Editor’s note: As Hall County Fire Services prepares for new leadership with incoming Fire Chief Chris Armstrong, Times reporter Nick Watson spent 24 hours with the rank and file at Station 5 in Flowery Branch. The firehouse feels like a home away from home, interspersed with calls to service that can come at any moment.
With little else illuminated on Mundy Mill Road save the Waffle House’s cadmium yellow facade, a squad from Hall County Fire Services arrived in the restaurant’s parking lot.
The subject of their call was a man now twitching on the ambulance’s stretcher as a woman paced behind the fire services’ crew.
It was approaching 5 a.m., the 21st hour of a 24-hour shift and the last call of the night.
“That 3 o’clock, 4 o’clock call, that’s the one that hurts,” said Sgt. Anthony Caruso, who was riding shotgun in Engine 5 while Kenrick Hunter fueled up the rig at the nearby QuikTrip.
The two are part of the A shift at Station 5 on Falcon Parkway in Flowery Branch, one of the busiest stations in the county. The team includes five EMTs, one paramedic, a battalion chief and lieutenant.
Monday is Truck Day, when the red rigs get hosed down while Hunter performs an in-depth inspection on all the tools. While Capt. Zachary Brackett sprayed with a cleaning brigade following along, Hunter opened up each compartment, where he checked the oxygen tanks, hoses and extrication gadgets.
“Truck day is just a little bit more detail. We’re spending an extra 20 minutes checking every tool. We’ll check all the lights,” he said.
Beep, beep, beep. It’s the noise heard throughout the station when a call is coming from the 911 center.
Shortly after finishing up the wash job, Engine 5 and Med 5 were dispatched to a woman complaining of lightheadedness.
The six-man squad entered through the garage and helped the patient sitting on the couch, local TV news on in the background. The woman said she tried to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in her head to see if her situation was more dire. A finger sensor was attached to check her vitals
Attending to the family in the corner of the room, Caruso pulled a sticker out of his pocket for a toddler.
With no one being transported, the crew made a stop at Kroger on the way back to the station. The proposed menu for the night’s dinner: pulled pork tacos.
That past Friday, the firefighters had to leave their half-filled shopping cart and rush out three times to take calls.
“We just grab somebody with a name badge and say, ‘Hey, we have to leave. Can you stash this for us?’ They usually understand,” Lt. Tommy Porter said.
The buy-in for dinner is $5, though not every meal is going to be pork tenderloin and Caruso’s sauces. Some nights are more meager — slaw dogs to keep the price down — but that money will accrue to splurge for a night down the road.
The groceries were packed in the “toolbox on wheels” squad vehicle driven by other members of the station, because Brackett and the others knew they were likely to catch a call before the food could make it in the refrigerator.
When the firetruck reached Martin Road en route to the Falcon Parkway station, there went the triple beeps.
At the end of a residential neighborhood was the second call of the day around 10 a.m.: A man sitting in a patio chair in the driveway complaining of chest pains. Within minutes, he was loaded into the ambulance.
Toward 11 a.m., Flowery Branch High School was evacuated because of an alarm, sending Station 5’s crew inside to inspect. Brackett carried a thermal imaging device through the hallways while the squad searched for the source. No smoke, no fire, no reason for the students to stand out in the rain.
After the first three calls of the morning, the men of Station 5 scavenged the refrigerator.
The reigning mantra is “no name, fair game.” Conversation during these down times around the kitchen island revolved around college football, the hectic calls of the last shift and who could beat who in pingpong. Table tennis and four square are some of the more common firehouse sports.
According to an analysis of 911 call data in 2017, the calls tend to peak between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m.
Monday edged out all other days last year, with 15.2 percent of all 911 calls coming at the beginning of the work week.
Down time, particularly close to 3 p.m., is mostly training and workout time.
“Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival blasted out of the speakers while the firefighters ran through weightlifting and pullup stations. A handful broke off into the driveway and threw the football around.
Caruso, the firehouse cook for the night, credited Pinterest as an inspiration point for a number of the meals whipped up in the kitchen.
He’s not the full-time station chef — maybe 98 percent, Porter said — but it’s something he enjoys.
A quick grace, and then the dinner line started. Med unit first, fire engine second and everyone else last.
The dozen or so firefighters huddled around the table told stories of horror calls of the past and compared draft strategies in their fantasy football league.
Though they all wear the Fire Services’ crest on their gear, no two men share the same background.
Porter’s childhood memories were filled with being picked up from school by his stepfather in a rescue truck or shooting pool in the EMS headquarters.
His father, an EMT, died when he was young, and his mother remarried to a Jackson County paramedic.
Now a 16-year veteran, Porter sported a tattoo with the outline of Georgia with a centimeter-thick border, symbolizing his roots.
Hunter thought he was going to be a cop before falling in love with the fire science program after taking his core classes at Lanier Technical College.
At 23, he is one of the youngest men at the station. He took his first shift on Christmas Day 2016.
Firefighting, Hunter said, is a “great job for a single man.”
“Most of these guys have families and have kids to go home to, and I’m sure spending 24 hours away from your kids — especially newborns like a few of these guys have — is probably tough and it’s a lot to ask of your wife to do. I don’t have to deal with that yet,” he said, adding he did want to have a family in the future.
Caruso felt like he was always destined to join the fire department, following in the footsteps of his father and godfather. But he worked odd jobs to make ends meet as well as on-and-off private investigating.
“I would drive by a fire station and I would see the truck sitting there, doors open, gear on the ground, ready to go. And I always knew that that was what I wanted to do,” he said.
At night, he’ll walk through the bay, and that same feeling wells up inside him.
“The brotherhood and the camaraderie that we have is outstanding, and it makes coming to work that much enjoyable,” Caruso said, who was hired on 11 years ago.
Monday Night Football was cued up on the station TV in front of two rows of recliners. As the New York Jets and Detroit Lions were set for kickoff, everyone heard the three beeps.
“That’s why y’all eat first,” Porter said, as dishes piled up in the sink and people headed to the driveway.
Both this call and a later call before 9 p.m. were canceled as quick as they came.
While some fantasy football dreams were being popped by Matthew Stafford’s four interceptions, Caruso called home.
“Twenty-four hours, kids start missing you and wife starts missing you, so FaceTime has been quite an awesome thing, such a luxury to have when you get to see their faces. This is our home away from home, and they understand that. But 24 hours, it’s a long time to be away from the family,” he said.
The football watch party slowly thinned as some made their way to their beds.
11 p.m.: abnormal behavior call
“These are some of my favorite calls,” Hunter said. “You never know what you’re going to get.”
The Station 5 crew met up with a Hall County Sheriff’s Office patrol unit in a residential neighborhood. A nosy neighbor was turned away, while the first responders knocked on the front door and focused their flashlights on the house windows.
While pacing up and down the driveway, a pair of firefighters echoed the same thought: These are some of the scariest calls.
The stillness made the scene eerie: there were no lights on in the house or outside, the blinds slightly parted upstairs.
Strobe lights eventually woke the person inside the house, who denied service from the men at the door.
Returning to the station, Brackett took up the center lounge chair for the Oakland Raiders-Los Angeles Rams game now on TV while Hunter worked on reports in the corner.
At one point, Caruso let on to the others in the engine that he knew those treated on two of the calls that night, or at least knew their families.
It’s what happens when you work where you live, Brackett quipped.
Brackett wondered out loud if it was a better idea to go to bed at this point or just stay up.
Said Hunter and Caruso, without a beat: “Bed.”