March 2008

Where's the Fire?

Author: Lindsey Hawkins

Three hundred forty-three firefighters died in the September 11, 2001 World Trade Center attacks. Three hundred forty-three firefighters would die again for the same cause, including the unique breed of men and women who make up the seven stations of the Hilton Head Island Division of Fire and Rescue.

“I knew it was going to be a long day,” said 42-year-old battalion chief, Jeffrey Hartberger, remembering the tragedy.

“We listened to the radio feed,” Hartberger said. Choked up, he added that he could hear the last recording of his friend, also a battalion chief, who miraculously made it to the 79th floor of the World Trade Center. That was the bravery of just one of these men before the towers collapsed.

“A lot of families lost,” Hartberger said with a deep emotional breath.

Fire and rescue crews around the nation united this day. Our own Hilton Head Island crew gave up their homes for the families who needed to get away for a while. And the giving didn’t stop there. To date, Hilton Head Island Firefighter’s Association has raised over 75 thousand dollars for the children of the deceased firemen of 9/11. (They raised similar amounts for victims of Hurricane Katrina as well as funds for various other charities and causes.)

A career choice
It can’t be easy to fight one of Mother Nature’s four elements of the world and also consistently put out an annual award winning chili. From putting out fires and saving lives to rescuing cats and pulling pranks, our firemen do it all. But why?

How one makes the decision to take on a life-threatening career is beyond most. Back in the ancient times of the Roman Empire, becoming a firefighter was forced. The earliest firemen were groups of slaves who were generally dispatched with buckets and hooks. Buckets were filled with water by a pump and passed down the line of slaves to be dumped at the scene of the flames. Hence, the historical Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD resulted in the destruction of two-thirds of the empire.

It wasn’t until hundreds of years and volunteers later, in the mid-1800s, that firefighting actually became a paid profession in the United States. Today it is still a professional mix of paid employees, volunteers and fireman on call. For the layman, it would be hard to imagine that anyone would be interested in possibly burning in a fire while saving environment, property and most importantly, people. Maybe it’s really just hard to imagine the risk being worth the benefit. But brave souls do it every day and most have wanted to since childhood.

Consider the following group of some of Hilton Head’s best fire and rescue crew, starting with 25-year-old Willie “BJ” Ferguson. Ferguson, like the rest of his crew at station three, next to the Bargain Box on the North end of the island, works 24-hour shifts with 48 hours off in between. Though he is only a mere quarter of a century old, Ferguson has actually been fighting fires and performing paramedic work for six years. It was always firefighting for Ferguson, though he had childhood ambitions of being a basketball player, as well. He had an uncle who was a fireman, but believe it or not, one of his major motivations in choosing this profession was 9/11.

“9/11 was something you could never prepare for, but it added fuel to my fire for the job and encouraged me,” said Ferguson. “I started almost one year to the date of the attacks.”

Recalling his training, Ferguson said it’s easy to lose respect for the power of fire. He has been in a burning building and, as though referring to sitting on the beach in mid-summer, remembers conditions being hot but easy to get used to. Keep in mind that the fire suit worn by professionals weighs 75 pounds and can withstand temperatures up to two thousand degrees before igniting. This is no day at the beach for the average Joe.

“Sometimes you don’t realize how hard the work is,” Ferguson said, “but you do consistently fall in love with it all over again.”

The crew on Hilton Head Island trains every working day, beginning with 8 a.m. equipment and apparatus check. Captain Ed Boring said a typical day follows a regular schedule of working out in the station, taking care of the station and equipment, and training in the afternoon, covering everything from fire and EMS exercises to hazardous materials and public education training.

Statistically, Hilton Head firefighters get 15 to 20 calls a day. In 2007, they received approximately six thousand calls. One of the calls was literally to get a cat out of a tree. Seventy-one percent of the calls were EMS responses. Though an average of 86 fires occur per year, luckily only 30 are considered significant in intensity. When you think intensity, think of being inside a fire-consumed location, fully in gear and not being able to see the hand in front of your face. Fires of this nature have occurred on the island. Crew members describe them as devastating to property but great fun to put out.

Each station on Hilton Head Island has a crew of 29 to 33 people working per 24-hour shift. The breakdown in ranks go from chief, to two deputy chiefs, to three battalion chiefs, three administrative battalion chiefs, nine captains, 15 lieutenants, and 29 to 35 senior firefighters, firefighters and recruit firefighters in training. With stations dispersed all over the north and south ends, we can rest assured that we have help quickly on the way when needed.

