A Ride with Engine 404

A Ride with Engine 404

Herndon Fire Station Four opens its doors.

The call could come at anytime.

Working out at the gym, taking a shower or while pushing a shopping cart around the grocery store.

For the firefighters at fire station four in Herndon, being prepared to control chaos is a 24-hour a day profession.

“There’s no such thing as a normal day for us,” said Capt. Robert Rhoads, 48. “There’s no such thing as a normal call.”

While they don't fight fires everyday, the six men and one woman of C-shift have no time during their 24-hour day to completely relax.

“I can’t wait to come to work,” said firefighter Tie Burtlow, 33. “Being gone [from my family] for one day is nothing compared to being gone for six months.”

A family man who offers a glimpse at the adventurous side while driving engine 404 through Herndon's streets, Burtlow, who served in the Navy, said his wife is accustomed to his absences.

As a military damage-control man who extinguished fires, Burtlow found this career path an easy fit after the Navy.

“Fire fighting is something where, you either know how to do it or you don’t,” said the firefighter of seven years. “It’s putting the water on the red stuff and watching your back.”

Outside of cracking jokes and giving his peers a hard time, Burtlow’s job as a driver is no laughing matter.

As the only firefighter to hold the driver position title on C-shift, Burtlow maneuvers engine 404 through Herndon’s winding and often narrow streets — sometimes at speeds exceeding 40 miles per hour.

"Driving [the fire engine] — I love it. It's such a rush," he said about why he took the driving test.

“I’m the water boy, if they need something I’ll get it,” he joked about his role to stay with the truck when his co-workers go into a burning building.

Although teasing him about being the “water boy,” fellow firefighter Hao Sevener, 37, said in an emergency each person's role is crucial.

No matter how chaotic, they will have control of the situation.

“Trust is a big issue, we rely on each other,” he said. “When you first start you know deep down that they’ll come in [to a burning house] and get you if you’re down — but you have to gain that trust and it’s good to know it’s there.”

Sevener — a firefighter for 12 years — is also a paramedic, a job he said he took because it pays more money.

Although the starting salary for firefighters in Fairfax County is $40,000, paramedics are paid more for their additional training.

Like Burtlow, Sevener cracks jokes around the station, demonstrating his light-hearted side by teasing his co-workers as if they were siblings.

“We do things outside of work, we enjoy each other’s company, that’s why we look forward to coming to work,” he said.

Reid Lottchea, 35, the newest to the profession with almost four-years at station four, said although the 24-hour days away from his wife and two young children can be rough, the off time makes up for it.

Because firefighters work 24-hour shifts, they have one day on followed by one day off. They do this for three work days and two rest days, or five days total.

After their third day of work they have four consecutive days off.

A quiet man — compared to his teasing colleagues — Lottchea opens up when prompted to talk about responding to calls.

“It’s controlled chaos,” he said. “Everyone is trained so they will fill in if something’s not getting done and take care of it.”

TO DEVELOP teamwork, trust and consistency, each shift has the same seven people each week with the exception of one member assisting another station and vacation days.

This schedule allows the members of C-shift to spend the day working together as a team.

They start the morning downstairs where the kitchen, office and television rooms are located.

Over coffee they work on memorizing Herndon's streets (to know the fastest way to a call), read the newspaper, go on-line, talk and, of course, joke around.

Three-hours into their shift, they head to the Reston YMCA to work out.

With their fire gear waiting in the engine, radios in-hand and their coveralls, shoes and sweatshirts poised by the closest exit, the group spends about two-hours working out, but they are always on alert — ready for anything.

By afternoon they are on their own to make lunch, followed by various work-related tasks.

Although their afternoons are inevitably interrupted by emergency calls — mostly medic, but sometimes fire-related — the engine crew fits in grocery shopping for dinner.

For Lt. Svenja Leyden, the only woman at fire station four, once she has done her street memorization and worked out with co-workers, she chooses to spend her down time in the women’s bunk reading magazines and resting.

A small room with three twin-sized beds and one window, Leyden has decorated the women's area with photos, pink sheets, a throw pillow, small television and Christmas lights that turn on with the station-wide alarm.

A former financial analyst, Leyden — a paramedic — has been in the profession for 12 years.

“Initially it was easier because I was younger,” said the 40-year old about the 24-hour days. “The schedule itself is not that hard to get used to, but I am just one of those people that requires a lot of sleep.”

Although her co-workers tease her about her needing sleep, Leyden — a petite woman with a practical mind-set — said she feels like she gets no rest because she sleeps “with one eye open” while on duty.

“I think one of the hardest parts is to always have to maintain a state of readiness, whether it be physically or emotionally,” she said about the unpredictability of calls.

Although the engine is dispatched to most medical related calls — to ensure the safety and efficiency of staff — the scheduled paramedics for the night handle the calls on location and then take patients to Reston Hospital.

There are always more than two paramedics on C-shift's staff.

Rhoads said they rotate paramedic personnel between the engine and medic unit, explaining although they are paramedics, they began as firefighters.

