Inside the Wake Forest Fire Department. What You Need to Know.

Last Friday afternoon I had the opportunity to spend time with the members of the Wake Forest Fire Department and sit down with both officers and crew to talk about life inside the department.

I now cover quite a few fire departments around the Wake Forest area and one thing that is universal is the tight brotherhood that exists among firefighters everywhere. Wake Forest is not an exception. The firefighters with Wake Forest describe themselves as a close-knit family and while they would not come out and say it directly, you can feel the brotherly love as they kid around. Each station has its own point of pride and individually they kid and joke with each other but push come to shove they will all stand as a team.

Wake Forest Engine 2 firefighters prepare to enter the home.
Wake Forest firefighters prepare to enter a burning home in Raleigh.

I sometimes hear some crazy opinions and statements about firefighters from casual observers and residents. Some people bitch and complain about firefighters and fire departments based on assumptions and just flat-out crazy thinking.

One statement I’ve heard repeatedly is, “Why do firefighters go to the grocery store in the big truck and we pay for the fuel for them to do that?” Well the answer is not that the firefighters are trying to freeload and use free fuel it’s because a shift of firefighters on duty consists of both manpower and equipment. They are a team with every member playing a critical part.

Imagine if a call came in while one or two of the guys were out buying groceries. The entire team would be less effective to tackle whatever the emergency is. If they take the truck and go together they are always prepared for the next call and able to respond at full strength.

IMG_5554-2Firefighters at Wake Forest Station 1, and at all Wake Forest Stations, are generally incredibly humble and there is no doubt they are willing to put themselves in dangerous situations to assist anyone in crisis.

Wake Forest firefighters may not publicly admit they get scared at times but they do. When you think about it, a firefighter never knows if they are walking into a personally dangerous situation or not, but they go in any way. While responding to save others they also have to be concerned about their own personal safety. They lay their lives on the line in more ways than one.

Some people in the community think when the doors of the firehouse are closed and the trucks are parked in their bays that our firefighters are just tucked in recliners watching television and not doing anything. Well sometimes they might be but most of the time there is a lot that goes on inside.

What people don’t realize is Wake Forest firefighters have their shifts filled with the next unexpected demand for service and oh yes, all the regular tasks required of a firefighter.

The rest of us are generally employed making something, selling something, or providing some type of service. But imagine if your day also involved putting out a fire, or cutting someone out of a wreck as well on top of those regular duties.

All firefighters spend a minimum of 20 hours a month in training. That’s a required minimum total of 240 hours a year composed of all sorts of issues from basic EMT skills to specialized HAZMAT training. And this isn’t like “look at this comic book” kind of training. This training consists of a lot of classroom education and they even have special facilities to train in. In fact in the 2012-2013 year the average amount of training per firefighter was 261 hours. They more than exceeded the minimum requirements.

It is doubtful most people in various occupations go through as much training per month or per year as Wake Forest firefighters do. Now add-on top of that the frequent work of maintaining their trucks and equipment, regular servicing of their equipment, making sure everything is stocked and functional, and you’ve got some very full days. Oh yea, don’t forget to add sleep into that formula as well.

Why Become a Firefighter?

I hear the same responses from many firefighters around our corner of North Carolina about why they became a firefighter. For many they grew up in an environment where family was involved in the fire department, be it a father or grandfather, and they love the opportunity to serve the community.

Sure there is part of the job which enjoys the adrenaline pumping emergency but 90 percent of being a firefighter is not that kind of excitement. So the bottom line is the crew serves as firefighters for the Wake Forest community because they want to serve and protect us. That is the undisputed underlying truth.

Both firefighters and police officers are among the last of any group that will race to your aid, no matter what, if you pick up the phone and call. There is no charge to residents for a response, they will come at any time of the day or night, and they will arrive with special skills, the right tools, and professional experience.

And speaking of Wake Forest police, the firefighters have the utmost of mutual respect for them and it’s not unusual for a police officer to stop by the station. As the firefighters said, “we are all brothers.”

When you sit down with a Wake Forest firefighter and ask them what they would do if they were not able to be a firefighter, there is generally no answer given because these guys are doing exactly what they want to do. Assistant Chief Waylon Holbrook said, “That question kind of caught me off guard. I’ve never considered being anything else.”

