Compare the deadly threat of AIDS and the noisy, brassy delight of driving a fire truck; the fatal or crippling effects of many hazardous materials and the pure adrenalin rush that comes with handling someone else's emergency. They are all part of the same job.
Firefighting is changing, becoming more difficult and dangerous. But some of the best parts of the job have stayed the same. And firefighters and paramedics just try to go with the flow.As Salt Lake City paramedic Fred Anstee puts it, "Cops strut, firemen stroll."
Fire stations have traditionally been considered an integral part of the neighborhood. "People realize they can come to any fire station and get help," said Salt Lake Fire Lt. Wayne Edginton.
Station 2, 252 W. Third North, gets its share of walk-in traffic, he said. The station houses the Rescue 2 firefighting and paramedic unit.
The station has a small number of "regulars" who come in to have their blood pressure taken periodically. It is a drop-off point for the Toys for Tots program and a canned food drive for the homeless, and a distribution point for leaf bags.
Sometimes a grateful patient will return to the station to say thanks. "The first thing they always say is `remember me?,' " said Edginton.
A 10-year-old girl in the neighborhood was helped by Rescue 2 when she had a seizure. The men bought her a stuffed animal and visited her in the hospital. Now, when she hears the fire sirens, she runs outside to wave as the engine goes past, said Edginton.
"Every now and then you get a patient you care more about," said firefighter Marv Parkinson.
Modern crime rates have caught up with fire stations, however, and now the crew must be careful to close the big bay door when they leave on a "run" or the television may be missing when they get back. The siren and the roaring truck advertise to anyone in hearing distance that the station is going to be empty for at least a short period.
The days of paramedics rolling independently of firefighters are over. The Salt Lake City Fire Department has abandoned the use of separate vans for paramedics. Now Station 2 generally has four firefighters per 24-hour shift, three of them also paramedics. The fourth is certified as an emergency medical technician and engineer.
The paramedics' gear is kept on a pumper truck, and everyone goes on every call. Edginton estimated that 73 percent of their calls are medical problems and the rest are fires and fire alarms. He said the fire station's calls reflect the neighborhood. Res-cue 2's specialties are medical problems found among the homeless, such as hypothermia and respiratory problems, and injuries from traffic accidents and fights.
One change in the job is that firefighters are not as popular as they used to be. Parkinson said there are some locations where police must accompany the paramedics in, because bystanders would attack or interfere with them. He recalled a period when police had to respond with them to calls on one city block because of "some kook that didn't like firemen or cops."
Sometimes the patients themselves are combative, "everything from not wanting you to start an IV to wanting to kill you," said Edginton. The possibility of AIDS makes a struggling, bloody patient a deadly threat.
The "patient man" on the team, the paramedic who actually touches the person, always wears rubber gloves, said Edginton. He tugs them on for every call, no matter how unlikely it seems that the patient might have AIDS.
Relaxing around the kitchen table at the station, Anstee, Edginton, Parkinson and paramedic Ronald Fife had the same short answer when asked if they worry about contracting AIDS: Yes. Edginton said goggles are available to prevent blood and other body fluids from splashing in the paramedic's eyes, although the paramedics rarely use them.
The anxiety is compounded by the possibility of catching AIDS and passing it on to a spouse or child before the firefighter knows he is infected, said Edginton. Patients with AIDS are not uncommon in Rescue 2's area, and while many of them know they have the disease, very few will tell the paramedics.
"But you don't let it get so awe-inspiring that you let it change the way you do your job," said Parkinson.
Hazardous materials involved in fires and accidents have added another danger dimension for firefighters, said Edginton. "Our jobs are getting tougher." He said they always wear self-contained breathing apparatus into a building on a fire call, even if smoke is not obvious. Just one deep breath of some kinds of fumes or smoke can be fatal.
The personal hazards of the job remain more or less the same. Firefighters and paramedics have a high divorce rate, they agreed, and spouses must make adjustments to cope with the long shifts. "A lot of the family-raising gets done by them," said Edginton.
Other personal hazards include alcoholism and stress-related illnesses such as heart disease. "When you wake up from a dead sleep, you get the adrenalin going," said Edginton. Firefighters get training in stress management, he said, and tend to be aware of the need to keep physically fit. Station 2 has a racquetball court that gets regular use, but the newer stations are built with less moneyand fewer amenities.
The personal rewards haven't changed much either. There is always gratitude, usually expressed with cookies or a cake, from people they helped, said Edginton. And there is the reward of changing the outcome of a situation, even slightly, for the better.