Aug. 24--It's not until Fort Lauderdale's firefighters drive down the city's streets that images of past calls rush back into their minds. With each house comes the memory of the fire, the car that went into the water, and the suicide.
But those recollections quickly fade when they pull into the firehouse, where holiday dinners with family are eaten and a ring at the door could be a visit from a grateful woman who had been cut from a car but is now barely recognizable without the blood and glass in her hair.
Color-coded lights that signal emergency calls seem to flash unremittingly at Firehouse 2.
"No one runs as many calls as we do," firefighter/paramedic Glen MacDonald said. "We come into work mentally knowing we're going to get beaten up."
A recent survey conducted by Firehouse magazine ranked Firehouse 2 the busiest firehouse in the United States and Canada, beating second-place Los Angeles City, Calif., by 882 service runs. The station, located at 528 NW Second St. near downtown, responds to emergencies in Fort Lauderdale, Wilton Manors and Lazy Lake.
"We consider ourselves the best fire department in South Florida," driver/engineer Keith Garner said. "Of course everybody probably says the same thing, but now our numbers back us."
Firehouse magazine has been conducting the annual survey for more than 30 years, comparing fire department call volume and truck responses. According to the 2013 survey, which gathered data from 215 fire departments, Firehouse 2 responded to 25,018 calls.
"Realistically, it means validation to our families, our spouses, our significant others that when we drag in at the end of a shift and tell them that we basically had our tails handed to us, now the numbers are there, and [the ranking] shows why we're so tired and worn out," Battalion Chief David Carter said. "It gives us some bragging rights, but at the same time it's a tremendous workload."
Even with eight units, the station still finds itself short handed. Carter said on most days all units will be out on calls and more calls will come through. He said Firehouse 2 gets an average of six to eight calls after midnight.
"We all came here to save lives, and we're adrenaline junkies, so being able to go with lights and sirens down the street and arrive at a building where everybody's running out and we're running in -- that's what motivates us," Carter said.
That and coffee -- a lot of coffee, MacDonald said. He and members of his fire-rescue family joked Wednesday night over a quick meal in the kitchen, as they often do. They laughed about practical jokes played in the firehouse and drooled at the thought of firefighter Walter King's pancakes, all while surrounded by barely touched dinner plates left by fellow firefighters who were called away.
"We have a good time," Garner said. "You have to break up the seriousness, but when we're on calls it's all about business."
These firefighters run everything from dive rescues to structure fires to reports of crash victims trapped in cars, said Garner, who has been with Firehouse 2 for 12 years.
"You never know what you're going to get," he said. "We choose to be [at Firehouse 2], so the people that want to be here are the ones who want to run the calls and get the experience. The higher the volume, the more experience you get."
For some, that high volume of calls means going through an entire 24-hour shift without even putting sheets on the bed. It also explains the dust collecting in the house's gym, the empty TV room and the untouched pingpong table, MacDonald said.
"When [calls] come, you just go," MacDonald said. "You don't even think about it. You just run one call at a time. You just do it."
Even when these firefighters are not running calls, they still have work to do, Garner said. Back at the station, firefighters tackle a list of station duties, including cleaning, watching educational DVDs and completing tactical surveys.
"This all has to be done regardless," Garner said. "There's been times we come back at 1 o'clock in the morning, and we're having to finish cleaning stuff up and doing stuff. Even if we don't run a call, you still have work to do."
The firefighters said it makes them proud to know their station can operate at such a level and still provide optimal care to community members.
"I can go anywhere in the country and say I'm a Fort Lauderdale fireman, and people know where Fort Lauderdale is because of the number and because we're well-respected," Garner said.
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