Campus firefighters the 'Defenders of the Knights'
At the sound of the blaring tone, Orange County Fire Rescue, dubbed the Defenders of the Knights, has one minute and 20 seconds to roll out of the Station 65 garage to their call. Seminole County has 60 seconds.
Incidents, which come in at one per hour on average during the 24-hour shifts, can be minor or major, such as giving someone CPR or even responding to a major campus incident, as the station did for Tower I, a failed plot to open fire on hundreds of students roughly two years ago.
Being so close to campus, Station 65, built in 1999, is the first responder for a majority of campus calls that require fire rescue dispatch. As the only dual-county fire station out of 41 in Orange County, however, it is also dispatched across Seminole and Orange counties to handle incidents such as the major fire that nearly razed The Place on Alafaya Trail.
But major incidents don't need to involve dozens of people watching their homes burn or a gunman's plot foiled on campus. Even the site of a car accident can be an intense case, Orange County Fire Rescue engineer Matthew Cheal said.
"I was with this woman who crashed her car into a tree, coincidentally in front of her family's house, and I was trying to do medical things and her family was all around," Cheal said. "There were probably 15 to 20 people around and they were all threatening me and my partner, saying, 'If you don't save her, someone's going to the hospital tonight.'"
In those cases, however, one to two members of the fire rescue team will handle the crowd if there's no police present on the scene at the time.
The teams in Station 65 share the space between two different fire departments, which results in more collaborative, yet harmlessly competitive, work. During any particular shift, there are roughly four members of the Fire Rescue team from Orange County and two from Seminole County at the station.
"You get to see how they do things," said Orange County Fire Rescue Lt. Steven Benjamin. "We have different standard operating procedures. Sometimes we have different equipment, so you get to exchange information on how equipment works; and the fact that we run the same calls together, you get to see the different thought process, how different individuals from different counties handle different situations. It's a great learning tool and a great training tool, and with that, we've even had some equipment that they've had [that] we've adopted and some equipment we've had that they've adopted."
While the fire departments eagerly learn from one another in the station, firefighter Valarie Woodard, who previously served in the Army and has been with Orange County for nine years, said the public still has a lot to learn about the challenges of being firefighters on a 24-hour shift.
For example, Woodard said the public might see a group of firefighters shopping at Publix as laziness, instead of necessity. Benjamin, who also served in the Army and has served Orange County for 13 years, echoed that, noting that many times, the teams don't eat lunch until 3 p.m., or later, and dinner can come as late as 10 p.m. Grocery shopping usually happens when there's just a modicum of downtime.
"As a whole, the public doesn't understand the type of work that we do and the amount of work that we do, and quick nature that it happens," Benjamin said. "We respond to people's time of need in the worst possible time. We have to be calm in order to get our job done. If we become stressed, the scene starts to deteriorate."
But even in situations where composure is key, Cheal said there are still sights and scenes that stay with him even after things have been resolved.
As a father himself, Cheal said seeing children in distress affects him more than anything.
"There's a lot of things that we see that we can't unsee. You see the couple-month-old that's not breathing or the 2-year-old in the pool," Cheal said. "You can't take that back. Kid things are probably the worst because I have three, but that stuff sticks with you. You kind of deal with it and try to get over it. You never do, but you try."
But even in dealing with dozens of calls per shift and traumatic scenes, Cheal also noted just how rewarding public appreciation can be, especially when it comes to dealing with difficult situations.
"If you help someone breathe … or something like that and they come by the station a few weeks after and they bring cookies and the notes. Those are the things we appreciate and help us get through the bad times," he said.
Even with the good and the bad, however, each of the firefighters sees his or her service to the community not as something to earn them a pat on the back, but as something they can do to give back to their loved ones and neighbors.
"To serve my country and to serve the community I was born and raised in is pretty good," Woodard said.
Adam Rhodes is the Entertainment Editor at the Central Florida Future. Follow him on Twitter at @byadamrhodes or email him at AdamR@CentralFloridaFuture.com.