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Published: Tuesday, 7/17/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

Dedicated and stressed: Fire crew 1 of busiest in city department

BY TAYLOR DUNGJEN
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Toledo firefighter Dave Bilius  puts his gear away at Station 17. Toledo firefighter Dave Bilius puts his gear away at Station 17.
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When Eric Pinkham was a kid he saw "giants."

They smoked cigars, had mustaches and long, thick sideburns. "Real men," is how he recalls describing his hometown firefighters to his father.

"That's why I wanted to be a firefighter," Mr. Pinkham said. "Now I know we're just regular people."

Mr. Pinkham, 36, has worked for the past six years as a member of the Toledo Fire and Rescue Department. On a recent Tuesday, he and other firefighters at Station 17 on West Central Avenue responded to more than a dozen calls for service during their 24-hour shift.

There was the 35-year-old woman on Machen Street who thought she was having a heart attack.

She wasn't, Mr. Pinkham told her after running tests in the woman's second-story apartment, but said she needed to go to the hospital.

There were calls for "downed wires," assaults, a false report of a person shot.

The calls to the central city station are steady.

On July 3, before 3 p.m., the engine and fire truck had responded to at least eight incidents, and they'd field several more — including two fires in the overnight hours — before the "A shift" ended at 7 a.m.

On average, a crew there responds to two fires every shift, many of them at night.

"I can't tell you how many times I've got my gear on and don't even remember putting it on," Mr. Pinkham said about responding to early-morning fires.

Last year, Station 17 — which has a fierce-looking bulldog wearing a firefighter's hat as a mascot — was among the busiest in the city, responding to 8,456 fire and medical calls, according to the department's annual report.

In all, the department fielded 54,286 calls for service in 2011, up 4.5 percent from the previous year.

Toledo firefighters Lt. Darrel Murphy, right, and Eric Pinkham on the scene at 1946 Barrows Street. The firefighters from Station 17 were called to investigate faulty power lines. Toledo firefighters Lt. Darrel Murphy, right, and Eric Pinkham on the scene at 1946 Barrows Street. The firefighters from Station 17 were called to investigate faulty power lines.
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Firefighters who have put in years of service have noticed the increase in call volume and its ripple effects.

Workouts in the station's weight room have "been on the decline in the past three to four years because of run volume," Mr. Pinkham said.

More frequently, firefighters are retiring because of the health complications associated with job-related stress. Thirty-eight employees retired last year.

The job, although they love it, is exhausting.

And the brutal heat and high humidity that has pummelled northwest Ohio this summer hasn't done anything to help.

Sleep schedules are sporadic at best. During those night-time hours, when most of the city sleeps, firefighters are most likely to be dispatched to fires.

In 2011, 56 percent of working fires were reported between 11:01 p.m. and 6:59 a.m., according to the annual report.

So far this year, Station 17 typically responds to at least one or two fires per shift.

"They said I was crazy to bid this place," Mr. Pinkham said. But being busy is half the fun. The people who apply for busy stations have some of the same personality characteristics, loving the rush of adrenaline when a dispatcher announces there's a run to make.

Toledo firefighter Dave Bilius  takes a dinner break. Toledo firefighter Dave Bilius takes a dinner break.
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To keep the stress from becoming too much, the crew finds other things to do. Someone is always in charge of cooking and cleaning. They share a list of daily chores.

Otherwise, if they're not watching movies or trying to get a few minutes of sleep between calls, they're probably taking playful jabs at one another.

"You can take what you do seriously, but you don't have to take yourself too seriously," said Capt. Tom Phillips.

For some of these firefighters, the job is in their blood. Captain Phillips, who bills himself as a "substitute captain" bouncing from station to station wherever he's needed, started out as a high school math teacher at Central Catholic.

Years ago, the school told him his position would, best case, be cut to part time. His brother had already, at that point, been a Toledo firefighter for three years and loved the job, so Captain Phillips decided he would give it a try.

Wes Bombrys, 26, comes from an entire family of public safety employees. His father, Wes Bombrys, is a Toledo police captain. His uncles Matt and Ed Bombrys are also Toledo police command officers.

All of the firefighters there, legacy or not, share the greater sentiment of wanting to help others.

Mr. Pinkham said that, during training, he was told to treat the people as he would want his family to be treated. But for the father of three, that's not enough.

"When I'm here, the city of Toledo is my family," he said. "It's awesome. I love it. It's all I was supposed to do."

Contact Taylor Dungjen at: tdungjen@theblade.com, 419-724-6054, or on Twitter @tdungjen_Blade.



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