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The life of an Ashland firefighter

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Ashland firefighters don’t spend every day saving babies from burning buildings, kittens from trees or calming down hysterical residents after trees fall on their houses.

They also perform regular 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. maintenance and training — all the while ready to respond to whatever calls come their way.

Ashland Fire and Rescue staffs a minimum of nine firefighters per shift, but that could get knocked down to eight under changes being considered to eliminate a $2 million deficit in the city’s general fund.

There’s also a chance that three firefighters hired in 2016 will be laid off to help balance the budget.

No matter where the crew is in the somewhat expansive downtown firehouse, they must be suited up in bulky boots, fire pants, radio harness, fire coat, hood, helmet and gloves — ready to be in their vehicle and out the door within 90 seconds of a fire call.

There’s a reason the iconic fire pole hasn’t gone out of style.

This gear, plus self-contained breathing apparatus strapped to their backs, can weigh up to 60 pounds. The gear is heavy, hot and not breathable.

Imagine putting on seven sweaters, snow pants, a beanie, a helmet, snow gloves and snow boots in the middle of summer and then having to climb a tree, sprint short distances and assess a structure engulfed in flames. What if children are in that structure? What if they’re screaming for help? How do you stay level-headed, handle the situation and save lives?

Ashland firefighters have put in hundreds of hours of training to be prepared, so their muscle memory kicks in and they get to work.

Firefighter Mike Mekkers said many people don’t realize that firefighters deal with a large variety of calls, not just fire-related calls, and often deal with traumatizing scenes.

“It’s not what you see on TV,” Mekkers said. “It’s not all glamour. Here it’s different because we’re all paramedics. What we see on a daily basis isn’t for the faint of heart. That’s what we go home with at the end of the day” — although the day doesn’t always end with going home.

Each shift lasts 48 hours. Occasionally when there’s not enough staff and nobody can come in, such as Friday, one of the firefighters will be asked to stay an additional day — or two.

According to firefighter Tyler Haggard, the structure of an Ashland firefighter’s day should go like this:

8 a.m. starts the shift, but as a courtesy to each other, the new shift arrives 10 to 20 minutes early to be debriefed by the previous crew on anything they should know, such as low stock or gear that are not performing correctly.

8 to 8:30 a.m., the crew checks the vehicles — from tire pressure to engine oil — then logs everything.

“There’s no ‘we didn’t get to it’ part of the day,” Haggard said. “When someone calls 911, we have to be ready to leave immediately.”

8:30 to 10 a.m. is the time for the daily required workout.

10 a.m. to noon is generally when regular maintenance checks of equipment and vehicles happen. It’s also when the “house” is cleaned.

“This is where we live, and we have to take care of the firehouse too,” Haggard said. “On Saturdays we weed-eat around the building, and Sundays we move all of the vehicles and wash the floors in the bay.”

Noon to 1 p.m. is lunch.

1 to 1:30 p.m. is preparation for the daily training.

1:30 to 5 p.m. is used for skills training.

Generally, 5 p.m. is the end of the work day, but the work day never truly ends for a firefighter, because as soon as a 911 call rings through, the station lights start flashing, and they have 90 seconds to get out the door.

A firefighter’s response rate is accounted in the expense of local insurances rates, according to the NW Insurance Council.

For last Friday’s daily training, firefighters performed a preplan walk-through of Ashland Lumber, which means they walked around the property and created a plan in case there was ever a fire and all of the dry lumber went up in flames.

“A preplan might include locating the nearest fire hydrant, where the gas shutoff is or if there’s a closet in the building filled with chemicals,” Haggard said.

He said the priority is focused more on commercial properties as opposed to residential and the higher hazard areas in the community.

At 3 p.m. Friday, the firefighters practiced vehicle extrication in which they cut open vehicles with saws, splitters and spreaders to pull people out. Occasionally, CERT volunteers sit in the vehicles during the practice.

These types of trainings can span from medical training to wildland fire training and everything in between.

Haggard said individual firefighters can reach various levels of certification, and in order to maintain that certification, a specific amount of training hours must be met each year.

He said Ashland only hires firefighters who are paramedics, so in order to be recertified every year, there’s a requirement of 24 hours of continued education annually.

When the department is low on staff, it can really take away from those required training hours, which isn’t good for the firefighter or the community, he said.

Calls are dispatched between the two Ashland stations based on the geographic location of the call.

With staffing of nine firefighters per shift, there is a battalion chief on duty, four firefighters at station one manning four engines, ambulances and water trucks, and four firefighters at station two manning three ambulances and a fire engine.

Each vehicle, be it an ambulance or a fire truck, requires at least two firefighters on board at a time.

If the department must move to eight personnel a day, Station 2 would have only two people manning the entire south side of town, which could get hairy in a variety of situations.

On an eight-person shift, said firefighter Brandon Winwood, if the only ambulance at Station 1 was out on a call, and the one team at Station 2 was out on a fire call and a second medical call came in, there would be no additional resources to send out another ambulance. So a partnering agency such as Mercy Flights in Medford would be requested, but that can severely impact response rates — and potentially the survival rates of medical patients.

Winwood said multiple calls come in at the same time around 46% of the time.

He said the national standard says 15 firefighters should be dispatched to a fire, but Ashland’s maximum daily staff is only 10 firefighters, so nearby agencies will often render mutual aid, which is reciprocated when needed.

Firefighter Tim Hegdahl said most people don’t understand that all Ashland firefighters work as paramedics and firefighters each day.

“One thing people often get misconstrued is that they think when we’re on an ambulance, that we’re not firefighters,” Hegdahl said. “But we can drive to a call in an ambulance and act as firefighters once on scene.”

Winwood and Mekkers said they don’t know of any other fire department that has a full staff of certified paramedics.

“The city of Ashland has one of the highest levels of service,” Mekkers said.

Firefighters respond to fire calls within the city limits, Winwood said, but they can be requested to assist anywhere in the county if they have the available resources that day. For medical calls, they respond as far away as the California border and all the way to Talent. In addition, they sometimes drive patients to Providence Medford Medical Center and Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center in Medford.

For wildfires, Ashland’s 30 firefighters can assist other agencies anywhere they’re needed. Winwood said AF&R has assisted agencies in California at least twice a year for the past few years. Last year, Ashland firefighters were sent to both the Camp and Carr fires.

“There’s a joke in the firefighting world that when people don’t know who else to call, they call 911,” Haggard said. “We get so many different types of calls.”

He said he wants the community to understand that firefighters aren’t “playing Xbox all day like some people think.”

In an effort to engage the public more and educate them on what local firefighters do, Ashland Firefighter’s Local 1269 has launched a new Facebook page with daily updates, pictures, videos and live question-and-answer events, which can be found at https://bit.ly/2HtH7CT.

Contact Tidings reporter Caitlin Fowlkes at cfowlkes@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4496. Follow her on Twitter @cfowlkes6.

Firefighters Alfredo Echaide, left, and Mike Mekkers cut the hood from a Subaru during training Friday in Ashland. Photo by Denise Baratta
Firefighter Mkike Mekkers uses extrication equipment to cut open a Subaru during training Friday in Ashland. Photo by Denise Baratta