Day to day, tried by fire
The familiar, eerie pitches — the dispatcher’s signal to each station — sang out, and in a blur, career firefighters assigned to Engine 13 were out of their seats and into the garaged pumper.
This was the moment the three men had been anticipating for hours.
On roared the diesel engine, filled to the brim with 55 gallons of gas, that, by itself, dwarfed some compact cars.
Technician II Kyle Ghear sat at the helm of this machine, watching cars and homes whirl by as he sped through intersections.
The call was for a commercial structure fire at Borders Books and Music store on Prince William Parkway.
Darren Deibler, a technician I on the job for just a few months, sat in the back seat and strapped on his turnout gear, helmet and oxygen mask.
Capt. Steve Kersse rode shotgun, listening to the radio chatter and navigating Ghear to the fire.
Down Prince William Parkway Engine 13 rolled, its passengers ready.
Station 13, the Prince William Fire and Rescue Station located on Hillendale Drive off Dale Boulevard, is the home of the engine with the same number.
The station’s first response area is just 5.9 square miles, but in that space there live nearly 20,000 people. In the fire department’s latest survey, Station 13 handles approximately 2,200 calls in a year, and Engine 13 responds to about 3.5 calls per day.
For more than two years, Kyle Ghear has risen before the roosters and made the trek from his Manassas home to Station 13.
His shift begins at 6 a.m., and like most other days, Ghear arrived at work about 20 minutes early on March 14.
Since Ghear spent the previous two days “muddling through the mud” at a trench excavation class at the Public Safety Academy near Nokesville, he had some cleaning to do.
“We’ve had a severe drought all winter, then the two days we were outside, it rains,” said Ghear, who had to hose off his boots and sweats. “It figures.”
He didn’t get too far into his cleaning when the dispatcher called for Engine 13’s service for the first time that morning.
Ghear, Deibler and Kersse leapt into Engine 13, a bus-sized vehicle, white with a green and gray stripe. The gleaming machine cost Prince William taxpayers approximately a third of a million dollars.
The men, who double as both firefighters and emergency medical technicians, hurried to a home on the 13400 block of Kingsman Road where an asthmatic woman, age 35, had difficulty breathing
The woman declined medical attention, choosing instead to stay home with her daughter, who suffers from cerebral palsy.
The day had begun.
About a half-hour after the trio returned from their first call, Ghear got to show off the station’s restored toy.
Engine 13, an intricate collection of pumps, doors, ladders and electronics, was still running loudly when Ghear gave his captain a tour.
Kersse hadn’t yet been assigned to Station 13 when a car slammed into the engine while it was crossing an intersection in Dale City.
“I guess we just got it back from the shop yesterday,” said Ghear, who after showing his supervisor the engine lifted its hood to check the oil. “This is my first time driving it in four or five months.”
Time has sort of blown by for the 31-year-old native of New York.
Ghear moved to Prince William County from Rosendale, N.Y., in 1988; the job market was much better in Northern Virginia than in Ulster County, he said.
Ghear, who mostly worked for the U.S. Post Office, began firefighting at this time. He worked as a volunteer at the Dumfries station for a half-decade before deciding that he’d “rather do it for money.”
In 1993, Ghear decided to make a full effort in becoming a career firefighter. He took the written test in Fairfax County and scored well, but not well enough.
He passed the written test in Arlington, but another circumstance blocked his path.
“I knew a girl who worked for them,” Ghear said. “She said that they were hiring a certain kind of person. She asked if I had any American Indian in me.”
He then moved to Florida for a couple of years, and despite his best efforts, found his luck no better there.
Frustrated but not beaten, Ghear returned to Prince William County. After three more months of volunteering, his dream was finally realized.
The county wanted him to be a career firefighter.
For a time each day, Ghear looks more like a secretary than a fearless hero.
Three hours into his shift, Ghear sat behind piles of paperwork to complete; with his two-day mud mission, he had fallen behind.
