As the bell rang throughout the halls, rooms and garages at the Falmouth Fire Rescue Department headquarters on Main Street Friday afternoon, conversations ceased. The voice of a phone caller boomed over the loudspeaker. “There’s an accident on South Cape Road and Turner Road. A six-car pileup.”
Captain Scott J. Thrasher exchanged a look with Lieutenant Bruce Girouard, both of the Falmouth fire department. “South Cape Road? Is that in Falmouth?” Capt. Thrasher asked.
The time was 3:58. Both were inside the cafeteria of the station with a dish of macaroni and cheese in front of them.
Within minutes, Captain Thrasher was driving car number 28, a red sport utility vehicle, down Main Street, its sirens sounding.
Eventually, the dispatcher calmed the caller on the line and relayed information to the captain and others responding. The accident was at the intersection of Turner Road and Sandwich Road.
Fire engine 25 and ambulance 38 from the East Falmouth fire station were dispatched to the scene as well as ambulance 37 from the department headquarters.
Capt. Thrasher was calm despite sirens, cars blocking his way and occasional updates on the radio. He did not drive at high speed, but at approximately 30 miles per hour. “Over time, I’ve learned to drive slowly. Some drivers don’t know what to do when they see the lights in their rear-view. I don’t want to cause another accident,” he said. “Sometimes they’ll pull right out in front of you.”
He came to a brief stop at a red light at the intersection of Jones Road and Davis Straits before continuing toward East Falmouth.
“Right now, I’m thinking, if there really are six cars, I might have to send more ambulances,” he said. “You never know what you are going to see when you get to a scene. Sometimes a caller will overreact. But sometimes you need to call in a MedFlight.”
In 2012 Falmouth Fire Rescue Department responded to 6,366 calls, approximately 77 percent of which were medical related, including motor vehicle accidents, heart attacks, elderly individuals who had fallen, and other medical emergencies. They also responded to approximately 20 to 30 fires. This year, the number of calls will be similar, having already broken the 6,000 mark.
The term “firefighter” is misleading.
“Firefighters wear many hats,” Lt. Girouard said. “When the bell rings, you’ve got to be prepared for anything.” Lt. Girouard speaks enthusiastically about the department. He is well over six feet tall and has been with the department since 1992.
A Firefighter's Tools
In the garage of the Main Street station there are several life-saving tools, or “toys” as he likes to call them: Jaws of Life; a bus outfitted with diving equipment for sub-zero, underwater rescue missions; all terrain bushwhacking vehicles for bush fires; a 110- foot ladder extending from a ladder engine; a $500,000 fire engine equipped with 1,200 feet of fire house, several wall ladders, over 700 gallons of water, a generator, Jaws of Life, oxygen tanks, oxygen refilling stations, chainsaws and other equipment. Each firefighter knows how to operate each tool.
In 1992, the Falmouth fire department responded to more than 3,000 calls for the first time in its history, and “that was a big deal,” Lt. Girouard said. For the last several years they have doubled that number.
And while the number of calls have increased, some department members have questioned why the amount of personnel has stayed the same while covering the 44 squares miles of Falmouth.
“Chief Sullivan has been fighting for more personnel for several years,” Lt. Girouard said. Acting Deputy to the Chief Timothy R. Smith has questioned the lack of personnel as well. He explained that in the five stations of the Falmouth department, 14 firefighters are assigned to be on duty for a given shift, which includes a captain and a lieutenant. Each of the four shifts works 24 hours on, 24 hours off and then 24 hours on before taking five days off.
These guys can look back and see they did a great job, maybe saved someone’s life, and can see the amount of damage they limited.
Lt. Bruce Girouard
Deputy Smith said that normally there will only be 10 to 12 on duty due to vacations, sick days and other scheduling conflicts. “If the shift drops below 10 firefighters, we are contractually obligated to put another firefighter on duty, paying them overtime. That happens regularly,” he said.
One way the department has addressed the increased load is to hire paramedics. Paramedics are advanced EMTs that can administer medications, start intravenous lines and resuscitate patients suffering from heart attacks and other life-threatening events. Of the current staff, 44 are certified paramedics.
Another way the department has dealt with the increased load is through teamwork. “We often cook together. If a group of guys can cook together, they can put out a fire easily,” Lt. Girouard said. “Shifts become second family.”
On Friday two firefighters, Michael A. Mueller and Chris Hamlin, manned ambulance 37, one of four ambulances. By noon, they had responded to three calls. From noon until the accident on Turner and Sandwich Roads, they had responded to five back-to-back calls, with a brief 10 minute break to catch a bite to eat.
Last Friday from 2:30 AM until 5 PM, the fire department responded to 14 calls, including two motor vehicle accidents, two patients suffering from seizures, carbon monoxide alarms, and various medical calls.
Responding to a Motor Vehicle Crash
When Capt. Thrasher arrived at the intersection of Sandwich Road and Turner Road, Ambulance 38 and Engine 25 from the East Falmouth station, as well as a police officer to direct traffic, were already on the scene.
A gray PT cruiser sat in the middle of the intersection, the front end smashed in, the front left tire nearly disconnected from the car and flattened, air bags deflated and the driver still in his seat with a brace around his neck. A maroon Toyota Camry sat on the edge of the grass south of the intersection, its driver’s side door badly damaged and the driver sitting off the road, shaken.
No other cars appear to be involved in the accident.
The fire engine was parked in the road to block traffic from interfering with firefighters assisting the driver of the PT cruiser. Three firefighters, one in yellow firefighting gear and helmet and two others in navy blue pants and shirt, placed the stretcher into the car and lifted the driver carefully onto the stretcher and then out of the vehicle.
Capt. Thrasher, with purple medical gloves, a blue baseball cap, and a green reflective vest, assisted the patient sitting on the edge of the road and the firefighters working to get the driver of the PT Cruiser into the ambulance.
By 4:15 PM firefighters placed the patient in the back of ambulance and the ambulance driver announced over the radio that the patient was a priority-2 patient.
At this point, the second ambulance arrived, with Mr. Mueller and Mr. Hamlin. The two firefighters assisted the driver of the Camry. He was not seriously hurt and refused transportation to the hospital.
“It’s organized chaos,” the captain said on the way back to headquarters. “Our number-one goal is to get to the scene in the quickest and most reasonable way possible.” The captain has been on the force since 1999, when he started part time as a dispatcher. He had gotten the “firefighting bug” while volunteering in Maine.
“My brother and sister always joke with me after a shift, asking how my work was sleeping at the station, as if I don’t do anything,” Capt. Thrasher said. “It’s a long day.”
“We enjoy the challenge,” Lt. Girouard said. “That’s what being a firefighter is all about. Going to a call that you don’t get very often is exciting. These guys can look back and see they did a great job, maybe saved someone’s life, and can see the amount of damage they limited. It makes them feel good about their jobs.”