This month I spoke with Emily Hannigan, a firefighter with the City of Durham’s Fire Department.
Q I almost hate to ask you what firefighters do, because we already know that you fight fires!
A You’d be surprised—our job is actually 80 percent EMS [emergency medical service] and 20 percent fighting fires! As first responders we’re ready to answer the call whenever someone needs help. We’re all trained EMT [emergency medical technician] intermediate—many fire- fighters are only basic level, and they can use basic stabilization techniques. But as intermediate-level EMTs, we can administer IVs [intravenous meds] and medications. Our CPR [cardiopulmonary] resuscitation rates are amazing. We’re also equipped with Narcan®, an opiate override, and EpiPens®—those are for people with severe allergic reactions. Last week, somebody ate something at a restaurant that had an ingredient they didn’t know was in there and swelled up. We got there in minutes, and she had just about stopped breathing. She had swelled up so much her windpipe was blocked. We saved her life with that EpiPen, and Whew! … within minutes she was conscious and talking.
Twenty percent of our job is fighting fires, a variety of fires like house, vehicle, trash … different fires can require different groupings of trucks.
And we also do some public relations—we take the trucks to special events. We do smoke detector installations. They’re free; just stop by any fire station … and we’ll install them for free!
Q So I guess it’s not strange to see a fire truck at the scene of a car accident …
A Right. We’re first responders. So there’s usually four firefighters on a truck: we make sure the area is blocked out or isolated, we do EMS assessments and whatever we have to do to stabilize and save lives, and we have tools for extracting people from vehicles.
We answer a ton of fire and carbon-monoxide alarms, investigate odors, and help people who get stuck in elevators.
You can think of the fire department having two sides: prevention and suppression. Prevention includes inspections and billing for false alarms (you don’t get charged for the first one). The suppression side is all service—there’s no income component.
Oh, by the way--Note to drivers: We really need that left lane! It’s almost impossible to stop or swerve when you’re driving a fire truck, especially when it’s carrying hundreds of gallons of water. So we only ask that you move over to the right lane—you can keep driving if you want, but we need that left lane!
Q I’ve heard about firefighters burning a house on purpose—sounds like fun! Why do you do it?
A Sometimes we’ll hear about a house that’s about to get torn down—like the houses Rick Hendrick Auto bought over in the Southpoint area. If we hear about it in time, we’ll ask if we can burn it for training purposes. You can’t learn everything in a class, so it’s good to be able to get hands-on training in forcing doors, cutting metal, and controlling the interaction between fire and air. There’s a lot of science—like chemistry and physics—involved in fighting fires.
So we like it when property owners call us and let know about old houses that we can use for training.
Q I’ve heard the term “backdraft”— can you explain what that means?
A Firefighters are trained to always be aware of the direction and force of smoke. If there’s no air, a fire can suffocate itself. Smoke goes in and out in response to the direction of airflow. You can see it if you’re standing outside while a fire is in progress. You’ll see the smoke sucking in and out until the roofline or eaves. It will huff and puff, and then if there’s a sudden intrusion of air—like when a window breaks—it can reinvigorate the fire and literally explode. It’s the most dangerous part of firefighting.
Have you heard about “flashover”? It happens because just about everything in our homes nowadays is plastic. East Durham has sturdy old homes, and they can burn for a long time. But newer houses can burn so fast that they’re beyond saving in only 5 minutes! Suppose there’s a fire in a newer house—the lightweight materials can burn fast and hot, and the heat and gases can be so intense that everything can combust and go up in an instant. And the fire doesn’t even have to be in the room. The heat and gases are that intense!
Q I didn’t know there was so much to consider. So how can you possibly know how to fight a fire if you don’t know what you’re dealing with in advance?
A We have to take into account building construction and materials, so we like to make pre-fire assessments. We’ll stop by a business and ask if we can make an assessment just in case there’s ever a fire. The owners are surprised, but they know that the quicker we can get in there and know where to park, and where the exits and kitchens are, and what materials there are, the quicker we can extinguish the fire. Time is our biggest challenge.
Q I remember some years ago there was a fire in my neighborhood. The fire wasn’t that bad, but my neighbor was highly upset because, as he said, “The firemen tore up my house!”
A Note to homeowners: Sorry! We didn’t mean it—we didn’t do it on purpose. Here’s what usually happens: We can put out the fire in minutes … but then we spend a lot of time doing an “overhaul.” That means we might stick a hook in the ceiling and pull it down, take down the kitchen cabinets, and do whatever we have to do to make sure that the fire doesn’t “rekindle.” Fire can travel, so wherever there’s air, the fire can follow that path.
