From responding to fire and medical calls, to helping with fire prevention systems planning and inspections, the Gastonia Fire Department does it all. And community service often continues with firefighters being leaders at volunteer fire departments after finishing their shifts at the GFD.
“There’s a passion, just talk to some of the new guys and ask them ‘Why do you want to be a firefighter?’” Chief Phil Welch said. “It really is a passion, a love for the job.”
The GFD’s Operations Division primarily handles fire suppression. Operations is the uniformed firefighters on fire trucks responding to calls that are fire related, accidents, medical calls, HAZMAT, rescue, pretty much anything, Welch said. Deputy Chief Mark Rutherford supervises the Operations Division.
There are 10 companies on duty every day; a company is a group of 15 firefighters who ride the fire truck/apparatus. The 10 companies consist of six engine companies, three ladder companies, a heavy rescue company, and two battalion chiefs per shift. “That’s an average of 44 per shift if everybody’s working,” Welch said in the GFD Conference Room where some leaders gathered recently for an interview. “Minimum staffing is 36 working 24/7 on just the suppression side.”
The GFD is a nationally accredited agency with an ISO (Insurance Services Office) rating of Class 2. ISO classifications range from Class 1 (the best) to 10. Based on National Fire Protection Association studies, for a standard residential structure fire, 15 firefighters are required to adequately do all the different job functions. This is an effective response force, according to NFPA and GFD standards.
“When a citizen picks up the telephone, dials 911, and a dispatcher says 'What’s your emergency,' that’s when our time starts, until we get 15 firefighters on the scene,” said Assistant Chief and Emergency Manager William Warren. “That’s what we call our effective response force – getting 15 firefighters on the scene to deal with a residential-type structural fire.”
The GFD has eight stations, and generally speaking, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way/Marietta Street splits the service area into east and west. At Station 1 there are two crews or two companies and at Station 4 there are two companies. Battalion Chief 1 operates out of Station 1. Battalion Chief 2 operates out of Station 4. Stations 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8 all have one company assigned.
Then there’s the Life Safety Division which includes:
- Fire Code Inspections. This is for new construction as well as existing buildings. Fire prevention plans are reviewed every three years for many buildings in Gastonia. However, plans for all of Gastonia’s churches are reviewed every year, according to Fire Marshal Chris Stowe.
- Life Safety Education. “We’re getting ready to start fire prevention month,” Stowe said, explaining that the GFD does fire safety classes for 4th graders, and tours and fire safety information is provided to many other children and citizens as well throughout the month of October.
- Fire Investigations. These are conducted after fires occur to determine a fire’s origin and cause.
“There are six of us in our division," Stowe said of the Life Safety Division. Assistant Chief Warren is the supervisor.
“Everybody thinks about riding a fire truck, but nobody thinks about every building that’s built in this city, they have to look at for exits, fire truck availability and fire protection systems,” Warren said.
“When they’re going in to inspect a building, current or new, they’re protecting two groups of people,” Welch said. “The job is not only to protect the public, it’s to protect the public and the firefighters in the event of a fire.”
For example if there is a hole in the middle of a floor in a building being renovated, firefighters would need to know that. “That’s an important part of our job,” Stowe said.
A firefighter’s job duties are varied and one time Warren almost helped deliver a baby. “I was the rookie fireman and the paramedic said, ‘We need somebody to ride with us because she’s getting ready to deliver.’ The captain looked at me and I jumped in there with them. It was close. Luckily we made it to the hospital.”
Another thing about being a firefighter, you’ve got to be a jack of all trades: a lot of building construction knowledge, plumbing and a basic understanding of electricity, Welch said explaining hydraulics and the fluid movement of pressure to move a certain amount of water with friction loss is very important to the job.
And did you know many GFD firefighters are also leaders of volunteer fire departments?
"We've got a large number of firefighters who volunteer in their home communities, including multiple chiefs, assistant chiefs, and officers, and not just in Gaston County, but Lincoln and Cleveland Counties as well," said Captain Earl Withers, who also serves as president of the Gaston County Firefighters Association. "We get paid to do the job, but we also volunteer to do the job on our days off."
Five who serve as chiefs are:
- Craig Huffstetler, a GFD captain, is chief of the Union Road VFD;
- Matt Young, a GFD battalion chief, is chief of New Hope Road VFD;
- Mark Wright, a GFD firefighter, is the Tryonata VFD chief;
- Earl Withers, a GFD captain, is the Dallas VFD chief; and
- Dusty Rudisill, a GFD captain, is chief of Howards Creek VFD in Lincolnton.
“They’re serving their community,” Welch said. “They work their shift here, and then when they go home, they respond in the middle of the night in their volunteer district. That’s pretty unique, you know.”
Some things have changed over the years and some things have not. One thing that has not changed is the GFD’s tardiness policy.
“Being here on time is required for us,” Welch said. “You’ve got to have that minimum staffing in order for those trucks to run out. There was a CPR at 3 minutes to 8 this morning and that truck had to be manned at that point. Some are coming on shift, some are coming off but whatever minute of the day it is, the apparatus has to be staffed.
“It used to be the thing at the old Station 1 - the bells used to ring at 8 o’clock and there was a line in the concrete at the back of the station where the door came down and if you weren’t across that line at 8 o’clock, you were late.”
Warren said: “We tell the new hires, 'the Operations guys work a 24-hour shift and they’re off for 48. You have no excuse for being late, you’ve got two days to get here.’”
Some things that have changed over the years are the amount of drug overdoses or NARCAN calls. “That’s very often now. It's a very sad thing,” Welch said.
Other changes include having thermal imaging cameras (TIC), better communications, and being much more conscious of protecting the firefighters with their equipment and gear, Welch said. “We are more concerned about the cleanliness of their gear and reducing the cancer risk.”
Firefighters can see through smoke with TICs; one member of every company utilizes the TIC on fire incidents. “Most people don’t realize, for the biggest part of firefighting, you have no sight,” Welch said. “Put a campfire in a room and close the door, the smoke takes away your visibility. The thermal imaging camera is a handheld device, you can scan around the room and it identifies temperature differences. So if it’s a hot room, and the occupant might be cooler, you can see the silhouette of a body and can go right to it. Or if a room is black and filled with smoke but there’s something burning, you can see the hot spot and go right to that area.”
“It ain’t like you see inChicago Fire on TV,” Warren added with a laugh.