He added every firefighter is required to be an emergency medical technician (EMT), but additional training is required to become a paramedic.

“Most calls aren’t really that critical — a lot of fire calls are alarm resets,” said Leyden about a "normal" day. “But, every once in a while you get a big one.”

Although she has seen the worst, as a paramedic she said she tries to distance her feelings while on duty.

“There are certain calls for everybody that you will think about for a long time afterward,” she said, adding she does not dwell on them because her job is to perform a task and move on.

“I still get a physical response though, even after all these years,” she said. “I think when you apply to the fire department, you don’t think about that kind of stuff, you just deal with it as it comes.”

Lt. George Diaz, a firefighter for 18 years, said he became a paramedic because of one experience as a firefighter.

“There was one call that just confirmed that for me,” said the 47-year old, explaining he could only do minor medical tasks as a firefighter for an infant who had died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).

“I was holding her like a rag doll and having to hand her over to the paramedic, I wanted to do more,” he said.

Although he didn’t join the profession until later than some of his counterparts, Diaz said his parents recalled he always loved helping others and liked the idea of becoming a firefighter.

“Not having come from a military or volunteer [firefighter] background, it was a challenge to adapt to some degree,” said the native of Cuba who moved to America when he was four. “But, I knew physically and mentally I could do it.”

HAVING BEEN in the profession for almost 25 years, Rhoads said as a firefighter the life is just as strenuous — if not more — today than it was when he first started.

He added some days are more exhausting, physically and emotionally, than others.

"Twenty-four hours, on a busy day, can be a really, really, really long day," he said, adding most days fly by. "When you have to do that, that's tough."

Although things have changed since he started as a volunteer firefighter during high school in Pennsylvania — with training, education or as a result of Sept. 11, 2001 — Rhoads said there is consistency.

“This is the only job I know of where if someone is having a really bad day you can show up and make it better,” he said.

“The coolest thing about working in Herndon is that it’s very much like the small town I started in,” he said, explaining he was introduced to the profession as a rescue squad volunteer. “You know the people you work with and a lot of the people you see on the street — sometimes you are taking care of people you know.”

AS THE DAY moves quickly into evening, members of C-Shift migrate to separate parts of the station.

While Burtlow prepares the steak and potatoes for everyone for dinner — on sale at Giant — Leyden retreats up the steep stairs to the second level for alone time.

The remaining crew shuffles through the open kitchen and dinning room area, joking around and talking casually.

After dinner the crew works like a family to load the dishwasher, mop the kitchen floor, wipe down the customized table top — painted by Herndon art students — and put away leftovers.

While they do this, Leyden joins the group to cook her meal — as a vegetarian she makes separate meals and occasionally eats later.

Around seven o'clock Rhoads gives the group time to "unwind", although there is still anticipation that a call could come at any time.

Burtlow and Sevener head to the office — off the kitchen.

While Sevener is on-line, Burtlow sits with his feet up reading a newsletter.

During this "down time" the two explain they either study, go on-line, call their families or watch TV in the next room over — a makeshift living room with older couches, television and stereo equipment.

While everyone is inside, the fire engine and medic unit wait in the garage — accessible by two large swinging doors from the kitchen — vehicle doors open and ready to go.

Next to each door of the engine is a set of black leather boots, pants pulled down to the ankles, waiting for action.

If there is a fire call, the firefighters will step out of their shoes — always kept loosely tied — and into their boots, pull up their pants using their red suspenders and throw themselves into their jackets hanging on the engine door.

Once inside the engine they will attach their air tanks, ready to be worn into a fire.

Even if it is a medic call, they throw their fire gear into the engine in case a fire call comes while they are out.

Although the daylight hours of Jan. 27 were slow with no fire calls — only false alarms — and only a handful of medic calls, Leyden said the night could bring multiple interruptions — it was hard to predict.

As the group sat on the couches talking over the TV and eating chocolate given to them that day as a "thank you" for their work, a beep sounded through the station — dispatching the two units on a medic call.

After throwing their gear into the engine, Sevener and Lottchea listened to Rhoads over a headset from the back seat, learning more as they raced to the scene.

Once on scene, Rhoads was the first to the door of the medical emergency — opening it for his crew — before letting the medics take over.

Following the assessment of the individual, those not helping carry the patient down the stairs waited outside to assist if needed.

Leyden prepared an IV and drugs in anticipation the patient — who suffered a seizure before their arrival — might have another before reaching the hospital.

While she did this, Diaz and Sevener brought the man down three flights of stairs to the waiting stretcher and into the unit.

As Leyden set up the IV, the man began to seize.

Diaz called Sevener and Burtlow to the unit to assist.

Rhoads waited outside as Lottchea peeked through the unit’s back windows.

Once the man was stabilized, Burtlow and Sevener returned to the engine and Leyden and Diaz speed off to Reston Hospital.

“You become immune to things that normal, everyday people don’t see,” said Lottchea after the call. “You have to maintain control, even in the worst situations. If you don’t, then no one else will.”

“Controlled chaos,” he said, offering a shy smile before looking out the far window of engine 404 on its way back to the station.