WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- Rain or shine, 3 a.m. or 3 p.m., members of the 788th Civil Engineer Squadron Fire Department stand ready to help the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base community and the nearly 30,000 Airmen, civilians and contractors who work and live on the installation.
The department has three firehouses on base – two in Area A and a third on Area B. It’s made up of 91 personnel, including the administration, chiefs, dispatchers and operational firefighters.
“Sixty-eight of those are the firefighters people see climbing down from the trucks when we arrive on scene,” said Jacob King, 788 CES fire chief. “We are strategically located on base so that we can be anywhere within five minutes when a call comes in for help.”
Unique shifts, amenities
While most of the base population works a typical “9-to-5,” 40-hour workweek, it is a bit different for fire department staff.
“Our administration team works 60 hours week,” King said. “However, the operational firefighters’ schedule consists of 48 hours on, 72 hours off, followed by 48 hours on and 48 hours off, then back to 48 hours on and 72 hours off to complete their two-week pay cycle.”
Because of the unique work schedule, each fire department station is set up like a home. After their normal duty-day hours conclude at 5 p.m. with dinner, firefighters are free to relax and unwind a bit until a call for help comes in.
“We have many of the same amenities that we would have at home, just minus the spouse and kids,” said Brian Wilcher, 788 CES lead firefighter, who marked 20 years at Wright-Patterson AFB on June 26. “Instead, we are their family.”
Some of the amenities include a pingpong table, gym, common room with several recliners and a large-screen TV for watching movies. Each firefighter also has a private bunkroom and there is commercial internet for those who want to surf online or play video games.
Of course, they also spend time talking to each other and on the phone with their families at home.
The bunkrooms are always shared by two firefighters who work completely different shift rotations, so there is no chance of them overlapping and each has their own closet for privacy.
“The evenings are ours to relax and unwind a bit,” Wilcher said. “Some of the guys use this time to go to school, call home or play video games with each other. While some may choose to spend a bit of time getting ahead or catching up on some of the work they were unable to get done during the normal duty hours.”
‘It’s the job we choose to do’
One thing that doesn’t change during this downtime is their alertness and readiness to respond when the call for help comes in. No matter what activity they are doing, there is always a plan to quickly get to the firetrucks and the person in need.
“We laugh because calls will come in while we’re in the shower, using the restroom or sleeping,” Wilcher said. “It’s just part of the job, and we learn to do things a bit differently than you may at home.
“For instance, you always bring your clothes with you to the shower, and you don’t leave them in a ball; you set them out so they are easy and quick to put on. When you go to sleep, you make sure there is a clear path between you and the door so you don’t trip on anything when you jump out of bed and run to the trucks at 3 a.m.”
Wilcher went on to recall a time he was in the shower when the alarm bell went off.
“I remember getting out of the shower and running to the truck with only half my head shaved,” he said. “I’ve since developed a routine so that doesn’t happen again.”
If the calls come in during mealtime, the firefighters work like a well-oiled machine.
“The guys take off to the truck and those who stay behind immediately stand up, grab some foil and wrap it up and put their food in the warmer until they return,” Wilcher said.
No matter what happens during the night, however, the next workday begins at 7 a.m.
“We may go on a call at 3 a.m. and be out until 4 or 5 a.m., then come back and sleep for an hour or two and get up to do it all again. We don’t get to sleep in,” King said. “We train our bodies for this because it’s the job we choose to do. Although you may be tired, you are able to push through, and be fully capable and ready to perform when the bell sounds.”
The unique work schedule also brings a unique set of home challenges when it comes to holidays, birthdays and other milestones such as ballgames, dance recitals and children’s school events due to the amount of family time missed.
“Many of us celebrate birthdays and other big holidays on days other than what they actually fall on,” King said. “The guys that have to work Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, they’re trying to celebrate Christmas on the 23rd, so that they can be there with their family. Santa Claus just knows that mom or dad’s a firefighter and they’re working, so he comes early for different events like that.”
Crew members also trade shifts or hours, when possible, so they can try to accommodate special events.
However, regardless of the weather, day of the week or time of the day, the fire department stands ready to serve.
“No matter if there is one person on base, or 100,000, we provide the same level of service
24/7 — because what everyone does on this installation matters,” King said. “It matters for the warfighter downrange, the warfighter in space and to the family members that are back here at home.
“We want everyone to know, if you are deployed or TDY, that your loved ones will be taken care of because we stand ready if ever needed. We are here to help and are only one call away to be at their door and solve their problem, no matter how big or small it may be.”