Hours of uncertainty
But firefighters aren’t most people.
“One minute you’re having dinner. The next minute it could be anything,” says Jeff Porter, an Eagle River firefighter.
There’s an old saying at the firehouse that the fancier the dinner that’s being cooked, the less time you have to eat it, says Al Bosworth, a Vail Fire Department technician who drives and operates the engines.
“We could have macaroni and cheese and never get a call,” Bosworth says. “But the second the steaks hit the table, the alarm goes off. Once a guy sent us live Maine lobsters, and the second they came out of the boiler and hit the plate, we got tones.”
“Tones” is fire lingo for the alarm bell broadcast over the radio that sends firefighters scurrying toward their engines and hurrying down the road to the distress call.
“If you’re sound asleep, you’ve got one minute to get your boots on, down the pole and out the door and be competent enough to know where you’re going,” Bosworth says. “Especially if you’re driving.”
A year after the September 11 terrorist attacks made firefighters into national heroes, those who do the job in the valley say they’re the same people, doing the same job. Vail Fire Capt. Jim Spell, who has been fighting fires for 25 years, says perceptions have only changed outside the firehouse.
“We haven’t changed. The world has changed. We’re the same kind of people that have been doing this for 2,000 years,” Spell says. “What has changed are people’s perceptions of the job.”
But Spell says the deaths of more than 300 firefighters in the World Trade Center affected him deeply.
“After 9-11, there were the tremendous feelings firefighters had all over the country and we all helped each other to continue our work,” Spell says. “I had a lot of issues to deal with personally and after 25 years in the fire service, I was surprised at the issues.”
The outpouring of support that flooded toward firehouses across the nation and in the valley was greatly appreciated, Spell says. But firefighters don’t do their dangerous work for publicity, and their motivation is not getting their pictures in the newspaper.
“There is nothing better in the world than saving a life or making a difference in a life,” Spell says. “My favorite moments are the little three-by-five cards that say, “Thanks for saving my father’s life.'”
Money is also not the big reward, Eagle River Fire Lt. Cipriano Tafoya says.
“With the risks you take, the money is not the reason you do it,” Tafoya says. “You could make a lot more money doing other things.”
Tafoya, a native of the valley, says he decided to become a firefighter after watching a fire at the Sunridge apartment complex in 1988.
“I felt helpless and wanted to do something. I called up a couple of weeks later and asked if they needed volunteers,” Tafoya says. “A lot guys, when they start out, it’s about helping people and then you got hooked on the adventure.”
On a recent dazzling Friday morning, Spell, Bosworth and firefighters Mike Mulcahy and Chad Archibald manned the Vail Village station, keeping their equipment, their engines and the station that is their home for 24 hours in tip-top shape.
“This is the unknown,” Bosworth says. “You never know what you’re going to be doing.”
But the crew says that the uncertainty can be tamed with training and experience.
“It’s nothing magical and unusual,” Spell says. “After September 11, what made firefighters uncomfortable is that there is nothing magical or unusual about what we do. It’s our job.”
In other words, firefighters have a good idea what they’re doing when they go into a burning building or rescue passengers from a car wreck.
“People really underestimate the training firefighters do in an effort to make everything look calm and controlled,” Spell says. “You have to learn not to panic. Somewhere along the line you have to learn to use your fear.”
But there’s one big, icy unknown that plows through the center of town, Mulcahy says.
“The interstate is our collapsing tower,” Mulcahy says. “With Ryan Cunningham last year, that really opened people’s eyes. Every car or truck that comes down the pass can slide out of control.”
Ryan Cunningham, a Vail police officer, died in May 2001 when he fell off an Interstate 70 bridge in East Vail when a truck skidded out of control while he was dealing with another car accident.
“The interstate’s probably the most dangerous area of responsibility,” Bosworth says. “That’s one thing we really harp on with the students. If you’re going to get hurt, it’s probably going to happen on the interstate. It’s constantly changing and moving.”
Tafoya, Porter and Firefighter Chad Clark cleaned up their Avon station on a recent Wednesday. The crew took a trip to City Market to buy that day’s lunch and dinner, installed new equipment on their engine and tried to stay on their toes for the fire alarm.
“There’s a lot of routine and you do it again and again every day, but that’s the tradition of the fire service,” Porter says. “There’s a lot of camaraderie. You’re working with your best friends every day you’re on shift.”
Firefighting is not a job you can do half-hearted, he says.
“You really have to love what you do,” Porter says. “It’s a passion and it’s something you have to be passionate about every day.”
Clark says firefighting was his childhood dream.
“Kids always have a dream of being a firefighter. A lot of them outgrow it, but mine stuck,” Clark says. “When you get a call, you get that rush. It’s an odd love you need to have for firefighting.”
One of Clark’s and Porter’s jobs that morning was some less-than adrenaline-pumping sweeping. But at any moment they knew they could be called to their engine.
“It’s just like a big city department, where at the drop of a hat you have to be prepared for anything,” Clark says. “There was a kid sledding in Wildridge and we had to do a rope rescue. That’s not our specialty, but we got him out. We’ve gone on calls to shoo a bat out of a house.”
Bosworth works a second job as a real estate agent. But even when he’s showing homes, he’s got his pager in case of emergency.
“If somebody calls, we’ll be there to help no matter what the reason,” Bosworth says. “We all carry pagers. Vail’s not the small town it used to be. It’s a 12-month, 24-hour-day town. You look at the reports and the logs and there’s no down time anymore.”
The job has a strong impact outside of work, Spell says.
“Because of the job I have, I’m more careful,” Spell says. “My family always wears seatbelts because I’ve seen accidents where seatbelts weren’t worn. None of the guys drink and drive because we’ve seen the consequences. We’ve seen what it is to make mistakes.”
Even knowing the danger, it’s a firefighter’s job to save lives, Spell says.
“That comes from the tradition of the fire service,” Spell says. “When you have this job, you don’t work for the town, you don’t work for an agency, you work for the tradition of the fire service. These men go out there to save lives.”
Firefighters judge danger, but that they’ll take more risks if there are people inside a burning home or building, Tafoya says.
“We know when we can go in and when we can’t. We know which situations we can take more risk,” Tafoya says. “A burning house where everyone’s already out, we’re not going to take as many chances as we would if there was a kid still inside the house.”
But firefighters don’t have a monopoly on protecting people, Spell says.
“Everyone has the opportunity to help,” he says. “Helping is helping. If you’re interested in helping your fellow man you can do it at whatever job you have.”
But firefighters are firefighters even when they’re not at the station, Spell says.
“You truly live it 24 hours a day,” Spell says. “If you’re not a firefighter in your heart 24 hours a day, you can’t last long.”
Matt Zalaznick can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 606, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.