Trial by fire (12:08 a.m.)

Published 3:40 pm Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Even at midnight, firefighters have to be up and ready in a matter of seconds — lives could hang in the balance.

It’s hard to harness that adrenaline rush, said Chelsea Fire Capt. Brad McCain, 31.

“You have to be in good shape. If it’s a fire or something, everybody’s heart gets racing a little bit,” he said.

Firefighters usually work 48 hours at a time. The Chelsea firefighters at Station 31 work a 24-hour shift for Chelsea every third day. Usually, those firefighters work their next 24-hour shift for a different area fire department, get a day off, and then come back to Chelsea.

While working, they know a call can come in at any moment, so they adjust by snatching sleep where they can. Fatigue just makes a dangerous job more dangerous.

“Sometimes you get a call, and when it’s done, you’re heading back to the station. You’re excited about laying down, and another call comes in,” said 24-year-old firefighter Cody Cothron.

The Chelsea Fire Department averages four calls a day. People don’t realize firefighters stay busy all the time, not just at night, McCain said.

“Most people think we sit and watch TV, drink coffee all day. That ain’t what we do,” he said.

These firefighters are trained for just about every imaginable situation. They’ve learned how to get out the door in under a minute, how to fight a fire and how to treat an injured child.

But the hardest part of their job sometimes is dealing with the aftermath.

“I get frustrated real easily. We see people that want to live and have families, and bad things happen to them,” Cothron said. “You see a bit of negligence and a lot of things that could be prevented. You see a lot of things that just blow your mind.”

Even in the darkest times, however, firefighters have to keep calm to provide protection and comfort for families in need of help.

“You don’t ever let the public see the frustration,” McCain said. “You got to come in and be calm. It’s about customer service.”

All that stress has to go somewhere, though. McCain said it’s essential to talk about everything that happens, even if it’s just for a few minutes after a call.

“You talk, you talk with the guys. My wife, I don’t tell her every detail, especially if my life is in danger,” he said. “That’s the best medicine, is talking it out.”

Firemedic Calem Hicks, 27, said being a firefighter is a calling, meant only for certain people.

“It’s not for everybody,” he said. (People) are looking for you to get them through it when their house is on fire. You’ve just got to have the right mind frame.”

Firefighter John Entrekin, 29, agreed, saying the bond of trust among firefighters is essential to getting the job done.

“I’m not going to let Calem down, and I know he’s not going to let me down,” Entrekin said. “We do a lot of training. We don’t wait until a call comes in to see what each other’s made of.”

Their friendships — forged by fire —makes the daily drudge worth it, Cothron said.

“We cut up over there, and in 15 or 20 years, there’ll be another group of guys doing the same thing,” he said. “There’s a lot of history and tradition behind this.”