A large part of our fire and rescue crew’s job is to educate the public on how to prevent emergency situations. Firefighters of all ranks attend adult seminars and school educational classes to ensure that our community is aware of fire hazards and safety precautions. Public Education Officer, Cinda Seamon, has volunteered her knowledge and abilities to the island for 14 years, and was officially hired three years ago. She has done everything from driving an ambulance to conducting community public relations and health seminars. Seamon starts educating children at age three and visits 13 preschools each month to teach a different topic of safety. Tactics include teaching children lessons such as: “Don’t hide, get outside” during a fire, and include teaching them how to avoid getting burned in the kitchen. Seamon also teaches senior citizens to be more cautious. For example, if eyesight becomes impaired it can become easy to accidentally poison oneself by simply misreading a label.

Captain Janet Peduzzi is another Hilton Head Island hero who truly cares about the safety of the community, especially the children. Peduzzi started her career in cardiac rehabilitation and exercise physiology. For 15 years she worked with individuals who had suffered heart attack, open heart surgery and valve replacement. She started volunteering for Hilton Head Island Fire and Rescue just because. After falling in love with the job, Peduzzi endured the typical seven weeks at the South Carolina Fire Academy, did basic training in EMS for six months and finished a year of paramedic clinicals and classes.

Being the first female line officer on Hilton Head Island is just one of Peduzzi’s proud accomplishments. She is also one of only three females on the crew.

In such a male-dominated profession, animosity about a female being at the rank Peduzzi is might be considered an issue. Whether it is or isn’t or ever was, one thing is apparent: Peduzzi has never felt any animosity and is very proud of her gained respect and accomplishments. She considers all crew members family and enjoys the nightly station dinners, down time and camaraderie. “I’ve never thrown the female card,” said Peduzzi.

According to Hilton Head Island firefighters, the word crew has a deeper meaning than “the person you work with” in this line of duty.

“You have to consider your crew your family no matter what,” said 29-year-old Adam Hoffman. “You have to look at them like they are the ones who might have to save your life.”

“Fire is its own being,” he continued. “You can prepare for it, but it can always be unpredictable.”

From the sounds of it, the crews of Hilton Head Island Fire and Rescue have a passion and not a death wish. Hollywood can make the profession of firefighting seem a lot more dangerous and risky than it has to be.

“You wouldn’t be able to film a real fire,” said Captain Boring. “Ladder 49 probably got the closest, but in reality, you can’t see your hand in front of your face in a real situation.”

The equipment and the training allow firefighters to maximize the benefit and minimize the risk, said Boring. For example you would never go into a burning building with no face mask and helmet, as seen in the movies. “You risk a lot to save a lot, and you risk a little to save a little,” he said.

Other aspects of firehouse life which mostly exist in Hollywood and not the real world are the iconic fireman’s pole and ever-endearing Dalmatian. While it used to be the fastest exit for firemen to get from top floor bunks to their fire stations, the fire pole is outdated. Now the National Fire Protection Association has deemed the fire pole a hazard, causing broken legs and skin burns. Most firehouses only have one floor these days.

As for the Dalmatians, they really don’t serve a legitimate purpose beyond being sweet companions to the crew. There was an old wives’ tale that suggested Dalmatians were all deaf and therefore never heard the loud sirens and had an advanced sense of smell. Although a higher incidence of deafness is noted in Dalmations (and other mostly white dogs and cats), it by no means dominates the breed. Dalmatians are really connected with firemen because they once served as watchdogs on horse-drawn fire engines. Dalmatians have a unique relationship with horses and protected them by barking at thieves who tried to steal them off the fire-carriage in the middle of the night.

Our Hilton Head Island, firefighters once had a whole family of Dalmatians for entertainment, but now they have to entertain themselves during downtime, which doesn’t seem to be a difficult task. As with any job, there are times to goof off. Besides the usual entertainment of movies and sports, pranks bring a certain amount of joy, e.g. piling a significant amount of silverware into a colleague’s purse at a favorite restaurant and then letting the manager know that their friend might be stealing. One of the most memorable pranks was taking out an ad in The Island Packet classifieds stating: “Will buy used Christmas trees, top dollar paid,” ending with a crew member’s home phone number. In addition, many a crew member has been hosed for moving up in rank. Yes, hosed with the fire engine hose. That is about 180 pounds per square inch.

Heroes, jokesters, family, locals, firemen—they have a lot of names and a lot of personalities. But most of all, they have a lot of heart.

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