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Brian Roberts - In the Heat of the Night
Engineer and Greenbelt Volunteer Fire Department and Rescue Squad member Brian Roberts is always on duty even in the heat of the night. “The only exception is when I’m home and my wife asks me to do something,” he says. In fact, his biggest rescue occurred when he was home one evening and his neighbor’s house was struck by lightning and caught fire. Roberts ran over, woke him up, and got the neighbor out of the house while his wife called the fire department.

Being a firefighter is not entirely what you might expect. Most are unpaid. Their one-story firehouse does not have a fire pole. They replaced their last Dalmatian with sirens and horns decades ago. Roberts has never driven the fire engine. He also does not cook. “I’ve never delivered a baby but I’ve come close. I told that mother, ‘Hold on, we’re right around the corner from the hospital,’” explains Roberts. Firefighters today do not necessarily rescue cats stuck in trees, but they will rescue pets from sewers.

Today’s fire houses have either a fire engine, which has a two-story ladder plus hoses and water, a fire truck with a twelve story ladder, or a heavy rescue vehicle. Almost every station also has an ambulance. The station is more likely to be called for its ambulance than for its fire engine. “New construction has sprinklers and better electrical systems. Also, people generally have smoke detectors and fire extinguishers,” he notes.

Every other Saturday night from 7:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m., Roberts stays at the station, which is always staffed. He rides in the back with four or five others. “Each duty
Brian Robers on the front of his fire engine› Larger image
Brian Roberts sitting on the front of a fire engine from his company. Credit: B. Roberts
night is different. I carry in the water hose, the axes for entry, or serve as a backup. We rotate assignments,” he says. The station gives them money towards food, which is usually fast food, but sometimes they cook dinner together.

Prince Georges County is one of the busiest departments nationally due to its proximity to the Capital Beltway, the George Washington Parkway, Goddard, and the University of Maryland in College Park, Md. In the past, the majority of their big rescues were fire runs, but today about 80 percent of their calls involve accidents on the Beltway or Parkway and involve pulling people out of cars, stopping the bleeding, and performing CPR. Their more typical runs involve someone who boiled water or left food on the stove and then walked out of the house, electrical smells or gas leaks, or faulty smoke detectors that automatically triggered a call. “We’re only there about fifteen minutes for these kinds of calls,” notes Roberts.

“Our biggest event was 9/11,” recalls Roberts. “We were one of the first responders to the Pentagon. There was so much going on that day. What really struck me was walking into offices where the coffee mugs, keys, and family photographs were still there as if someone had left in a hurry.”

Brian at a training burn at apartment complex in Prince George's County.› Larger image
Brian in the door of an apartment complex in Prince George's County that is used for a training burn. Credit: B. Roberts
Firefighters have GPS but are more likely to rely on their hand-drawn map book that shows each street including the location of all hydrants and sprinkler attachments. “Things move so fast we don’t always have time to even type in the address into a GPS,” says Roberts.

All firefighters receive almost a year of training in firefighting and in emergency medical services. They must also climb the twelve-story ladder. “You can see for miles,” recalls Roberts. They also participate in regular training burns either in a concrete building built just for burns or in an abandoned structure. “It is more realistic when the drywall falls on top of your head,” he remarks.

The gear weighs about fifty pounds and consists of a hood, jacket, pants, helmet, facemask with air tank, gloves, and boots. “It’s as thick as a snow suit and can be very hot and exhausting going up flights of stairs in
the summer but it’s nice in the winter. We are also issued red suspenders, but I chose not to wear them,” he notes. The hose can add an additional 75 pounds.

Although Roberts has suffered second degree burns requiring treatment at a special burn unit, more firefighters die each year from heart attacks than from actual burns. “You go from a resting heart beat to full out in a split second when the alarm goes,” explains Roberts.

His parting message: “A lot of people, old and young, think that a fire won’t happen to them. It can.”

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Elizabeth M. Jarrell
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.