Conversation With a Firefighter (From Pulse Magazine Volume 15 Issue 2) | Justin Wang
For our second print issue of this year, Pulse Editor-in-Chief Justin Wang sat down with Micah Doan, a Fire Department Community Outreach Officer, to discuss the life and work of a firefighter. As promised, we’ve here posted the full transcript of Justin’s interview. For the abridged version, look for Justin’s piece “Burning Questions” in Pulse Volume 15 Issue 2, which can be found at many locations around campus.
Could you describe for us your day to day routine, what you’re handling, etc.
We show up in the morning, about 7:00, we relieve each other a little early, our normal shift change is 8:00 — we usually relieve each other a little early, it’s common courtesy we do so that people can get out the door and beat traffic.
We have to do equipment checks, we check out the entire fire engine or fire truck, and make sure that all the equipment is functioning properly, make sure all the equipment is there, nothing missing. And also we’ll get logged on nowadays we have so much technology, but we have to log onto a computer, we call it a mobile data computer, and also on the ipad, we also carry iPads onto the rig which we do all of our mobile documentation on.
We’ll usually have a morning meeting about 8:00, we have 4 people on a crew, so we’ll all sit down together, and we’ll go over the routine for the day.
We’re at the station for 24 hours a day, and we’re supposed to stay fit, for our job — if we don’t … well one of the most killers of firefighters is heart attacks, we’ll ramp our heart rates up really high if we’re on an incident, like a fire or something like that, wso we’ll start to see these real impacts with cardiovascular fitness, so we’ll go out and we get exercise.
And then we’ll go shop — we live there for 24 hours, so we have to cook food, lunch and dinner, and so what we do is we collect money from yourself, so everybody pitches in 10 dollars at the morning meeting, and then we take that money to buy enough groceries so we can make lunch and dinner.
Everyday we document 2 hours of training every single day, so we’ll go out and either do hose lays , or we’ll put ladders up to buildings to practice with all our equipment.
After 5:00 and after dinner, do all the dishes, clean the station a little bit, hopefully get some rest and some downtime, but that usually doesn’t work. Keep in mind, ALL this stuff is in between calls, anywhere we are, throughout our shift, we’re always available for calls. And that’s one of the things people don’t know when they see us exercising or see us shopping, we carry our radios, that’s why we bring the rig, that’s why we all stay together all the time, so that way we’re available when a call comes, hop on the rig, pick up the gear, go on the call.
Admin duties beyond answering emails? Most common administrative things you have to do, interacting with parties, etc.?
Every call we go on, is documented on a database. As the captain, besides the emails , obviously there’s a ton of emails involved, we have to document every call we went on by filling out a narrative and describing what we encountered when we arrived at the call, and it’s synced up with the CAD data, the computer aided dispatch data that comes from our dispatch center, … and I’ll enter the narrative of what we encountered, input all the additional information that was required for the call that wasn’t inside the CAD dispatch information, and I have to do that or every single call.
The calendar I coordinate it’s all sort of training events and community events and things like that which require me to input on the Outlook calendar, and coordinate with other engine companies and truck companies, since San Diego is surrounded by all these other cities, all the other areas around us.
Stressed for resources? How to prioritize?
Yeah definitely, you know I see about *this much* of the picture, when you’re the brand new guy about *this much* but a lot of those things that you’re talking about they’re even bigger, they’re global problems, they’re way bigger than what I see personally, as I’m one of those resources since I’m responsible for the engine.
Do I see shortage of resources sometimes, and what do we do to overcome that? Definitely. On a day to day basis, we respond to medical calls, and a lot of people wonder why we respond to medical calls, but we do because we’re cross trained as EMTs and also as paramedics, and we get there first before the ambulance most of the time, we get there within 5-7 minutes of the 911 call, and we’re able to render aid. And a lot of times we’ll be waiting on an ambulance. So there’ll be a shortage of resources because there’s a shortage of ambulances in the entire city so we don’t have an ambulance coming for a while, so because of that we’ll sometimes call on another engine company to come, or along with that, there have been instances in the past and it’s not in policy but we’ve had to use utilize the engine to transport somebody which is totally a last last last resort, you know, but other than that, essentially we triage, and the more experience you get in this job, like a lot of the chiefs with that broader global vision or captains with a little bit more vision, you gain that experience and that’s how you’re able to prioritize and make those decisions about the important thing you need right now, and what you need later.