He filled out his daily progress report while keeping an eye on the Computer Aided Display, which gives a snapshot of who’s doing what in the county. On the screen, Engine 13’s name appeared in green, indicating that it was available for service.
By now, anticipation combined with fatigue had created tedium. Since the day’s first call, the scanner had been silent.
“It’s often like this,” Ghear said. “Most of the time, we hit a streak around lunch.”
Ghear’s words proved prophetic.
Just minutes before he was due to sit down to eat, the emergency tones began.
After a six-hour respite, Engine 13 was on the job again. Ghear again hopped into the driver’s seat; sporting a blue hat, sunglasses and a black headset, Ghear looked more like a jet pilot than an engine driver.
A 20-year-old man had injured his knee while playing basketball at the Chinn Aquatic and Fitness Center at 13025 Chinn Park.
Despite the seemingly serious injury — Deibler later said that the man’s anterior cruciate ligament might have been torn — the injured refused to be taken to the hospital in an ambulance, instead opting to call his father to pick him up.
Ghear, Deibler and Kersse left the man with an ice pack and headed back to the station. They were there no more than a minute when they were dispatched back to Chinn.
“He must not have been able to get his dad,” Kersse said as they retraced their steps and waited with the injured until a medic crew from Dumfries Fire and Rescue picked him up. The 20-year-old man, grimacing in pain, gave a thumbs up to his new friends from Station 13 as the ambulance’s doors closed to take him away.
By the time Engine 13 had arrived at Borders, located at 2904 Prince William Parkway, Ghear, Kersse and Deibler had learned that the possible structure fire was little more than a burnt out light bulb.
The blaze had been extinguished by store employees before evacuating the building.
Nonetheless, the men, as well as the multiple emergency vehicles that arrived at approximately the same time, gave the situation the utmost concern.
Ghear, who was the last to exit the engine, strapped on his bright yellow helmet and entered the building.
The fire crew quickly learned that a fluorescent light ballast in the store’s ceiling had overheated, causing the light to burn at one end over the cash registers. Store employees did not notice the problem until the light began dripping onto the counter and began burning.
“They then hit it with an extinguisher,” Deibler explained. “It could have been far worse. Those lights are up above the sprinkler units, so it could have conceivably spread the whole way across the ceiling.”
The crew’s lone fire call of the day had been a dud, but their excitement carried on through the afternoon.
A 34-year-old woman complaining of chest pains for more than a half hour beckoned Engine 13 to Urgent Medical Care shortly before 3 p.m.
After treating the woman, Ghear, Kersse and Deibler were not back in Engine 13 more than a couple of moments when their next assignment came in. The men arrived at the home to find a set of utility lines had fallen in front of a woman’s house; they helped secure the area and call the power and phone companies.
Later in the afternoon, Ghear was salivating over the prospect of his ensuing four-day weekend, yet his captain did not let him coast through the afternoon.
After being fitted for a new oxygen mask — his old apparatus had been slightly ripped, which could prove dangerous inside a working fire — Ghear and his two partners took Engine 13 out for one last spin.
Since there was nothing to put out that day, Kersse wanted to try out the engine’s pumping capability.
Kersse and Deibler worked the hose, shooting at nothing in particular, while Ghear assumed his normal post. As driver, his job is to find the nearest water source and connect a hose between it and the pumper, so there is plenty of liquid available after the 750 gallons the engine holds runs out.
“Kyle’s job is incredibly important,” Kersse said. “The pumper could run out of water in a matter of minutes, and when there is a fully involved fire, it takes much more than that.”
Later in the evening, the crew faced a final mission: wash the fire truck.
This task knows no rank. All three, from the captain to the rookie, grabbed a hose or sponge and cleaned up the mess they’ve made in a busy, but typical day.
As the day ended, Ghear said that he is happy. He is doing what he wants, where he wants.
“Every few years, I’d like to move up,” he said. “I want to be a firefighter. Someday, I want to be at a point where I make a lot of money and ride around in one of the chief’s trucks.”
For now, Ghear has to settle for Engine 13, and that’s just fine with him.