Everyone else sitting around the kitchen table had basically the same response, well that’s except for firefighter Davis Sandling who would be a funeral director. Yea, that did kind of stop our around the kitchen table conversation for a moment but he wound up having a perfectly good reason for it. Seems he has family in the funeral business and it is also an occupation where you care for people in a time of need.

And let’s not forget that there is some level of personal sacrifice involved in being a firefighter as well. Because of when they work they miss birthdays, family events, and important things at home. And families miss having their husband or father around as well.

The Obvious Question: What Is It Like Inside a Structure Fire?

The most obvious question for a firefighter is what is it like to be inside of a house on fire. Captain Chris Lewis said it can be very confusing. He said, “You have limited visibility, sounds all over and you’re going into a place you’ve never stepped foot in before.” Now keep in mind the firefighter is also wearing a lot of heavy gear, dragging a hose, and trying not to get injured himself. Oh, and no firefighter wants the be the newbie who panics and gets lost in a closet.

Lewis described the first house fire he ever responded to. It left a lasting impression. He said, “When we got there the fire had burned the entire back of the house off. We opened the front door and the fire was all the way at the back of the house. We closed the door and put our masks on and opened the door again, the fire was all of a sudden right in our face.”

Then of course there are good luck firefighters like Scott Knowles who is called the “white cloud” because nothing really big happens on his shifts. Even though he’s worked with the Wake Forest Fire Department since 2007 he’s never been deeply involved rushing into a structure fire.

What people never seem to appreciate is how much of the job of a firefighter is about excitement and how much about unexciting tasks. But it’s those unexciting tasks fill the majority of the time, like hunting for hidden fire in a house long after the fire is out or throwing down peat moss on spilled fluids at a car accident. Those tasks wind up being the true critical things that need to get done.

An Organized Affair

Being a firefighter is like an organized ballet or carrying out a play with a winning football team. There is almost nothing that happens when the Wake Forest Fire Department responds that is unplanned or unprepared for because of their training and experience.

Different departments working together at a Wake  Forest house fire downtown.
EMS, Rolesville FD, and Wake Forest working together at a Wake Forest house fire downtown.

But from the board of directors, to Chief Ron Early, to his assistant chiefs, the captains, lieutenants, and firefighters, every member has a specific task.

Each truck also has a specific role and on each truck each firefighter has a wide variety of skills but generally assigned duties as well.

For example at Wake Forest Station 1 the role of the first Engine in is to be responsible for fire attack. The Ladder crew is responsible for ventilation and search and rescue. And every firefighter seems to have their own preference of the type of truck mission or role they tackle. They have great pride for the individual truck they serve on.

The roles of the trucks at Station 1 differ by the type of calls they are on. Captain Matt Strawbridge on Ladder 1 said at an accident scene the Ladder crew is primarily responsible for making sure the scene and vehicles are secure and cutting someone out of a vehicle at a bad wreck while the Engine crew tackles patient care. “And then also with Ladder 1 being a big truck we’ll use it block traffic to keep people on the scene from getting hurt,” he said.

Wake Forest Ladder 1 heads out on an accident call.
Wake Forest Ladder 1 heads out on an accident call while I was there.

Seemingly the only variable at each call is what the situation is and what skills and equipment are necessary to deal with it. Almost every tool they need travels with them on the trucks. It’s one reason the trucks are so big.

A baby is coming, no problem. My kitchen is on fire, no problem. My car collided with another one, no problem. My child is missing, I’ve had a stroke or heart attack, no problem. I’ve got lice, well in that case you should not call the fire department.

And while it is an organized affair it seems almost universally true that no one member is publicly willing to take willing to take individual credit for anything. They work as a team because they are a team. As hokey as it might sound to some people it truly is an all for one atmosphere.

In fact they avoid the media so much that if one member gets singled out and appears on TV or in the paper, that person has to buy the next meal for the shift. They really try to avoid individual publicity or recognition.

But Wake Forest firefighters also blend in almost seamlessly with other local departments at big events. The skills Wake Forest firefighters have are shared with other local departments as well.

Wake Forest Asst. Chief Cash watches over both Bay Leaf and Stony Hill firefighters.
Wake Forest Assistant Chief Daryl Cash commands both Bay Leaf and Stony Hill firefighters at a recent house fire.

The Best Thing You Can Do

Wake Forest firefighters are 100 percent prepared to deal with seemingly anything at a minutes notice. But there are still things you can do to help them as a member of the community. The most important is to pull over to the right and stop when you see them coming.

