Behind the badge series: Firefighters become family (Video)

March 14, 2013 at midnight
Updated March 16, 2013 at 10:17 p.m.

Firefighters bring out engines to check them over at Fire Station 4 in Victoria. KATHLEEN DUNCAN / KDUNCAN@VICAD.COM

Firefighters bring out engines to check them over at Fire Station 4 in Victoria. KATHLEEN DUNCAN / KDUNCAN@VICAD.COM

By 7 a.m. sharp, the men are sweeping, wiping down counters, mowing the lawn, starting laundry, cleaning trucks and working on paperwork.

By about 8:30 a.m., their kitchen chairs are moved back onto the freshly mopped floor and they sit down for a quick breakfast.

"Who hid the cinnamon?" questioned firefighter engineer Chris Thompson as he rummaged through the large pantry, pushing past the big bag of sugars and other spices.

"I couldn't find it either," replied Capt. Mike Baecker, sitting down with his own breakfast at the large, wooden table.

Next to Baecker, another firefighter used the short break to quietly polish his black uniform boots.

Thompson, finally locating the missing cinnamon, set his steaming hot oatmeal on the table.

But then the tones sound and the red lights in Victoria Fire Station 4 start flashing - conversation stops and the chairs scrape back, the oatmeal left on the counter, as the men jump up and run outside.

From the time the alarms sound, they have six minutes to get to the scene, although the average time is under five minutes, said Victoria Fire Chief Taner Drake.

In the coming moments - whether they are responding to a house fire, a wreck with injuries or even a swift-water rescue - there is little need for words.

"From cleaning the kitchen to washing the trucks, you get used to doing things together all the time," firefighter Joel Aguirre said. "And when you are on scene and things are getting crazy, you have to rely on each other, you have to know who you are dealing with - know their weaknesses and strengths. It all matters in the end."

Each member of the shift knows what to do and does it - a skill that is especially useful when they are working in a burning house, Thompson said, and can't speak.

"A lot of people refer to it as a brotherhood, but they don't understand it," Thompson said. "I spend more time with these guys than I do with my family."

Working shifts of 24 hours on and 48 hours off, many of the men and women also work part-time jobs to help supplement their income, Drake said.

Thompson, for example, works in the oil field services industry on his days off.

That leaves little time for family, he said, and is a sacrifice his children don't always understand.

Which is maybe why, at the station, the firefighters become more like family than co-workers, as they cook, clean, sleep, laugh and even play together.

And in some ways, the bonds go even deeper than family, Baecker said, because they work daily together in life or death scenarios.

"I've fallen through floors and stuff like that and my concern was, if I'm with Russell (Chambers), it's like, 'Man I've got to get up because Russell is trying to pull the hose by himself.' I'm not usually worried about what's happening to me," Baecker said.

So he lifts himself and the 60 pounds of gear out of the burning floor, grabs the fire hose to help support the thousands of pounds of pressure, and keeps walking.

Baecker, who has been with the department for nearly 30 years, has faced many deadly scenarios, but said he wouldn't consider changing his profession.

Battling one fire, Baecker said, he was sure he was going to die.

"The concrete wall was falling out and we were trying to get out of the way. It broke in half right before it got to us. The rest of the wall fell out and that part fell in. That's when I determined I wasn't fast enough to get out of the way of a building that's falling down," Baecker described, shrugging and laughing at his joke.

Thompson, also nodding his head and grinning, said one way firefighters cope with the trauma they experience is through jokes.

"About the only time we see people is at their worst times in their life - their house just burned down, they are in a car wreck, mom just had a heart attack. Some people will shut down and just keep to themselves, other people will talk about it." Thompson said of how firefighters cope, adding everyone has their own way of coping.

Drake said the department offers chaplains and counseling for firefighters as well.

"Having been there and been frustrated by not being able to take anything positive from a scene - they aren't robots. They are humans. It breaks their hearts to see that," Drake said.

But even if they can't shield themselves, Baecker said, they do protect their families from the horrors they see daily. He said he rarely shares the traumatic calls with his wife.

In addition, Drake said the smaller departments, such as Victoria, also struggle with staffing. A larger city will battle a house fire with about 50 firefighters, Drake said, while Victoria's average at a fire is only 13.

"These guys, they have their hands full. They have a lot of tasks they have to do, whereas in a larger city, they can be task-specific," Drake said, saying the men and women are cross-trained and most of them are trained as both emergency medical technicians and firefighters.

Being responsible for saving lives forces people, especially new firefighters, to grow up, Drake said, adding he matured fast when he took the job in Odessa more than 20 years ago.

But it is not always serious.

The dorm-style living in the stations, however, also encourages practical jokes and pranks, Baecker said.

"In other ways, it's like being in junior high again," Baecker said, smiling. The other firefighters, eating their fish taco dinner, laughed, excited that they get to work with big trucks, ladders and power tools.

"We have dummies you can resuscitate and we tied ropes to one and put it to a guy's bed. ... He walked into the room and they pulled the ropes and it stood up and he grabbed the ropes and was wrestling with it," Baecker remembered one prank, saying he laughed until he cried that day.

He has cried other days, too, he said, when friends were injured or a child died - some of the hardest situations to handle.

"There is a high level of danger for firefighters and that is not to be taken lightly," Drake said. "It is really not. And people trust us to be able to take care of those situations and to be able to do that."

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