Fire Station Proud To Be 'House Of Pain'

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Engine Company 10 is in a tough neighborhood in Washington, D.C. Firefighters respond to every call, from burning buildings to people who just need a ride to the hospital. The work is grueling, but it is still one of the most prized assignments in the D.C. Fire Department. Patrick Madden of member station WAMU takes us to one of the nation's busiest fire stations.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

Engine Company Number 10 in Northeast Washington, D.C. is one of the busiest fire stations in the nation. The pace is grueling, yet the company is one of the most sought after assignment in the city's fire and EMS department. Patrick Madden of member station WAMU spent a Saturday night following Engine Number 10.

PATRICK MADDEN: The Trinidad neighborhood in Washington, D.C. is a gritty collection of old row houses, one-way streets and open air drug markets. Great place for crime, terrible for fighting fires. But Engine Company 10 doesn't just fight fires, it also responds to medical emergencies - and there are lots of those in Trinidad with its poor, aging, underinsured population.

Nearly once every hour, the alarm rings and the men are out the door and into their truck.

(Soundbite of siren)

MADDEN: Engine 10 barrels down the streets of Northeast D.C. On all sides cars pull over just to avoid this screaming 17-ton red pumper truck. And just like that, it's over. Engine 10 is called back. Reports of a building fire are unfounded, and the crew makes its way back to their station, known in the firefighting community as the House of Pain.

Firefighter Mike Petger(ph) says the guys in Engine Company 10 never get any sleep.

Mr. MIKE PETGER (Firefighter): Go on 30 runs, go on a fire, maybe two or three, your day is done. And you wouldn't get any rest. It's nothing but a beating for 24 hours.

(Soundbite of radio dispatcher)

MADDEN: On this night Petger is running the line for Engine 10. It's his job to carry the hose into a burning building. He's a big guy. Earlier he helped carry a 300 pound man who suffered a heart attack.

Over the next 10 hours the company makes seven more runs, six of them medical emergencies.

(Soundbite of subway station)

MADDEN: At a subway station, Petger, who is the only paramedic working tonight, consoles a woman who suffered a seizure.

Mr. PETGER: We're going to get you checked out, okay?

MADDEN: At the Greyhound bus station, a man's been beaten, apparently with the high heel of a transvestite prostitute.

Mr. PETGER: (Unintelligible) definitely weird.

MADDEN: And then there are the stomach pains, a panic attack, another assault victim. Petger says responding to medical emergencies is part of the job. But that's not why people join Engine 10.

Mr. PETGER: I joined this job to be a fireman. I just happen to be a paramedic. I want to go to fires.

MADDEN: And the firefighters get their opportunities. They respond to around 6,500 calls a year. About a quarter of them are for potential fires.

(Soundbite of radio dispatcher)

MADDEN: Firefighters from around the region compete for a berth here in the House of Pain. Right now the men are working out of a temporary station while their 84-year-old firehouse undergoes renovations. It's bare bones. In one room 12 beds are packed tightly together. In the other, there's little more than a TV, a table, and a coffee pot.

On this night, Petger keeps a steady stream of chocolate chip cookies baking in the oven.

Mr. PETGER: Meals become a big portion of the day. Typically, guys that eat together stick together.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PETGER: It's no different here than anywhere else. You know what I mean?

MADDEN: Petger lives at least an hour away, in a suburb of Baltimore. Others commute from Virginia and Pennsylvania. Many of the men, such as Petger, come from families of firefighters.

Patrick Kennard(ph) is different. He grew up in an infamous housing complex in Northeast, D.C. Kennard says he fell in with the wrong crowd, and one night five years ago when he was 18, he was shot several times.

Mr. PATRICK KENNARD (Firefighter): I was laying outside on the parkway, and this guy pulled up and he told me he was an off-duty firefighter.

MADDEN: There were life-saving surgeries and weeks spent in the hospital.

Mr. KENNARD: I look at this job and this career as my second chance, so I got to be here 'cause someone else could be in my spot.

MADDEN: Then unit trains constantly. Petger and Kennard say emotional bonds are forged by the backbreaking hours and breakneck pace.

Mr. PETGER: It's the fires. It's the medical calls. See people that have been suffering from, you know, gunshot wounds, stabbings, hit by cars, burned up. And I just - when you go through all those experiences together, it just forces you to become closer.

(Soundbite of radio dispatcher)

Mr. KENNARD: And these guys right here, they'll put their life on the lines for one of their brothers, you know? And that's why I want to be here.

MADDEN: The Trinidad community relies on the fire station as well. Petger, the company's paramedic, says when people here have problems, they come to the firehouse.

Mr. PETGER: We have everything from people that come down to the fire station and are sick and are asking for help, and walk down here instead of calling 911. We have people that have been shot and dumped on the front ramp. They've had people come and deliver stillborn babies in the bathroom of the fire station. For some reason that fire station is so well-known that that's just the kind of stuff that you have to deal with.

MADDEN: At 1:00 in the morning there's a lull in the action. The nightclubs don't let out until 3:00 and that's when things usually get crazy. Patrick Kennard is on watch. He monitors the calls while the others try to rest. This might be the longest break they've had all day.

(Soundbite of radio dispatcher)

Mr. KENNARD: (Unintelligible)

MADDEN: Kennard rouses the men and starts the pumper truck's engine. The exhausted men don't say a word. They just grab their gear and go.

(Soundbite of sirens)

Mr. MADDEN: For NPR News, I'm Patrick Madden.

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