A night with the firefighters of Engine 23

The sound of alarm bells and the flicker of bright lights rouse firefighter William Wimbish from a chair in the Engine 23 firehouse.

It’s just past midnight on Friday night, and the three other members of Wimbish’s battalion, who were sleeping upstairs, hurriedly saunter into the fire truck. An electronic screen in the corner of the firehouse tells the men to proceed to the Empire Apartments on F Street to shut off an alarm.

The driver deftly navigates the campus, at one point slowing down to a crawl because a throng of drunken male students on 21st and F streets push each other into the truck’s path.

Upon arriving at the apartment building, three firefighters hop out of the truck and enter the lobby. After traversing the quiet lobby and finding no signs of danger, the firefighters, who have been working for 16 hours, walk languidly back to the truck with the disinterested look of men who would be content if they got these kinds of calls every night.

Life at the Engine 23 firehouse at 2119 G St. consists of long bouts of boredom pierced by moments of urgency. Firefighters spend most of their time in the house, which has a kitchen and lounge on the first floor and an exercise room and sleeping quarters upstairs.

While firefighters spend most of their day reading and watching television, they’re poised to hop on the truck in less than 30 seconds and race to a fire anywhere in the city.

John Ellis, an 18-year veteran of the force who drives the truck, slouches down in a swivel chair in the lounge Friday night with his feet propped up on another chair. With half-closed eyes, he watches “Good Will Hunting,” a movie he has seen at least 20 times.

Ellis, sporting day-old stubble and short gray hair, has been out on five calls, or “runs,” since clocking in at 7 a.m. Earlier in the night, his battalion helped extinguish a fire at the Woolworth & Lothrop office building on 10th and G streets.

“I like running,” says Ellis in his no-nonsense Maryland twang. “But it’s always nice to take a break when you’re cold.”

At Engine 23, firefighters grouped into four-member battalions work 24-hour shifts followed by three-day vacations.

“You work eight days a month,” Ellis says. “That’s incredible.

“I don’t know what I’d do if I had to come to work five days a week, I’ve been working shifts so long,” he adds.

Sitting in the wood-paneled lounge, Ellis changes channels on a large-screen TV that he says hasn’t been shut off in nine years. With the oven set to high and its door open – which Ellis calls “Southeast heat” since the firehouse has no proper heater – the room is stifling hot.

“The other day I could see my breath,” says Ellis, who comes from a family of firefighters – his brothers have similar jobs on military bases and his father worked as a volunteer firefighter in Maryland.

In the morning, when they are not making runs, firefighters go over routes in the afternoons, training for a call that could take them to the remotest part of the District

They also lift weights and run on treadmills, a regimen that prepares them for carrying more than 100 pounds of equipment during a firefight.

“It’s like carrying a small person on your back for 10 flights of stairs,” firefighter Colin Montgomery says.

At night, firefighters are allotted an average of five hours of sleep, which could be interrupted at any time by alarm bells and lights that are placed throughout the house. While Engine 23 mostly makes runs to Foggy Bottom and downtown D.C., the existence of multiple incidents in the city could send it far beyond its traditional jurisdiction.

The company, which makes four or five runs a night to sleepy neighborhood streets, usually enjoys a quietness that is not known in its counterparts in Anacostia and Chinatown, which sometimes make more than 20 runs in a night.

But the GW campus has only gone quiet in the last few years, says Ellis, who on a weekend night in the mid-1990s would make four or five runs toThurston Hall.

“I hate that dorm,” says Ellis, adding that typical calls to the nine-story freshman residence hall would involve hot plates or “40 hair irons plugged into one extension cord.”

Ellis added, “All these new kids come in and go crazy.”

GW, Ellis says, has implemented more security measures in the last few years that have significantly reduced runs to Thurston and other residence halls.

Despite its quiet surroundings, Engine 23 has helped extinguish several large fires in the last few months, including a conflagration that threatened to destroy the Foggy Bottom Mews in October. On Friday night, however, the company only went out on a few calls that were triggered by automatic fire alarms.

“When it’s quiet, it’s nice,” Montgomery says, “cause any moment, we can go from relaxing here … next minute, we can be on some major fire.”

Montgomery, a lanky man with a thick upper body, was an office manager in a law firm before becoming a firefighter 11 years ago.

“It’s a lot of fun,” he says. “It’s a career move.”

“I didn’t have any boyhood dreams,” he continues. “I just heard about it and I just signed up.”

While Ellis, Montgomery and the other firefighters in Engine 23 are well-adjusted to firehouse life, there are some things they will never get used to, such as sitting down to eat dinner and getting interrupted by a call.

“Fighting a fire is hard,” says Montgomery, “but trying to eat your dinner, trying to reheat your dinner four or five times, that’s hard.”

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