By Danielle Piekarski
What comes to mind when you think of firefighters? Flames? Ladders? Perhaps a dalmatian or a big pot of chili? While you wouldn’t be wrong in your associations, there is much more than meets the eye when it comes to a firefighter’s duties. In preparation for this story, I had the privilege of riding along with some of our community’s firefighters to learn more about the Grand Forks Fire Department.
The Grand Forks Fire Department was established in 1879, starting as a small group of 15 volunteers, with a single 100-gallon fire engine. In 1882, following a tense city council meeting, the mayor decided to replace the volunteer department with a paid department. Nearly 140 years later, the Grand Forks Fire Department remains a paid organization boasting 79 full-time employees. My time with GFFD began with a conversation with Fire Chief, Gary Lorenz.
Chief Lorenz started by breaking down how the department is organized. Of the 79 employees, 13 employees work on the administrative side and 66 employees work in the fire suppression division. The suppression division is divided into three battalions, which are distributed across the five fire stations in Grand Forks. These five stations are strategically placed around town to ensure the fastest response time possible. Each station is operational 24/7 and has a fire engine, dormitory style bedrooms, a workout space, and a kitchen.
Following our conversation, Chief Lorenz took me on a tour of Fire Station #1. Throughout the tour, we shifted the topic of conversation to what a firefighter’s duties are. “Changing the outcome is what matters most,” said Chief Lorenz. “There are a number of different duties that we have to train for, and we must maintain proficiency in all aspects of the job,” he added. Continued training and education is essential to a firefighter’s work to ensure that they are prepared and equipped with the necessary skills to handle the multitude of situations they face daily.
A few days later, I returned to the Fire Department for the official ride-along. This time, I would be accompanying some of the firefighters on duty that day. We started by taking a closer look at the engine. On top of the newest engine was a 100-foot ladder and bucket, which Captain Francis offered me the opportunity to ride in. Despite my fear of heights, I agreed, and we started suiting up for our assent. The engine was pulled out of the station, we climbed into the bucket, and rose above Grand Forks foot by foot Once the ladder was fully extended, Captain Francis pointed out the locations of the other stations and showed me the controls of the bucket. After the thrill (and chill) of a trip 100 feet above Grand Forks, we headed to the station’s call room.
We sat in the call room and patiently watched for a call to come in. In the meantime, the crew explained their schedules. Each shift is 24 hours long, starting at 8:00am and continuing until 8:00am the following day. Three 24-hour shifts are worked, with a 24 hour off-duty day in between each shift. Following the final shift, firefighters receive four consecutive days off. Captain Francis added, “Because we have all that free time, a lot of the department has second jobs.” I soon realized that I was not only in the presence of firefighters, but an accountant, a taxidermist, fathers, and husbands. In addition to having second jobs, the department is also a part of the Grand Forks Firefighters Local 242 Union. Community involvement is done off duty and is commonly performed in association with the Union.
Next on our schedule was a trip to Fire Station #2, home of the hazmat materials equipment. The GFFD suppression group is divided into two skill sets - technical rescue and hazardous materials. There are four regional response teams in North Dakota, and GFFD covers the Northeast corner of the state. Emergencies that are included in the Northeast Emergency Management Region Response include hazardous substances, natural gas leaks, electrical hazards, biological hazards, weakened structures, and structural collapses. Due to the nature of these emergencies, consistent training and studying are again critical. Subject matter experts are needed within the department to ensure that situations are handled correctly, and equipment is maintained accordingly.
Our last stop of the ride-along was to Fire Station #5. Along the way, I asked Chief Francis some less technical questions. Starting with, “What are the most important traits that a firefighter can possess?” Captain Francis thought for a second before saying, “Integrity.” “There is no such thing as 9-1-2, we are trusted to do all things and have to be jacks-of-all-trades. We have to be trustworthy, charismatic, and have a good attitude to handle citizens in their most vulnerable times.”
I also asked Captain Francis what the most rewarding part of being a firefighter was. He said, “There are tons of rewarding parts of this job. It’s great to have a job where you help others, interact with the community, see the co-workers that you’ve trained receive promotions and grow, and educate local children.” Later in the week, I toured Fire Station #4 with Battalion Chief Marcott and asked him the same question. He said, “For me, it has changed over the years. Helping others has always been rewarding, but it is nice to see those you supervise perform in action, be promoted, and succeed in their career.” Both expressed how proud they were of their colleagues.
Fire Station #4 is also the local training facility for the department. In addition to the annual physical agility tests that the department undergoes, there is an assortment of different training equipment located there. An interesting aspect of training as a firefighter is that they develop and build many of their own exercises. Chief Marcott added that this is just one of the elements that makes this career so unique and valuable.
In addition to the gratifying nature of the job, Battalion Chief Marcott added that “your coworkers become your second family.” “It’s a different lifestyle. We’re able to show up for our families, and the people you work with show up for you too.”
Throughout my time with the GFFD, there was an apparent closeness and respect among firefighters. Each person I met showed a remarkable amount of compassion and humility in their work. Firefighters are the ones who are called when no one else is left to call, and they take on that responsibility with honor and integrity. Firefighters are a vital part of our community, providing a critical service that saves lives, protects property, and ensures the safety and well-being of everyone. When you have the chance, thank your local firefighters! G
// To view the full story, check out the digital issue here
From Issue 1, 2023
PHOTOS SUBMITTED BY: Grand Forks Fire Department