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OREM — Did you know that fire hydrants in Utah are plumbed differently than hydrants in Florida? Do you know what to do when you see flashing lights or hear the siren of an approaching fire truck or ambulance?
A day and evening spent at Orem Fire Department Station 33 provided insight into the work and training of firefighters and paramedics, including the critical care squad paramedics who crisscross the city assisting ambulances from multiple stations and responding to trauma cases.
In recent years the city has invested in both equipment and training that put the city’s fire department on the leading edge and better equip firefighters to keep the public safe. Unlike nearby newer cities such as Saratoga Springs and Eagle Mountain, the existence of older homes and commercial buildings in Orem means fires occur more regularly.
The prevalence of student housing associated with Utah Valley University and Brigham Young University also means a higher volume of calls on the city’s west and south sides. Station 33 serves both and sits just a block away from the busy I-15, as well, meaning car accident calls are also frequent.
For fans of television shows and movies about firehouses, they do get some things right — such as the medical jargon — and, also, many things wrong.
An alarm does go off throughout the building, followed by a dispatcher announcing the call. Lights also come on, if off, to help wake firefighters should a call come in the middle of the night. These days, however, firefighters and paramedics are already scrambling since they were alerted to the call on their mobile devices prior to hearing it overhead, or on their radios.
That mobile app provides continual dispatch updates as to the situation at hand, which station or stations are responding and provides a link to GPS navigation to get firetrucks and ambulances to the emergency as quickly as possible.
On important errands
Firefighters in Orem work 48-hour shifts, so firehouses really are a home away from home. This includes a kitchen and dining area, a living room with a TV, a laundry room and sleeping quarters. Those homecooked firehouse dinners you’ve seen on TV are the real thing, and ours was partially interrupted by a call — something firefighters predicted.
As for what the shows and movies get wrong (beyond simply overstating the number of dramatic calls and fires), Station 33’s Capt. Cameron Monahan mentioned two things, immediately.
First, the smoke produced at a house or building fire is so thick that firefighters — let alone TV cameras — can see very little. In most cases visibility is nearly nonexistent. In real life, firefighters will be calling out to you should you ever be trapped in a house fire. They want you to shout out and return their calls, because they can’t locate you very easily by sight or feel.
“One (fire)man’s job in any structure fire is to get to the roof, the engine company below is going in with hoses, and when he cuts a hole and punches the roof to vent some heat and smoke, the visibility is improved a little bit for the teams below (who are) searching for victims,” said Monahan.
Second, Monahan doesn’t bark out orders when trucks pull up to a fire — which is typically a dramatic moment on TV shows. Each member of the crew is continually trained to know what to do as soon as the parking brakes are applied. The captain described it as a perfectly choreographed dance, with each firefighter getting the tools they need to immediately set about their preassigned task.
Monahan then monitors radio traffic and changes to what he can see around the structure to coordinate shifts in strategy, or to call off internal searches if the situation deteriorates and becomes unsafe.
Tools of the trade
The public may be interested to learn that the most indispensable tool onboard any firetruck is one many of us own. It’s the chainsaw used to breach the roof in a structure fire. It may be different, in some ways, to the ones we buy at the local home store, but it is indispensable to firefighters — and their working condition is checked at the start of each day, along with that of many other tools and pieces of protective equipment.
Every one of those tools is contained and organized within Station 33’s tiller truck, the only one currently in the Orem Fire Department’s arsenal. The truck is nearly 70-feet-long and contains a 100-foot aerial ladder, with a water nozzle at the end; and space for about a dozen other ladders that can be used from the ground when gaining access to buildings.
The tiller carries hundreds of feet of hose that carry water from fire hydrants.
Along the full length of each side of the truck are organized compartments containing all the tools of the trade. One side is dedicated to the heavy equipment and tools used to gain entry into vehicles and buildings and extract people from danger.
Despite its length, the tiller is much more maneuverable than a traditional engine. The engine and ladder portions of the truck are separate, and it is steered from both the front and the rear.
If engineer Jayme Rigler is turning the front of the tiller to the right, tillerman Jesse Steiner is turning the rear wheels to the left. The tiller can be moved into tight spots and fully turn around in places a traditional fire engine cannot, according to Rigler.
Both men have the primary task of getting the aerial ladder into the best position to access and breach roofs.
At the scene of a car accident, for example, their goal is to position the truck so extraction equipment — such as the famed jaws of life — is facing the accident and most easily accessible.
The tiller is not the only thing at Station 33 that can be called upon throughout the city. Squad 33, critical care paramedics, work in conjunction with ambulances across the city and are trained and certified to deal with the worst cases of trauma. The critical care paramedic program has only existed in Orem since April 2021, and only a few other agencies in the state have this capability.
The ambulance at Station 33 is typically staffed with a paramedic and an emergency medical technician, in addition to all Orem firefighters being trained as emergency medical technicians.
The Squad operates out of a full-size pickup, with a covered bed and slide-out storage compartments that carry everything needed for the critical care paramedics to do their job and to assist the engine crews with fires.
Operating from a pickup, rather than an ambulance, makes the Squad better able to nimbly move about the city as needed. It was common for the Squad to respond to multiple calls in succession once dispatched out of the fire station.
There were multiple calls of people having strokes that day, one at a crowded wedding reception and one injured party at a traffic accident — one of two traffic accidents responded to by Station 33 that day.
With advanced training and qualifications, the Squad — staffed this shift by critical care paramedics Mike Hickman and Tim Hope — give the Orem Fire Department the equivalent of ground-based flight paramedics. Hickman works part-time on a medical flight crew, in fact, based at Utah Valley Hospital.
The Squad has standing orders from Utah Valley Hospital, a level 2 trauma center, that address the dispensing of medications and other lifesaving measures that only they can administer. The critical care paramedics can contact Utah Valley Hospital for additional orders, if needed, said Hickman.
The most dramatic case of the evening involved a 72-year-old man who suffered cardiac arrest while attending a dance. A bystander with past EMT experience started chest compressions immediately and paramedics took over upon arrival. With no pulse and while not breathing, the patient was intubated; his heart was shocked twice; and a Stryker machine did the work of chest compressions so those attending to him could focus on the man’s vital signs and care, which included intravenous medications.
Once his pulse and breathing were restored, approximately 10 minutes later, he was delivered to Timpanogos Regional Hospital. As Hickman and Hope left the emergency room, the man was in stable health. The patient’s updated condition is unknown.
“Without the bystander starting chest compressions immediately, it may not have been possible for us to restore his pulse and breathing. Every second counts,” said Hickman.
As for Utah’s fire hydrants, they are accessed from the side — as many of us have seen on TV and in movies. No water is present, however, until a valve is accessed from above, that sits deep underground and below the frost line.
Drivers should move to the right as ambulances and fire trucks approach. Stop if you are approaching an intersection when you hear their sirens. It was nerve wracking seeing fire trucks and medical crews inch through intersections while driver after driver either wasn’t paying attention or didn’t stop for them.
The seconds and minutes saved getting them through traffic could be lifesaving to anyone in need.