Broward County

Fort Lauderdale firefighters at nation’s busiest station are always on call

Firefighters Rosie Massarelli and Kris Boszko respond to a car that crashed into a building on Federal Highway in Fort Lauderdale, September 8, 2014.
Firefighters Rosie Massarelli and Kris Boszko respond to a car that crashed into a building on Federal Highway in Fort Lauderdale, September 8, 2014. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

It’s 8:15 p.m. and the four-member crew of Fort Lauderdale Fire Department Engine 8 has just made its way back to the firehouse after two back-to-back calls — one where an SUV plowed into a store and another where a family smelled something burning in the attic.

Tired and hungry, the firefighters head to the kitchen to chow down on shrimp tacos cooked up by colleagues.

But dinner has to wait.

The station’s alarm system blares. The crew members — some of whom still are chewing — abandon their plates on the table and quickly slide down a nearby pole before making their way to their truck.

While dinnertime may sound a little chaotic, that’s life for the firefighters and paramedics of the firehouse, which was recently ranked as the busiest station in the nation by Firehouse Magazine.

Last year, Station 2’s seven units — two engines, two rescue trucks, a ladder truck and two vehicles for chiefs — responded to more than 25,000 calls, ranking it above Los Angeles at No.2 and Baltimore at No.3.

“You have to be ready for anything,” says Lt. Mike Hicks, who is assigned to Engine8, which is the 10th busiest engine in the nation. “You get used to it.”

It being interruptions.

“That’s the nature of the business,” Hicks says.

The 24-hour shift starts at 8a.m. when everyone is given their assignments for the day. Bags are dropped in the dorms on the second floor of Station2, 528 NW Second St., and the waiting begins.

Station 2 is in densely populated downtown Fort Lauderdale. Units are sent to scenes based on location — and circumstance. If there is a high-rise fire, the ladder truck is often dispatched.

“Fort Lauderdale is just a very busy city as a whole,” says Deputy Fire Chief Timothy Heiser. “A lot of people come into the city during the day.”

With a $78 million budget, Fort Lauderdale’s Fire Department has 11 stations and about 455 employees, including ocean rescue. About 15 firefighters and paramedics are assigned to each of the three shifts at Station2.

The annual survey is compiled by New York-Based Firehouse Magazine. In January, departments are asked to fill out a form with their busiest station. This year about 250 departments responded.

“The idea is to give people a better feel for where they stand,” said Kevin Roche, who compiled the results. “It’s also a little about bragging rights.”

On this particular day at Station 2, two rookies are on duty. One is assigned to Engine 2, the other to Engine8.

“You are in for a busy day,” Hicks says to Kris Boszko, who joined the department after working for the Marathon Fire Department in the Keys. On any given day there can be as many as 30 to 35 calls in a shift per truck.

It doesn’t take long for the first call to come, activating the station’s alarms and lights.

The crew of Engine 8 is off to an unresponsive homeless man in front of a car dealership.

“We get these calls all the time,” says firefighter Jeremy Vaughn as he puts on white medical gloves. Boszko follows Vaughn’s lead.

The driver, Tom Major, easily weaves the truck through traffic, getting through intersections, occasionally blowing the air-horn to warn morning rush-hour drivers to get out of the way.

After a quick check of the man, paramedics take him to the hospital.

The next call: a flaming roll of toilet paper at Dillard High School. When the truck arrives, the fire is out and the charred paper sits in the hallway.

Meanwhile, back at the firehouse, menu-planning for the day’s meals begins. Everyone chips in and a designated crew heads to Publix for some pleasurable shopping. But if a call comes in, the groceries have to wait.

“People have the perception that that’s all we do, but that’s not the case,” Hicks says of the shopping, cooking and eating.

It’s up to the rookies to clear the table and help with the dishes. The veteran firefighters also use down time to drill the newbies on how to hold a fire hose and get suited up in two minutes.

Monday morning is a little slower than usual, but no one gets too comfortable. Firefighters say they have tricks for being ready. If they go for a shower, their clothes sit nearby. Same thing with sleeping. Most wear shoes with elastic or zippers so gearing up is easier.

“Very rarely do we get to just sit around,” Major says as he talks to fellow firefighters about life, football and country music.

Not every call is major though. The firefighters of Station 2 often gear up to find only a false alarm.

Switching gears becomes second nature for the firefighters. One minute they are assisting someone who can’t breathe, the next they are shoring up a building hit by an SUV.

It’s now 6 p.m. and a driver has lost control of his Ford Explorer and plowed through The Plant Boat, 1130 S. Federal Hwy.

When Engine 8 arrives, the crew joins several other fire trucks and rescuers already there.

The firefighters sweep through the building to make sure no one is inside. Making their way through the shattered glass and cracked concrete, firefighters quickly realize that the building is structurally unsafe.

Crews use a hydraulic pole system to shore up the building, while police shut down busy Federal Highway.

“It’s surprising no one was hurt,” Hicks says.

As soon as Engine 8 gets clearance to leave, the crew is sent to the next call.

A man calls 911 after smelling something burning in his attic. The rookie is a little too tall for the space so Hicks hoists himself up until his legs disappear. Nothing is hot, but Hicks tells the man there are issues with the air conditioner.

“Don’t hesitate to call again if you smell it,” he says.

The man, John Saball, says he didn’t think he would be able to sleep without knowing everything is OK.

“I feel a lot better,” he says.

It’s finally time to head back to the station — hopefully to eat dinner.

But the meal has to wait.

With lights and sirens blaring, the truck zooms to a man with stomach pain. When the engine crew members arrive, they help paramedics already working on the patient.

And then another call.

The firefighters get back in the truck and head to a 12-year-old with breathing trouble. His grandmother, Gloria Johnson, says calling 911 is the only way to get her grandson to the hospital.

“We don’t have another ride,” she says.

After giving the child treatment and helping other paramedics get the boy ready for a trip to the hospital, the firefighters of Engine 8 are back in the truck heading to Station 2, hopefully to finish their now-cold shrimp.

On the way back, veteran firefighter Rosie Massarelli tells Boszko that they have “the best job in the world.”

The crew gets in the elevator and heads back to the kitchen.

“It’s now 9:15 and we are going to try to eat dinner again,” says Hicks, as he looks down at his watch. “Maybe it’ll work this time.”

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