Charlotte County Fire & EMS there, night or day


It's about 10 a.m. on a weekday morning at Station No. 1 of Charlotte County Fire & EMS when the radio blares out a series of tones.

"We've got a report of smoke from 23170 Harborview Road ... That is the Charlotte Sun," said the static voice of a dispatcher.

Within seconds three firefighters are on their feet, pulling on gear as Firemedic Tony Thomann weaves Engine 24 through traffic on Tamiami Trail.

As they arrive on scene in full gear and prepared for the worst, all appears sound and there's a press man waiting out front.

A strange burning smell is coming from the photo shop and several of the walls are warm to the touch. The trio pull out a heat sensor and tries to locate the source of the heat but it appears that nothing is burning.

Like many calls, the fire at the Sun is a false alarm.

Charlotte County Fire & EMS receives close to 100 calls each day with Station No. 1 taking in approximately 30 percent of those calls. The agency took more than 20,000 calls last year alone.

The calls can range from chest pain, to car accidents and other traumas to seizures. The Charlotte County department specializes in respiratory problems and heart attacks and can diagnose one before the patient even reaches the hospital.

Of those 100 calls at least one out of ten is a refusal, meaning when EMS personel arrive, the patient refuses treatment or transfer to a local hospital.

The polar opposite, known as an EMS abuser or "frequent flier" can call and ask to be transported several times a shift for non-emergencies or made-up ailments.

Shifts share stories ranging from a woman calling them at 3 a.m. to change a fire alarm battery to an older man calling them to stop by the drug store and bring him over-the-counter medications.

Though often times funny, the calls have the potential to be dangerous. EMS is required by law to go to the scene of every call and those requests may take time away from true emergencies.

The station defines a true emergency as one that has the potential to threaten a life.

"If someone is having a problem like chest pain, or shortness of breath or is bleeding, call us no matter what time it is," said Paramedic Angie Dunaway. "Don't ever think that you're bothering us, it's what we're here for."

Recently, Firefighter and EMT Jim Wilcox and Dunaway were called to the home of one of several Charlotte County frequent fliers.

The woman is well known with the agency. She calls in with seizures and is often waiting for the ambulance outside the door, purse in hand. She never shows signs of the episodes but the rescue must transport.

"It gets frustrating, but what can you do," said Dunaway.

Other frustrations include the dangers they face just trying to get to the scene.

"Until I became a medic I always thought it was common knowledge to move out of the way for an emergency vehicle," said rescue driver Kevin Rouse.

Even with the frustrations each and every one of the personnel at Station No. 1 loves their jobs.

"You have to love it," said Dunaway. "When someone's life is in your hands you better know what to do."

The crew has a 24-hour shift with a two day break in between.

For some it's the camaraderie. The agency is one big family, they spend time together both on and off the clock.

Like siblings they spend time doing house chores, watching TV and goofing off. When it's a quiet night you better bet someone's waiting in the kitchen with a spatula the next time you check the fridge for a late night source of caffeine.

According to Lt. John Jensen who began volunteering at age 18, "I don't have much family but the fire department became my surrogate family."

For others it's the adrenaline rush that comes with working on a difficult call and never knowing what to expect from each shift to the next.

"Being an adrenaline junkie is almost a prerequisite for the job," said Dee Hawkins, the agency spokeswoman and former paramedic for the department.

Most of them find their deep love of the job stems from knowing that they've made a difference in someone's life.

"You know when you've helped someone, it's very gratifying," said Firefighter and EMT Tony Thomann.

Jensen agrees.

"I think it's the best job in the world," said Jensen. "It's the closest thing you can get to being a real life super hero."

"That, and chicks dig us," he adds with a grin.

By MEGAN RADISH

Staff Writer