When you’re in the interior of a burning building, there are levels of hot air and gases. You can’t see, and the only way to release the gases to better fight the fire is to go up, and that can mean punching a hole in the roof.
Sometimes an apartment building owner will brag that he’s got firewalls between the apartments—but do those walls extend to the roof? Sometimes they don’t, and fire can travel along a board in the attic, and if there’s enough air movement, the whole attic can catch fire and destroy other apartments. That’s why firefighters stay so long after the fire is put out—we’re making sure there’s no chance for the fire to rekindle. We’ll check any place air can interact with the fire out of sight—closets, crawl spaces, attics … We really look bad if we have to come back.
Q I’ve always heard that firefighters have crazy work schedules—so, what’s your schedule like?
A We have 24-hour shifts. So my day just started a couple of hours ago, and I'm on duty until 7am tomorrow. So we’re on for five days, then off for six. I'm working on Monday, I'll have Tuesday off; I’ll work Wednesday and have Thursday off; then work Friday and have Saturday off; I’ll work Sunday and have Monday off; and then I’ll work on Tuesday and get the next six days off. We end up working 10 days a month.
Q Yeah, but I’ll bet they can be 10 intense days.
A They can be very intense! Many of the single firefighters will work part-time jobs, too. Before I got married, I worked at an animal shelter part-time. But some married firefighters will get part-time jobs, too. Nobody does this job for the money—it’s such an amazing, fulfilling job that you do it just because you love it.
Q Seven o’clock is early—do you eat breakfast together or at home?
A We cook breakfast all together at the station.
Q You said you’re the only woman in your station … so do the others expect you to do all the cooking?
A No, I told them from the beginning, “I’m a looker, not a cooker!” We’re like a bunch of siblings, so we shop together and cook together (there are 11 or 12 people in each station). And yes, we make lots of chili and lots of spaghetti—we try to eat healthy while also keeping costs down. We can’t eat heavy food—you know how tired and sleepy you get when you eat heavy food? We can’t do that because we always have to be ready to GO. You ought to see what happens when we get a call while we’re out grocery shopping—we dump everything at the front desk and run. People think we’re crazy!
Q How many calls do you get per day, and what do you do while you’re waiting?
A We get about 13 calls a day. When we’re not out on calls, doing pre-fire assessments, or doing PR [public relations] at special events, we work out—we have a gym and they’re really nice to allow us to work out at the Y [YMCA]. We train new personnel, get “continuing education” training, and at night we drink lots of coffee and play board games.
Q So, since you’re the only woman in Fire Station #1, I guess you get your own bedroom? And how much time to you get to change out of your jammies and into your fire fighting gear?
A We all have our own bedrooms and bathrooms nowadays. I think years ago, they slept all in one room with bunk beds. When the alarm sounds, we’re expected to be out of there in less than a minute—so that means we sleep with our clothes on.
Q Do you really slide down a pole like on TV?
A Yes—Station #1 has poles! But not all of the stations have them. We slide down and rush into our gear—we jam our feet into our boots. Our pants are already around the boots so we pull them up, and put on our radio, hood, jacket, gloves, air pack, and helmet with face mask. Our gear weighs a total of about 75 pounds.
Q What’s significantly different about being a female firefighter, as far as you’re concerned?
A Well, being a firefighter is not for everybody—you have to really think about your goals and your lifestyle. Now, I’m married to a police officer and we decided not to have kids—that’s our decision. It’s something to really think about. Firefighters can serve 30 years (police officers, too), and when a firefighter becomes pregnant, she gets pulled and put in administration. And that’s fine for some, but not for me.
It’s hard to convince women that firefighting is the best job. It’s great if you don’t want a desk job and like being constantly on your toes. It’s not always pleasant. We can't save everyone, but when we do, it’s like, Wow! I saved a life. It’s just amazing when one moment someone’s almost gone, and then you intervene and they can go on with their lives. There’s no other feeling like that.
It’s great helping others. When people call 911 it’s usually the worst time in their lives and it can be an emotional rollercoaster. But you know, no one leaves this job for another one because it’s so fulfilling. Once you make that lifestyle commitment to being a firefighter, there’s no going back.
City Hall (1 City Hall Plaza)
Department of Transportation, 4th floor