Surprisingly that is getting to be a bigger problem for them when they respond. It’s not always because people are ignorant or ignore the fire trucks racing up towards them. Sometimes it’s just because cars today are made tighter and more sound proof and it’s harder to hear the trucks coming till the last moment.

But when you do notice them, pull over, make way, and stop. As they say, “Failure to respect the red lights will lead to you having a problem with the cars with blue lights on them.”

The other thing you can do if you ever have to call 9-1-1 for help is try to listen to what the emergency operator is asking you on the other side of the phone. If you can answer all of the questions the 9-1-1 people have for you then the better prepared the firefighters will be for the emergency when they arrive.

Our local Wake Forest firefighters probably don’t get told enough how much we appreciate them. Even if you don’t need to call them in a crisis, they still serve each of us every day by being ready, willing, equipped, and skilled to assist every single resident in any situation and at any time of the day or night.

If you see a Wake Forest firefighter out and about it sure wouldn’t hurt to say thank you or just give them a friendly wave.

When Not at Work

About half or more of our local firefighters work second jobs or have their own business on the side. The reason many say they have second gigs is because they work shift work and have days off at a stretch. Lt. Justin Brown said, “If I’m just sitting at home I’m more likely to spend money.” Others echoed the statement. Better to be busy than bored.

Some may work at other departments, some have their own landscaping, contracting, electrical or other business on the side. No matter what it is, it is not usual for Wake Forest firefighters to have multiple lives but the primary desire is to save you when you find yourself on your worst day.

Station Tour

Outside of the bay with the fire trucks it seems the heart of the operation is the kitchen. Much like any home the kitchen is the place people come and share meals, conversation, and talk about recent events.

As with most stations, all the money goes into the right equipment and not much into decorating. Someone, somewhere wrote a rule that every fire station has to be furnished with the This End Up collection. And as far as wall treatments go, the de rigueur painted block walls or commercial look are the standard.

The Wake Forest Fire Department has a long history of serving the community through the decades.
The Wake Forest Fire Department has a long history of serving the community through the decades.
Captain Chris Lewis talks about what it is like for him to be a firefighter.
Captain Chris Lewis talks about what it is like for him to be a firefighter while at the kitchen table.
The largest of the Wake Forest Fire Department classrooms.
The largest of the Wake Forest Fire Department classrooms.
Each truck at WFFD Station 1 has their own office to keep records, logs, and documentation.
Each truck at WFFD Station 1 has their own office to keep records, logs, and documentation.
The Ladder 1 crew bunk room. It's not the Ritz but it is either a This End Up museum exhibit or home sweet home at work.
The Ladder 1 crew bunk room. It’s not the Ritz but it is home-sweet-home at work.
Not sure whose bed this is but props for a well themed bedspread.
Not sure whose bed this is but props for a well themed bedspread.

Conclusion

Our Wake Forest firefighters are a highly skilled team of brothers who are ready, willing, and able to serve you at anytime when you need them most.

We are damn lucky to have them protecting our community.

6 thoughts on “Inside the Wake Forest Fire Department. What You Need to Know.”

  1. Thanks so much Steve for writing this article and for your support of WFFD. People have no idea of what it’s like for the firefighters or their families. We really appreciate it!!!!

  2. Tell me why I can apply not 1,2 times and get not so much as a call back, email nothing. But some 19 year old kid who works picking up trash for me on the job site says oh yea my dad got me into this “he knows the Chief”. WTH he’s White and I’m black. Just Saying!! Don’t hear you talking about this. Why are most of the Fire Departments WHITE ONLY!!!

    • If you feel you were treated unfairly in the hiring process, let me know. I’d be happy to look into it for you. Contact Us.

      And while I admit the department is predominately white males I did ask them about women serving as firefighters and nobody had a problem with that and looked forward to having qualified applicants apply. Last night I was at a dinner with the Youngsville Fire Department and one of their non-white members has served for 36 years.

      One seemingly universal route is to consider becoming a volunteer. On every department we cover, volunteers seem to have a leg up in that they have proven themselves and are a known commodity.

      As far as if any department might be a who you know enterprise, I really don’t think that’s unique to any fire department or any business. It seems it’s who you know and not what you know that gets people the strangest breaks. But that being said I would find it very unusual for a who you know to get you straight to the front lines. Just recently I covered the Stony Hill hiring process where they had 13 fully experienced and qualified firefighters, not all white, competing for one job.

      Stony Hill is actively looking for volunteers.

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