck brace and spinal support gear and was lying on an orange backboard on the garage floor.
Link further applied her medical skills in a cardiac arrest scenario (Chance played the “patient”) by addressing the patient’s situation and taking vitals.
After both scenarios, department firemen shared helpful tips and even gave Link some medical skills sheets to study for her upcoming final exams.
Box noted, “no matter what your day is like, you gotta be nice to [the patients]”.
Link’s training ended around 2:30. By that time, all crew members had congregated in the station’s kitchen and living space in order to monitor the storms that were forming to the west of Ottumwa.
Between 2:30 and 3:15, I asked questions and learned more about Ottumwa’s Fire Department.
First, I learned that a basic EMT degree is the minimum requirement to work for the department. In fact, many crew members also work part-time at the local hospital in order to round out their medical skills.
Second, I learned that Ottumwa’s firemen are incredibly dedicated to serving the city.
Vaughn mentioned that his favorite part of the job is “just helping people that can’t help themselves… [and] providing that service to the community”.
Third, I learned that these local heroes are humble and selfless. For example, whenever I took my cell phone out of my purse to capture an image, crew members would turn their backs or step out of the picture.
So after spending more than eight hours with the Ottumwa Fire Department, I learned a lot about the department’s goals, fundamentals, and underlying character.
I learned that the city of Ottumwa is kept safe by a dedicated team of highly-trained, around-the-clock crew members who do their best to respond quickly and respectfully to each emergency situation.
I spent eight hours with the department, but the firefighters of crew 3 had another 16 hours on their shift. At 4:23 PM, about an hour after I left, crew three extinguished a trash fire on North Elm. The team also assisted with five medical calls between 9:30 PM and 5:30 AM.
I also learned that the city of Ottumwa is really blessed to have such a great “squad” at its beck and call each day.
And yes, Ottumwa Fire Department’s “squad” is better than yours.
Be sure to show your gratitude to the selfless members of OFD.
I would like to extend a personal note of thanks to those members of the Ottumwa Fire Department who assisted me with their information and time on Tuesday. I will never forget the experience.