I mean like on a fire, we dispatch 4 engines and 2 trucks to what we call a commercial structure fire. So if it’s close to us, and we’re in, we have to make a decision for a house fire, we have to make a decision on what’s the priority. Because I know my other resources are coming with neighboring districts, so you have to sit there and have to go well how much of a fire do i have , do i have victims, what’s my access, all these different things, where’s my water supply, because we have water on the engine but we could run out really fast right, so we have to prioritize and make those decisions, and then not only do I have to make them for my crew, who I’m working with, but the incoming units and so you prioritize those things.
What do you like most about your job?
Well I think most of us get into this to help people honestly, that’s what a lot of us when they first think about getting into this job that’s what we first sign up for, and on a day to day basis we do get a chance to make an impact on somebody, whether it be on a call, where somebody needs us in an emergency, or we make an impact on their family member. Because if they’re not critical, but we’re there for the family who’s extremely stressed or upset about what’s going on, and so we’re there making the impact on them helping alleviate their stress or their issues.
Along with that, just day-to-day operations, like in my current position, being the community outreach person, I coordinate engine companies going to all these different events, talking to kids …. And when we do those things, we show that we’re part of our community, because each engine company services a community, and the crews on those engine companies are usually very very passionate about serving their community, and we’re able to make that impact there and show people hey, we’re here for you.
Most difficult part of your job?
It’s something that we kinda touched on, but seriously when I was 25 years old and first getting into this, I was excited, everything’s exciting, this is all new, this is crazy stuff I’m seeing, some of the stuff you see is just absolutely crazy, a lot of it is heart-wrenching gut-wrenching, when you’re 25 you’re feeding off it, I guess in some ways.
But the older I get, I got a family now, I got a kid, I got a wife, your priorities kinda change, and you start to over time seeing enough of that stuff it wears you a lot. IT really does. The stuff I was excited about back when I was a new firefighter now i don’t even want to see, because it’s just I’ve seen enough of that stuff, you know, dead people, horrible injuries or sicknesses, illnesses, people burned, things like that. And so that really wears on you. Same thing also all these engine companies people think at night time we go to bed and wake up in the morning, that’s not what happens. Almost every engine company wakes up in the middle of the night. There are like no engine companies out there now that will sleep all night every night, the population of San Diego is so big and dense now that it just doesn’t happen. And so certain areas, most i’ve been up is 9 times after midnight, certain areas that’s the norm. You’re getting worn down and beat down, and you take that home to your family and it affects your health, and all those things are things you don’t think about when you’re young, but the older you get you kinda like i don’t know how much longer I can do these things.
How long have you been doing this/how did you get into it?
I’ve been doing this for 17 year, sand actually it’s funny because I had no idea I ever wanted to do this I wasn’t like a kid who ever thought about being a firefighter ever in his life…
I was going to community college, taking on these classes to find out what I wanted to do, and I had this weight on my shoulders, of like, I’d literally seit out thera nd bel iek I don’t know what I want to do. A friend of mine was going to Palomar college’s fire Academy, and started to explain to me the fire department and how it’s hands on, and you’re working with a team, and all these things, and you get to do crazy exciting things, you get to help people, it’s what your job is , it’s amazing, I was like wow, why did I never think of this? SO, I looked into it, and I took a bunch of classes, and I started volunteering as a firefighter, and started doing a lot of other things, working with some nonprofits like the burn institute, the firehouse museum downtown, and dove right into all these things you can do… I eventually worked my way in, interviewed, then I went to the fire academy, that’s a whole opther s tory. OH no Oh yeah, that thing ixs a real butkicker
What do you think are the qualities they should look for?
