It's hard to interview someone who won't hold still. On Monday, while the rain poured and the wind rendered umbrellas useless, sirens blared around College Hill as Providence Ladder Co. 8 and Engine Co. 9 responded to 10 calls, most of which were brought on by the deluge.
Stationed on Brook and Williams streets, these crews mobilize for alarms at fraternity parties, Brown students' burnt toast and their 3 a.m. false alarms. They cover the University, RISD and Fox Point and may respond to calls as far north as Pawtucket and as far south as Cranston. The name "fire department" is misleading — only a relatively small portion of their calls are related to fires. Companies 8 and 9 respond to 2,500 calls a year, including water and electrical emergencies, broken pipes and even calls to aid homeless citizens.
With smoke detectors and sprinkler systems, "fires don't get the head start they used to," said Capt. Russ McDonald of Engine Co. 9. "Most of the job has turned to EMS."
McDonald has been part of the Providence Fire Department for 30 years, spending the last six on Brook St. Originally from Providence, he taught kindergarten and coached hockey and football, but when it looked like his job would be cut, he turned to his father's profession — firefighting.
"Every time I go out the door, it's something different. … You have to react to what's going on," McDonald said.
Like all applicants, McDonald had to pass a general knowledge test and a physical agility test. Once applicants pass this stage, they receive EMT training and six months of fire "boot camp," which includes training with a company. Next, they spend a year on "probation" doing what McDonald called "low-man-on-the-totem-pole jobs."
Companies 8 and 9 are two of the city's 23 engine and ladder companies. The crews operate in eight-day cycles made up of two 10-hour days, two 14-hour nights and four days off.
An engine is assigned four people a shift and generally runs with three. The officer — for example, McDonald — rides shotgun and is the first to check out the area and alarm box.
The "chauffeur" drives and runs the pump, and the "pipe man" in the back seat is responsible for the hose.
The ground floor of the station is home to the trucks and gear, but upstairs the crews have a kitchen and dormitories. The station's fire poles haven't gone the way of the Dalmatian — two poles lead down from the second floor so the crews can leave the station as quickly as 30 seconds after a call, McDonald said.
Members of the group take turns cooking and chip in for amenities at the station, such as phone and TV. "It's like a family," McDonald said.
Antonio Ramos, who has been stationed on Brook St. since 1993, recalls being asked during his application process whether he had a problem waiting around for something to happen.
"We do a lot of cleaning," he said.
The crews also spend much of their downtime on training, including first aid and hazardous materials. A DVD on cyanide poisoning was on the agenda for Monday evening. They train regularly to stay familiar with all the equipment that goes with them on each call. Though there are parts of the job Ramos wouldn't wish on anyone, overall, "it's a great job," he said. "I always knew to be a 9-to-5 guy was not for me."
Ramos is the "roof guy" on Ladder 8. The ladder can reach 110 feet, or about seven stories, depending on the angle. The truck is loaded down with equipment from the obvious (rolls and rolls of hose) to the innovative (an air pack equipped with a motion sensor that emits a screech if the wearer stops moving).
According to Brown Director of Environmental Health and Safety Stephen Morin, the companies made 138 runs to campus in 2009, five of which were classified as fires. These were generally small and caused by activities like cooking or smoking indoors. Morin said the number of runs was down from the early '90s, when as many as 350 runs were recorded in a single year.
"The kids are good here," McDonald said. "It's a good place. They just don't know how to cook."