PHOENIX — It’s 3 a.m. While most of us are sound asleep, a tone goes off at the fire station.
And for the firefighters and paramedics of Squad 44, there’s barely time to suit up before roaring off into the night, not knowing if this call could be their last.
Phoenix firefighter Tony Holtorf said what scares him is, “knowing that at any time, those tones go off, and we could go on a career call, where I’d have to put everything on the line.”
They all know it; it’s what they signed up for, and they all deal with it in their own way.
Captain Josh Hart never takes anything for granted when he leaves for his 24-hour shift.
“'Goodbye, I love you, have a good day,' you know, I say that every morning. You never know. You never know when it’s going to be the last one,” he said.
We were invited to spend 24 hours with Squad 44 to see how they respond, how they train, how they decompress and how they deal with all the dangers they face on the job.
Despite what you might think, fire is not among the top of their concerns.
“Public interaction calls, going on freeway calls with distracted drivers, we’re at a huge risk there,” Hart said.
“I think my biggest concern now, being a firefighter, is fear of cancer,” said Captain Greg Hawk. “There’s so may things that we get exposed to in our career.”
That cancer risk is very real. Just last month, Phoenix firefighter Rick Telles passed away after battling an aggressive form of cancer contracted in the line of duty.
Now, firefighters are taking measures to decrease that risk. Every firefighter has two complete sets of equipment.
After responding to a fire, they get hosed down while wearing their turnout gear, then turn it in to get professionally cleaned. The next fire they respond to, they wear a whole new set of gear.
When firefighters are not on a call, there’s a good chance they’re training—whether it’s working with the jaws of life for an extrication call or climbing stairs with a weighted hose—so they can be ready for whatever comes their way.
Close to 75 percent of the time, the calls firefighters respond to are medical in nature.
A little after 8 p.m., Squad 44 responds to a Circle K near 83rd Avenue and McDowell Road, where a man showed up incoherent.
The 29-year-old was coming down off meth and heroin and was taken to a detox center. It’s a raw reminder that Arizona is in the depths of the opioid crisis.
“He’s trying to get clean by himself, and he’ll go get clean for a week or two, but he’s got nobody in his life that’s going to keep him on the path,” Holtorf said on the ride back to the station.
Back at the station, they’ve put the movie Anchorman on for me, maybe a little rookie hazing. But it’s dinnertime—a time to eat, but more importantly, a time to bond.
“We talk about calls. We talk about things that happen and we use that way to kind of vent and to share our experiences and to share our fears and failures and laugh and joke, and that’s what develops our camaraderie and that’s what develops our brotherhood and that’s what really helps us,” said Captain Danny Gile.
The downtime is a way for them to decompress and to deal with the dangerous and traumatic situations they’re faced with day to day.
“Especially in this line of work, you have to have that,” Gile said.
Research shows that the stressful situations first responders deal with could take their toll, increasing the risk of post-traumatic stress disorder for those in this career.
“We’ve always associated PTSD with military personnel, and it’s a very real issue with them. But they’re starting to figure out that the prolonged effects of first responders … they’re starting to see the PTSD, the same numbers are coming out because of that prolonged exposure to horrible situations. So, it’s becoming a very real issue that we’re starting to recognize now,” Gile said.
Gile is a third-generation firefighter. His grandfather and father were both Phoenix firefighters, and Gile’s brother is a Phoenix firefighter as well.
“I watched my dad do it for years and years, every day he would leave home,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a more honorable way to approach life than to say, ‘I’m willing to lay down my life to save somebody else, to protect somebody else.’”
Despite the ever-present danger, there’s nothing these firefighters would rather be doing.
“If you ask anybody here, they would tell you it’s an amazing opportunity,” Holtorf said.
“If I won the lottery, I wouldn’t quit this job, honest to god,” Hart said.
“When you do help somebody and you truly can make a difference and influence someone’s life, it’s well worth it and it gives you all the gratitude in the world,” Gile said. “And that’s the kind of thing that most people in this line of work feed on.”