Fires are on the decline nationwide, but that doesn't make a firefighters job any easier. In fact, it may be harder now. Not only are fires more complicated these days, but the scope of firefighting has changed drastically and now includes fire prevention, public education, safety inspections and more than anything, emergency medical assistance.
"Seventy percent of our calls are medical calls," probational firefighter Jeff Taylor tells weekends on All Things Considered guest host Laura Sullivan.
Taylor works at Station 4 in Alexandria, Va. The last time he saw a structural fire — one that affects a building or structure — was four months ago. That's thanks to better building materials and codes, as well as public awareness. According to the National Fire Protection Association, there are half as many fires as there were 30 years ago.
But Taylor and the two dozen other firefighters at Station 4 are still saving lives. They're just doing it on a gurney. Every one of them is an emergency medical technician.
In the early '70s, the Alexandria Fire Department incorporated the rescue squad as part of the fire department medical services. It was the first paramedic program in the country.
Capt. Tony Washington, an 18-year firefighter, has seen the profession change and evolve. He acknowledges he may have missed fighting fires five or 10 years ago, but things have changed.
"Being a parent myself, owning my own house, having my own kids, I don't enjoy the fires at all," he says. "My guys get the excitement in their eyes. ... I usually don't because I know that we're going for [is] somebody's worst day.
"And I don't want to be on the other side of that."
In addition to medical training, firefighters also have to understand modern building codes and construction. Because though there are fewer fires, today's homes are far more dangerous.
"Now instead of using this big piece of wood to hold up a building, they're using an engineered piece of wood," Washington says. "If I took a piece of paper and lit it up on fire, it's going to go up like that. That lighter-weight construction is going to go down a lot faster than that heavy timber."
Ultimately, today's incoming class of firefighters can expect to receive a very different education than they would have even a decade ago. The future for them means training for emergency medical calls, hazardous material spills, a terrorist attack, and doing what they call community outreach: charity drives and awareness campaigns.
"It's our job, the leaders of the department," Washington says, "to make them understand that this is the wave of the future."
LAURA SULLIVAN, Host:
I'm standing in Fire Station 4 in Alexandria, Virginia, and I'm standing in the fire station bay, which is the garage. And here, we've got the fire engine and the fire truck with a hundred-foot ladder on it. And along the side of the walls are all of the firefighters' jackets and boots lined up. And essentially, this firehouse is just waiting for the alarm to ring.
B: When that alarm does sound, the chances are they won't be headed to a fire.
JEFF TAYLOR: Seventy percent of our calls are medic calls.
SULLIVAN: That's Jeff Taylor. He becomes a full-fledged firefighter this week. He used to play fireman when he was a kid. But if you ask him, when is the last time you guys fought a fire? there's a long pause.
TAYLOR: We had a car fire a little while ago. Other than that, I'd say about four months ago was my last structure fire.
SULLIVAN: Taylor and the two dozen other firefighters here are still saving lives. They're just doing it on a gurney. Every one of them is an emergency medical technician. It's a dramatic shift for a profession idolized by folklore and the movies.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BACKDRAFT")
SULLIVAN: That's the movie "Backdraft," which firefighters obsess about.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BACKDRAFT")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) It's in the walls.
SULLIVAN: Running into flames; roaring trucks; those huge, five-alarm blazes - it just doesn't happen that much anymore. According to the National Fire Protection Association, there are half as many fires as there were 30 years ago. There are more sprinklers, more smoke alarms, better building codes, even more cell phones. People call in when they see smoke before there's a fire. Taylor knew this when he signed up, but he doesn't mind. He likes doing the medical work. And he wouldn't wish a fire on anyone. But still...
TAYLOR: It's weird because yes, we do like the excitement. Some firefighters are labeled as adrenaline junkies. It - I'm not going to lie, it is an exciting feeling. When, you know, you see the flames and the smoke, you get that little excitement. You're like, OK, we get to do what we practiced.
SULLIVAN: Taylor opens a large door.
TAYLOR: Now, we're going out to the bay. In this bay, we have an engine and a truck.
SULLIVAN: Big, shiny, red fire trucks with hoses neatly folded. On the street, if you see just the small one, the engine, it's going to a medical call. If you see the truck with the 100-foot ladder with the lights on, it's going to an actual fire - or a fire alarm.
TAYLOR: We do get more alarms than fires, obviously.
SULLIVAN: Or you can just look for the hats. Firefighters don't wear their hats to medical calls.
C: If you were to ask me this five, 10 years ago, I would say, yes, I miss the fires.
SULLIVAN: Tony Washington is the captain here at Station 4.
WASHINGTON: But now, being a parent myself, owning my own house, having my own kids, I don't enjoy the fires at all. My guys get the excitement in their eyes. I usually don't because I know that we're going for somebody's worst day, and I don't want to be on the other side of that.
SULLIVAN: Were there some firefighters who didn't really want to do the medical stuff? I mean, have you seen that over the years?
WASHINGTON: Yeah, we did see that. And it's our job - the leaders of the department - to make them understand that this is the wave of the future.
SULLIVAN: The future for them means training for hazardous material spills, a terrorist attack; or doing community outreach, charity drives and awareness campaigns. They also have to train to understand today's building construction because while there are fewer fires, when one does actually get going, it can be far more dangerous. Today's homes have too much glue and particle board, not like 50 years ago.
WASHINGTON: They were using heavy timber. So the timber had a lot longer time to burn, OK? Now, instead of using this big piece of wood to hold up a building, they're using an engineered piece of wood. It's like having a piece of paper. If I took a piece of paper and lit it up on fire, it's going to go up like that. That lighter-weight construction is going to go down a lot faster than that heavy timber.
SULLIVAN: Captain Washington says that means there's a ticking clock. A 50-year-old home will burn for a good while before it collapses. A new home may only burn for a few minutes.
WASHINGTON: If it's already burning, the structural members of that house, we don't have time to fight that fire. And as a matter of fact, we're probably going to back out and go defensive on that fire.
SULLIVAN: So unless there's someone inside, firefighters are more likely to fight that fire from the lawn.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPS)
SULLIVAN: In two hours at the station, there wasn't a single call. Usually, they get about five or six a day. But there's still work to do, and they head out for their next job: a community charity event. A dozen firefighters throw their heavy jackets and boots and hats into the trucks, just in case there's a fire while they're away. But they're probably not going to need them. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.