A night on the town with Engine 23

We’ve all walked past it a hundred times, seen the firefighters outside the station on 2119 G St. Arguably every GW student has seen them come and go, heard the scream of the siren and seen those lights pierce the night sky with unrivaled intensity.

It’s March 30 and I’ve been invited, as a guest, to enter their world and see first-hand what it means to be part of the team.

The time is 5:18 p.m. The first thing I notice is the radio – it’s blasting. Probationary firefighter Jaime Stapleton gets the lasagna out of Platoon 3’s abused, faded white refrigerator for tonight’s dinner. As he is doing so, that all-too-familiar alarm slices through the piercing introduction of “Sweet Child O’ Mine” like a sharp axe through a burnt door.

One might imagine the first thing to run through the collective mind of the platoon is fear, maybe apprehension – not likely. According to Lieutenant Scott Smith, when the alarm goes off, the adrenaline takes over and the only thing anyone can think of is getting in the truck and to the call as fast as possible.

It’s a box alarm for a fire off of Macarthur Boulevard. Five fire engines, two ladder trucks, a rescue squad and the battalion chief will all respond. In a matter of seconds, instinct has taken over and firefighter Bryan Perlmutter, probationary firefighter Jaime Stapleton, wagon driver Randall “Stro” Stroman and Smith all fly into the truck before I can turn around. After pulling me in after them, we are off, sirens blasting.

Stroman races in and out of traffic at a feverish pace toward Macarthur Boulevard. Perlmutter and Stapleton are strapping on their gear, completely oblivious to the sway and bounce of the trucks. Lieutenant Smith is pulling on the horn and waving stubborn drivers away from the truck. Once they reach Macarthur Boulevard, however, they are called off. It is only a faulty furnace.

It’s 5:50 p.m. On the way back to the firehouse, at the intersection of M Street and Wisconsin Avenue in the heart of Georgetown, a police officer asks Smith to investigate a mysterious natural gas odor. Stro parallel parks the truck between the Sports Zone and Bistro Francais.

“Make sure I am not over any manholes,” Stroman yells at Smith as he hops down from the passenger seat onto the sidewalk. Firefighters Perlmutter, barely past his probationary period, and Stapelton, the rookie, along with Lieutenant Smith, walk toward the intersection to investigate the smell. Stroman, a 15-year veteran, walks around to the back of the truck, where I am sitting.

“If you hear an explosion, run into that little cubby hole over there,” he instructs in reference to possible natural gas buildup in the sewers, while pointing to a little doorway in between two stores.

Thank God the explosion never came; I guess it was only the sewer. By the time we get back to the firehouse it is 6:19 p.m.

Bryan is in the kitchen. He’s the reserved one. He has been with the department for a little more than a year. He’s just outside of his probationary period. Though he doesn’t talk as much or joke as much, he’s still just as much a part of the family as any of the others. He may be shortest, standing less than 5 feet 9 inches, but he carries with him a quiet, reassuring confidence.

Jaime Stapleton is taller, his square jaw and crew cut makes him look like a firefighter. He is the rookie, and you know it the minute he opens his mouth. It isn’t that he is not as well trained or is obviously less experienced; he is always on the ball. He’s just brash and cocky, the way rookies are, ready to cut their teeth, ready for all that lies ahead.

Randall Stroman is right there with him, he’s big and burly, joking all the time, but with Stroman, you are not exactly sure where it comes from. Stroman’s a veteran. He’s been around the block. He’s disarming and the jokes help that. They relax you so that a rookie doesn’t worry about what could happen.

Lieutenant Smith is the leader, the officer, and he wears it in every action he takes. He’s the tallest, the John Wayne type – a man you want to follow. He wears his experience on his face, like a map of a career, filled with triumph and tragedy. Smith puts professionalism first, always the first to react, always leading.

These four are very different. Two have seen the world, two have not, but they are a family and they wear that on their chest, like a badge of honor.

After the lasagna is in the oven, Jaime joins Smith and Stro out by the bench. Joking dominates the conversation, but Stro and Jaime’s fake wrestling is interrupted by the alarm. It’s 6:22 p.m.

This time it’s a medical local call. Engine 23 will be the only unit to respond. While Bryan and Smith treat the patient, Jaime shows the patient’s brother the fire truck. He lets him get in the back and then Jaime lifts him up to show him the front of the truck. The kid’s in awe and Jaime has a huge smile on his face.

Finally, the ambulance arrives and the paramedics take the patient away. Jaime gets in the driver seat with Lieutenant Smith next to him, while Stro and Perlmutter ride in the back and thoughts turn back toward dinner.

It’s 6:51 p.m. Not two minutes after getting back in the fire truck another calls comes over the radio – an automatic fire alarm at the Lincoln Memorial.

“Drive like you know what you are doing,” Stroman rips Jaime as he steers towards the Lincoln Memorial. There is always casual joking, nothing harmful – just enough to help deal with the task at hand. I’d like to be able to say there is something more to it, more than just brothers joking with one another, but spend an hour with these guys and you know that’s all it is.

Dinner is still in the oven, cooking and cooking and cooking.

By 7:18 p.m. Platoon 3 is back at the firehouse.

“You got to take me to J. Paul’s,” Stroman jokes while Jaime, Bryan and the Lieutenant take the burnt lasagna out of the oven and try and prepare the rest of dinner. As he does so, the alarm goes off again.

“Take the bread out of the oven. Let’s go,” Smith orders. It’s 7:22 p.m.

It is a medical local at 17th and Constitution. The paramedics arrive shortly after Platoon 3, so we won’t be there long. It’s a good thing, too, because everyone is getting hungry. As Stroman pulls the truck up to the light at 20th and E, the dispatcher calls in another run. “I guess we are ordering pizza tonight,” Bryan mutters half-jokingly. It’s 7:34 p.m.

After a long wait, we finally sit down to dinner. At 8:07, Stro says grace and they take their first bite of burnt lasagna and cold garlic bread. And then the alarm sounds – another medical call. This one is at 1800 I St. The only words come from Lieutenant Smith: “Let’s go.”

When we first arrive on the Ambulance 16 arrives on the scene and by 8:26 p.m. everyone is back in the firehouse eating dinner.

For a time, the siren remains silent and there is time to rest, relax and eat. Like one big family, Platoon 3 gathers around the dinner table. It is set with a place for everyone. They eat the lasagna and pass the bread and talk about what is going on in each other’s lives. After dinner everyone leans back in their chairs with relaxed contentment on their faces – until the alarm goes off once more and they head for the truck to do it all again.

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