At home in the station | August 2, 2013 | Pleasanton Weekly | |

Pleasanton Weekly

Cover Story - August 2, 2013

At home in the station

Firefighters discuss brotherhood, family and their work

by Jenn Teitell

At a time when most people are returning home to their families after work, the four men at Fire Station 2 on Stoneridge Mall Road are approaching hour 33 of their 48-hour shift, and they still have much to do.

A Boy Scout troop is taking a tour at 8 p.m., the firefighters are finishing dinner preparations, and they have to thoroughly clean the station for the new shift arriving the next morning. And that's just what's on the schedule -- they could receive a call at any time, and no man here is a stranger to being awakened at 3 a.m. to rush out of the station and respond to an emergency.

For now, however, they are free to enjoy their meal together. Bob Myers and Scott Otvos are cooking tonight, and the smell of cornbread and barbecued chicken fills the air. The shift's other two members, Steve Davis and Capt. Jim Gill, talk at the dinner table, their conversation peppered with friendly insults and jokes.

"We're like a family," Gill says.

"You do realize that most murders are committed by family members," Myers chimes in.

Gill's statement is clearly true to the observer; the four men act more like fraternity brothers than co-workers, making fun of each other for everything from their cooking to the high school they attended -- there are three Foothill alumni to one Amador graduate, if you're wondering. After spending countless hours working and living together at the station, they have bonded in the way that only a family can.

"It absolutely becomes more personal when you're with somebody for 48 hours," says Myers after taking a seat next to Otvos and piling broccoli onto his plate. "It's easier to provide a facade in a 9 to 5 atmosphere, whereas, after maybe 12 hours or 30 hours, it's going to come down. The real you comes out in here, which can actually be a benefit because, then, when I come to work, I don't have to provide a facade. They know exactly who I am, I know who they are, and it's much less stressful that way."

There is certainly plenty of time for the firefighters to get to know each other. In a typical shift, they work out, do training, maintain their tools, give station tours, do fire inspections and, of course, respond to emergencies. Those can range from the clichéd cat-stuck-in-a-tree situation to intense vegetation or structure fires that take hours and multiple crews to extinguish.

Other tasks are surprisingly domestic -- they have to shop for the food they will eat during their two-day shift, do lawn work, and clean the floors, windows and bathrooms of the station.

The stressful nature of the job also serves to bring them together.

"We could be having an argument about something, but the minute the tones go on, all that stuff's forgotten," says Gill. "You're not thinking about that; you're just thinking 'concentrate on what I've got to do now.'"

Like any other family, they have traditions. When a new firefighter goes on a medical call for the first time, it is an unwritten firehouse rule that he or she must buy everyone else ice cream. The same goes for structure fires, wildfires and other "firsts" with the department.

"You don't say the word 'first,'" Davis says. "I can say, 'This is the first time I drank out of a plastic glass,' and I'll have to buy ice cream."

Providing dessert or a nice meal for everyone is also expected on a firefighter's birthday and anniversary -- not the day they were married, but rather the day they started working for the department.

The men's actual families are strongly affected by their unusual schedule. Pleasanton-Livermore firefighters work 56 hours per week on average, but it's possible for them to be gone much longer. When a "strike team" is sent to a different region to help with large fires, they are gone for a week to 10 days. Firefighters can also be mandated to work overtime when members of other shifts are sick or on vacation.

"You have to realize that 'I'm going to go to work for 48 hours,'" says Gill. "'I'm going to miss little Johnny's birthday; I'm going to miss little Sarah's.' You miss birthdays, you miss Christmas and holidays -- you miss all this stuff because you're at work. But somebody's got to be here."

Gill's family situation is even more unusual than those of the others -- his wife is also a firefighter. She works in Berkeley, and their shifts overlap by one day, during which time their 22-year-old daughter cares for their 10-year-old son. When both their children were younger, their niece lived with them and acted as a nanny on the days they were both working.

All four men have children, and they have had to miss many important moments of their sons' and daughters' lives because of their job.

"I missed my daughter's first steps," says Davis. "I missed all kinds of stuff. But I also made up for it by coaching my kids in sports, and we take trips and do a lot of family stuff."

Many of them also have difficulty making plans with friends and family. Particularly for those who have coached sports, like Davis and Myers, it is challenging getting other people to understand their unusual schedule. Life at the station, filled with confusing jargon -- rigs, strike teams, type three engines, veg fires -- is a realm foreign to the rest of society, one out-of-sync with the typical work week.

"I think it's good and bad because the world is basically set up on a 9 to 5, Monday through Friday schedule, and so, when you try to make plans with your friends and family, sometimes it gets in the way. Other than that, there are some benefits to having some weekdays off to get things done. But that comes at a cost," says Otvos, pausing to give Myers a hard time about the corn bread he has made.

Beneath the camaraderie and banter, however, lies an undercurrent of tension. The men could receive a call at any minute, and the warbling radio reports that occasionally interrupt the dinner-table conversation are a constant reminder of that.

"They've done tons of studies about this. Even though there's nothing going on right now, it's just stressful knowing that, at any moment, the alarm goes off, and we're out doing something," says Gill. "And it doesn't help when we get a Southern California firefighter who stepped off the rig and was hit by a car and died, and the 19 guys in Prescott just died. You look at it, and you're going, 'Yeah, that could be us at any time.' It's always there in the back of your mind that you may not be going home."

Gill, who will be retiring in December -- or, as he thinks of it, in 56 shifts -- says he will miss working with his shift and the crew of Station 2, but he will be glad not to deal with some of the things he has witnessed throughout 28 years on the job. Anything involving a sudden death in the field, particularly that of a child, "tears at your heart," he says.

"We joke around a lot, which is how we deal with a lot of the stress. We see, frankly, some pretty crappy stuff out there. We'll talk about things with gallows humor; it helps us deal with the stress of what we've seen," he says.

As dinner draws to a close, the firefighters continue to contemplate their uncommon job.

"It has its good and bad parts," says Myers finally. "But I wouldn't give it up for the world."


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