I think you have to be a team player for sure, you have to be ready to sacrifice yourself, and I”m not saying in the dramatic, sacrifice-your-life way, but eventually, realistically, you may have to — but be ready to not only look out for yourself, but for the whole team as a whole. You have to be physically fit, hardworking and focused, because when we go on calls, you can’t ever say well, I don’t know, I don’t know what to do, you can’t, that’s not an option for us, and it could be anything… you have to have the answer, you have to be able to work through the problems, a lot of it is interpersonal communication. I’ve had to literally yell at people to get them to listen to me, because they’re inured , and they’ve got a femur fracture or something like that, and I know it’s gonna hurt to put this split on, but iI have to do it , and you have to get people to work with you. Those are kinda the biggest qualities.
It’s helped out a lot, honestly, there’s always the growing pains… all in all, when I came on, we were filling out bubble forms for all of our calls, and now we’re touching things on the Ipad, information is being pulled down from the cloud, and the computers in the engines now (we used to have these dot matrices with just barebones information)… It’s kinda become a blessing and a curse in some sense, so now we have the computer that gives us detailed information… which has made it really easy for us to get ourselves to calls.
It’s a blessing and a curse because now the human element is taken out of it, and people aren’t as cognizant of where they are, and they’re relying on the mpa, so if that were to go down, we would have to resort back to looking for the mpa, and people fall out of practice for sort of that.
We’ve gotten advances in the medical equipment that we carry, like our defibs will now have the automatic blood pressure cuffs like they do in the hospital, and sometimes those things can be finicky, and so sometimes it takes believe or not longer sometimes to get a blood pressure on a critical patient then if were to do it yourself manual, but people are out of practice doing it manually, and now it’s just kindana that level.
Fires, we do all sorts of fire mapping, digital fire mapping … there’s so much great things that have come from the technology that have made our life a lot easier, but there’s those growing pains when anything new gets introduced.
Fire department can improve on?
I think the FireDep is doing the best it can with it has. Honestly. We have whatever resources, and this isn’t because the fire department chooses to have these resources, i mean if we really wanted to, we know there’s a shortage of fire stations, we know there’s a shortage of people, we know there’s a shortage of these different things, we wish we could have the best trolls, we wish we could have the best equipment, but obviously it all boils down to money… so we’re limited in what we can get or what we can have. Like I said I think the fire department is doing the best they can with the resources it has, it just doesn’t have the money to be able to do the things we wish we could.
Like I said, there’s some engines — if you go down to Gaslamp, there’s’ a station right by Petco Park. And there’s a fire station there. It runs over 20 calls a day, consistently, every day. Up to 230 calls a day. And we need another engine company out of there. But we don’t have the money, the staffing, the resources to put another engine company there. So essentially every day, we have 4 people that are up the entire 24 hours every time they show up to work. 24 hours they’re up. 24 hours they’re up. No sleep. And after 10 days of that month, and month after month after month, and year after year, it’s unsustainable. It really is. But, if we had the money, we know the fire department would put an engine company there, a second one, split the workload.
What can we do?
I think a lot of it is in the prevention side. Like preventing fires, or preventing emergencies. And, I have a feeling that, if I threw it out to anybody here at this school, about texting and driving. Everybody would be guilty of it. My wife’s guilty of it sometimes, and she knows better. And I know it’s out there, because we see the aftermath of all these things. We see car accidents, and there’s the cell phone on the ground and it’s still go the text message screen up, and it’s sad bc it’s not necessarily that person that gets injured, but the family they crashed into that gets injured, or killed, or something like that. So, on the prevention side, stuff like that, making sure your smoke detector works, I mean it’s so basic and common and people kinda chuckle and go “Oh yeah whatever no big deal”, but honestly how many fires where people are standing outside in the middle of the night and the smoke detector woke them up and they got out, got their family out, before the fire was able to overcome them. These little things prevention wise that you know people could do, would really be the best thing.