Lights, sirens, tacos: A day in the life of Fairbanks firefighters

FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) On a cold winter morning in January, I went to the Fairbanks Fire Department to spend the day with the men and women who put their lives on the line to fight fires.

Members of the Fairbanks Fire Department sit down to enjoy a meal of homemade street tacos. (John Dougheryt/KTVF)

I went inside and was greeted by Captain Zac Rittel, driver Nick Clark and firefighter Brian Winn, I would be spending what turned out to be a slow day at the station with these three. Throughout the day I would meet more of the firefighters on the crew but I went everywhere with Rittel Clark and Winn. They were assigned to Engine 1.

After introductions I was taken to get a set of gear and then settled in to learn about what it looks like to be a firefighter. While the day had less calls than usual, it gave me the chance to see the other side of fire station life. We always see firefighters and EMS on the side of the road responding to accidents, dragging hoses as they work to put out a blaze, or when they are called to give lifesaving aid to a sick person. But, what about when they aren’t doing those things.

As we sat and talked, Clark suggested they get coffee, but where from? Rittel says he just wants a quick cup of coffee, but Clark insists that Bucko’s has the best coffee and they should go there. Eventually they decide that they will go to Bucko’s for their caffeine fix.

As I am talking to Rittel about their job, a call comes in for one of the medical crews, I look up and seconds later a sleepy Max Heineken and Ryan Holland slide down the fire poles at the station. Rittel tells me that Holland had been up most of the night helping with a fire at the golf course.

The call turns out not to be anything and they are soon back at the station. Captain Rittel calls over the intercom for everyone to come to the engine bays for training. Today, they are working on their rope skills. They set up a pulley system and one firefighter was able to pull an engine by himself.

After the training it was time to talk dinner. Since the firefighters work a 48-hour shift, they have to cook all of their meals at the station. It was a Tuesday, the obvious choice was tacos, but what kind of tacos, authentic, American, street tacos? Carna asada street tacos was eventually settled on. With the coffee and dinner debate solved, we loaded up into Engine 1 and headed down the road.

We pull up to the drive-thru window of Bucko’s and Clark and Winn get out to order their coffee. They get back in and pass out the hot drinks, Winn paid, saying he was about four cups overdue. Now to Costco. Rittel goes to the deli to get something for lunch while Clark and Winn set about getting the ingredients for the tacos. First they need to buy tomatoes, Clark is going to make some homemade pico de gallo. Then he picks up pre-marinated carna asada meat. He usually likes to make his own, but they thought of it late and there isn’t time to marinade it. Lastly, he gets a bag of masa.

Now to check out. As we walk toward the checkouts, their radios crackle to life, a commercial fire alarm has been set off on Peger Road. They find an employee, explain that they need to leave, hand her their groceries and run out the door. As we fly down the road, sirens wailing, Winn is in the back seat getting his gear all in order. Over the headset, they seem calm, making jokes and talking about the food they had to leave.

Before we arrive, Battalion Chief Scott Raygor clears the scene, it was a false alarm. We turn around and head back to Costco. They get the ingredients and then go to Fred Meyer for the rest of the food.

Once back at the station, some of the guys go to work out, others are hanging out in the kitchen area. Ryan Holland was in the kitchen at just after 3 p.m. He was cooking eggs, bacon and sweet potatoes. “I was up all night on a structure fire and finally got a nap in around noon, so now it’s time for coffee and breakfast,” Holland said.

Sadly, just as he was about to sit down, a call for medical help came over the speakers. Dispatch wanted the ambulance and Engine 1. I grabbed my camera, and ran down the stairs, everyone else slid down the pole, but I wasn’t allowed to because of safety concerns. We headed out to help an older gentleman who was having medical issues. Once he was in the ambulance, Holland and Heineken took him to the hospital. We went back to the station and on the stovetop sat Holland's breakfast, cold and uneaten. I’m told he has the worst luck and this always happens.

Once we got back, Clark began making the tacos, meat sizzled on the grill, and the most of the crew pitched in to roll and press fresh tortillas. A short time later the call went out over the intercom, dinner is served.

Firefighters lined up and to build their tacos. Then they sat down hoping they would be able to finish eating. They all eat fast, knowing that at any time they could have to go out on a call. Right as they are finishing, a call comes over the radio, there is an accident on the Johansen.

I go with Raygor to take a look, fortunately no one was hurt and we head back to the station. My day is over, but they still have 14 hours before they can go home.

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