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Lodi firefighters adjust to expanding role

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Posted: Friday, June 8, 2001 10:00 pm

Firefighters retrieve children locked in cars, respond to car accidents to administer first aid and clean up hazardous materials from methamphetamine labs.

That is the changing face of firefighters - less fighting fires and more providing medical aid and roadside services. It's a face some in the profession wish the public saw better.

Firefighters assist with manpower to pick up fall victims.

Help turn off false fire alarms.

Investigate odors.

Deliver babies.

Respond to smells of smoke, reports of unconscious people and calls for difficulty breathing.

But they no longer retrieve cats stuck in trees.

"We've got animal control to do that," said Capt. Doug Hintz, who started with the Lodi Fire Department in September 1970. "That practice ended when we went out to a call of a stuck cat. When our firefighter climbed the tree, he came face to face with a three-foot iguana."

Firefighters also don't clean up after a fire. Duties such as pumping out flooded basements and mopping up puddles of water are contracted out to private companies who specialize in the work.

Capt. Sandy Wichman, a 26-year veteran of the department, said it's also hard to find a deck of cards around a fire house today.

"There's no time," he said. "You've got 24 hours and not enough time."

But the pay is better.

Wichman remembers when firefighters made a mere $500 a month and required a second job to survive. The current wage is between $2,999 per month for starting firefighters and $4,904 for a battalion chief, a step below fire chief.

But job training is harder than it used to be, Wichman said.

Today, firefighters must go through life-saving training similar to what paramedics are taught, because fire crews usually arrive on the scene of an emergency prior to the ambulance.

In fact, the department is currently working to place paramedic-firefighters on Lodi trucks. Paramedics, unlike firefighters trained simply as emergency medical technicians, can administer drugs.

"Our medical training is getting bigger and bigger. But the type of people firemen are, they just take it in stride," said Battalion Chief Jim Inman, who started with the department nearly 28 years ago.

This weekend, a group of Lodi firefighters is at a national emergency medical services conference in Minneapolis discussing the paramedic issue, which Lodi City Council is expected to consider later this year.

That change, and others, is in response to the public's expectations of the fire department, Inman said.

"When there's a need, we fill it," he said.

Even the fire equipment reflects the career's changing times.

For example, the Station No. 1 truck that was built in the 1970s has no room for baskets for water rescues, lights on stands pulled out during a nighttime emergency and rescue ropes.

The industry has also changed and now focuses more on safety, especially after prematurely losing so many firefighters to respiratory problems, Inman said.

"There's a greater awareness of safety than there's ever been," he said, adding that the technology for things such as upgraded breathing apparatus and requiring back-up teams has evolved.

"It used to be that firefighters were risk-takers, and that's not the way things are done now," he said.

Wichman remembers when firefighters answered 911 calls after hours.

In Lodi, firefighters now work a 24-hour shift, from 8 a.m. to 8 a.m., on a rotation basis with two other crews - and their calls are answered by dispatchers in the city's police station.

While they sleep, eat and play at the firehouse, crews at each of the three stations can get two or 23 calls, each demanding, each different. While waiting, they cook, lift weights, catch the news, take brisk walks around the block or make small repairs on fire apparatus.

"You have to be ready at the drop of a hat for anything and everything," Inman said. "You never know what that next alarm is going to be."

Firefighter Shane Langone said it's a good day when it's busy - like getting 13 or 14 calls in a nine-hour period, which happened one day this week.

But Inman said once you become a veteran firefighter, emergency calls aren't met with as much anticipation.

"You don't want the calls. They're not happy," he said. "You're always going somewhere unhappy - 'My father's not breathing.'; 'We've been in a car accident.' It's just not happy."

Although calls for grass fires are increasing with the recent hot temperatures, the statistics reveal that handling hoses and dousing flames only make up about 2 percent of the department's annual average of 3,500 calls, Inman said.

A resounding 62 percent in 2000 were for emergency medical calls.

These could range from heart attack sufferers to victims of drug overdoses, and sometimes they require the operation of sophisticated equipment such as a defibrillator.

"It's not like we're out there just putting bandages on," Inman said.

Firefighters also undergo ongoing, hands-on training to keep skills fresh and to practice using tools. This week, for example, personnel participated in a class to teach new auto accident rescue techniques.

Engineer Craig Copulos, who has been a firefighter for 12 years, said their tasks are constantly changing, even expanding.

"We do a lot. People still don't know what we do for a living."

Inman agreed.

"You have to evolve into what the public expects. If they see something on TV following a natural disaster like an earthquake, the expectation is that we can do it. That is always changing."

Comments about this story? Send mail to the News-Sentinel newsroom.



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