Adam Archuleta isn't likely to leave his shirt on the fire station floor again. Not after his colleagues neatly folded it around a plastic container, doused it in water and put it in the freezer next to the ice cream and pork chops.

"There it was, with my badge and name tag, frozen solid as a brick," he recalls with a laugh. "You don't get away with much when you're the new guy."

At least Adam fared a little better than another new hire, Justin Morrow. His first day on the job with the Salt Lake Fire Department, his partners left him stranded on a ladder platform and sprayed him down with a fire hose. "They were hoping I didn't have an extra change of clothes with me," says Justin. "But I did."

One thing he doesn't have much of these days, though, is pocket change. Not when he and other new recruits have to buy two gallons of ice cream for the entire crew every time they make a mistake, large or small. It's all part of being a "boot" — one of the most coveted apprenticeships in Salt Lake City. Although more than 2,000 people competed to become rookie firefighters during the past two years, only 26 were hired.

Even with a 1 percent success ratio, "this is the best job in the world," says Randy Eastwood, who was hired about two years ago with Adam and Justin at Station No. 1 — Salt Lake City's busiest firehouse. "No two days are ever the same. It's like living a dream."

Grateful to have made it into the firefighting ranks, Randy, Adam and Justin recently joined me for a Free Lunch of takeout turkey sandwiches and cream-of-tomato soup on their lunch break.

With their ears carefully tuned to the dispatch loudspeaker, they hurriedly ate as they talked. There is no such thing as a leisurely lunch when a call might come through from somebody who is having a heart attack or has caught the stove on fire.

"The alarm usually goes off when you're eating or in the shower," says Randy, 42, who worked in construction for years until his wife convinced him to follow his boyhood dream. Ever since age 8, when firefighters saved his choking baby sister's life, "I thought it would be a rewarding career," he says. "It's a job that carries a lot of tradition."

Part of that tradition is putting up with pranks from older co-workers who were once rookies themselves.

In an occupation where every call is bad news, "jokes at the station are the crew's way of dealing with what they see every day," says Adam, 30, who had to respond to a suicide his first day on the job. "But when we're out there on a call, it's always serious business."

Thanks to stricter building codes and fire-prevention education, calls don't come in for large fires as often as they used to, "but when they do, every guy is excited to go, even the veterans," says Justin. "The intensity of the moment — the feeling of the heat and the taste and smell of the smoke get your adrenaline going," adds Adam. "Those calls are our favorite."

Unless he or another "boot" makes a mistake. Then they know they'll be stopping to pick up another two gallons of butter pecan to store in the freezer next to their work shirts.


Have a story? Let's hear it over lunch. E-mail your name, phone number and what you'd like to talk about to [email protected]. You can also write me at the Deseret Morning News, P.O. Box 1257, Salt Lake City, UT 84110. www.deseretnews.com