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A second home

Firefighters share camaraderie unlike other professionals

(Published July 2, 2001)

MARY RECHICHAR

Staff Writer

A drawing of the Tasmanian Devil, a Warner Bros. cartoon character, watches over firefighters inside Engine Company 16 on 13th Street NW, south of Logan Circle. While some firefighters there refer to themselves as "The Tasmanian Devils," their formal nickname is "Midnight Express" due to their many late night runs.

They live together, eat together and save lives together ó at least while theyíre on duty.

Some even socialize outside of work.

Firefighters, in the District and elsewhere, have a certain camaraderie that comes from being together and sharing the same experiences.

"A fire station is a second home to firefighters," said George Burke, assistant to the general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters. "They spend nearly as much time with the people they work with as their families."

D.C. fire fighters are no exception. The people they work with serve as surrogate families and offer the same support and closeness. Some of the firehouses have nicknames that seem to be an extension of the camaraderie that the fire fighters share.

But the life of a fire fighter is not all playtime. The camaraderie is right alongside the rough spots, too. Sgt. Bernard Holt of Engine 16, located at 1018 13th St. NW, rates the stress level of being a firefighter as a 10.

"Youíll be sleeping and have to go from zero to 100 in seconds," he said. "In 24 hours you might get three or four hours of sleep."

After a 24-hour shift, they have 72 hours off to recuperate and spend time with their families. Since almost all of their calls come after midnight, Engine 16 is nicknamed "Midnight Express."

Even though itís a stressful job, there are times when the firefighters can kick back and relax. After 8 p.m. itís "chill time." They watch television, talk or "just shoot the breeze," said Holt.

Holt recalled times when some of the firefighters needed a hand. One was in financial trouble and the others passed a hat around and took a collection to help. Another one wanted to build a deck at his house, so everyone came with their hammers and nails to help build it.

The same way of life applies at Engine 10, located at 1342 Florida Ave. NE.

"If somebody needs something, itís not too hard to find someone in the firehouse to help you out," said Capt. Robert Mullikin of Engine 10. For example, if one of the men is sick, or even gets killed on the job, the rest of the firefighters pitch in to care for the family.

Mullikin said it takes a patient person to be a firefighter.

"Itís idle at times, but you need the ability to adapt to different situations," he said. "Sometimes we play cards, but itís not like you see on TV."

Adapting means being able to adjust for the slow times that are offset by the chaos of call after call, giving Engine 10 the nickname "House of Pain" because most of the time theyíre on the run.

When it comes to the stressful situations, Mullikin said most stress is vented out among co-workers. Counseling is available for those who are affected psychologically by what they see or what happens on the job.

"The worst aspect is seeing little kids getting hurt," he said.

Capt. Alan Dutton works at Engine 23, located at 2119 G St. NW. He said that the bond fire fighters share comes from seeing each other at their best and worst.

"You wake up and see them with the bed-head," he said.

Even though they canít always be groomed and primped, the fire fighters at Engine 23 take pride in keeping the firehouse and equipment neat and clean, earning the nickname "Pride of the Fleet."

That bond is also what helps fire fighters cope with the hard part of the job, such as losing fellow fire fighters to the job, and move past it.

"Itís just like having your family," he said. "Itís always better when you have somebody."

Despite the negative aspects of it, Dutton said he likes his job. Fire fighting is all he ever wanted to do.

"If you enjoy what you do, itís almost like not even having a job," he said. "Itís like, ĎGee, theyíre paying me to do this?í"

Copyright 2001, The Common Denominator