‘The job affects you’
A day in the life of Alpena Fire’s Alpha 1
7:19 a.m. The back of the ambulance smells faintly of a high school science room. Full cardiac arrest, the monitor between the front seats reports. The ambulance slows as the report from first responders crackles over the radio: the man died. No need to hurry.
In the bedroom at the home, Firefighter/Paramedic Tyler Suszek tends to the body with its thin, bare legs. His partner, Dan Hibner, the other half of today’s Alpha 1 team, talks gently to the stunned older woman in the living room. A pair of men’s slippers waits uselessly under the coffee table.
You get acclimated to death, working so near it, Hibner says when they are back in the ambulance.
“When you go home you have to take it off like a coat,” Suszek says. “It doesn’t matter who you are — the job affects you.”
8:37 a.m. Hibner pulls into the parking lot of Meijer and the paramedics hop out, striding purposefully into the store. They need to buy eggs and bread for breakfast.
For today’s 24-hour shift, from 7 a.m. to 7 a.m., Alpha 1 is top dog, the first out the door when a 911 call comes in at the Alpena Fire Department.
Most days — not today, but most days — begin with routine. Roll call and morning chores, such as snow-blowing and cleaning the bathrooms, are followed by breakfast.
Giant, cast-iron pans in a large kitchen that smells like summer camp hold enough eggs for the nine people assigned to each shift. Paramedics drift in, drawn by the sizzle of sausage, and hover near the counter, waiting for the go-sign.
9:28 a.m. Eggs on plates.
9:29 a.m. A voice crackles over the intercom. Alpha 1 sets down their forks and grabs their coats.
Residents sit calmly in wheelchairs as paramedics navigate through the halls of a nursing home.
After a brief, upbeat conversation, the patient is moved to a wheeled cot and trundled down the hallway to the ambulance.
“All right, dear, I’m sorry, a little poke,” Hibner says.
The paramedics speak in calm tones, entering comfortably into the foreign language of medicine.
“I need a hot LZ”
“Sepsis? It’s been her norm.”
“Can you grab a nasal capnography for me?”
“I’ve got 50 diastolic.”
Suszek’s eyes flick frequently to the patient’s face as he monitors her data. The ambulance eases its way to the hospital. He pats her hand and tells her she’s doing good.
10:47 a.m. Daily fire engine check. Hooked metal poles, air packs, hydrant wrench, attic ladders, infrared heat cameras. Everything is in its place, ready for — quite literally — an explosive situation.
11:28 a.m. Nine men freeze in their tracks, listening, as a call comes over the intercom.
Alpha 1 is the second team on the scene. They have been beat by first responders, paid, on-call volunteers who put their own lives on hold to respond to a stranger’s crisis, all for barely enough pay to cover their gas money.
“To get up in the middle of Thanksgiving to go do CPR and then wash up and go finish Thanksgiving — it takes a special kind of person,” Hibner says.
Inside the house, a young mom is worried about her second child, still in the womb, but also wonders if she ought to ride in the ambulance or with her mother.
“Right now it’s about you and the little one, not just you,” Suszek says. “But it’s entirely up to you. We’re here for you.”
The country sounds of Gunnar and The Grizzly Boys twang in the background as the Alpha 1 team type up reports of the morning’s runs. They talk comfortably as they work, reminiscing about their wedding receptions and debating the merits of ordering ice in McDonald’s coffee.
Television depictions of firefighters are nonsense, Suszek says. Real paramedics don’t have six-pack abs and dark backstories. On their days off, real firefighters do laundry and make dinner and pick up their kids from school.
1:17 p.m. Siren-wails urge drivers to pull over, pull over, pull over. A white pickup truck, confused by the sound and the lights, stops in its tracks, then finally veers out of the way as the ambulance weaves through the center lane.
3:52 p.m. Another drop-off at the emergency room. Same doors, same wheeled cot, same path down the same hallways. Only the direction of the sun in the emergency room bay seems to change.
The sun, and the patient on the cot.
4:12 p.m. Down time. The day feels like it should be winding down, but there are still 15 hours left in the shift. Hovering comfortably in the kitchen, the men compare stories about losing pets, speculate on this year’s tax returns, and debate who snores the loudest. They are noticeably comfortable in each other’s company, not a bunch of jovial jesters, but brothers.
Dinner. Stuffed chicken breasts with garlic bread, roasted cauliflower, and a need-that-recipe side dish of sweet potato, green apple and cinnamon, eaten at a long, wooden table made from a repurposed bowling lane. Paramedics are good cooks.
After the meal, everyone pitches in and whisks the kitchen clean in no time. Teamwork comes naturally. It’s been built into the system to help save lives.
6:03 p.m. Two paramedics leave on a long distance transfer to Detroit. They will be back about 4 a.m.
6:28 p.m. Each day, after dinner, all available hands wash the vehicles that have been used that day. Having the chore finished by 7 p.m. means they might be able to watch “Jeopardy.”
6:50 p.m. Firefighter gear demonstration. Thick leather pants and coat make knees unbendable and gravity feel like it has doubled. Rubber straps of the face mask claw at the hair underneath the heavy helmet. Gloves, belts, straps, air packs, sensors and a heat camera dangle and wrap and constrict until a simple walk across the parking lot is a workout.
The firefighters shrug into their weighted coats with familiarity and demonstrate holding a hose blasting a full-force geyser of water as though it were easy.
They crawl in full gear through a simulated smoke-filled room as though it were not scary.
They walk back to the fire station just in time for the next call to drop. Alpha 1 heads to the nearest ambulance.
7:47 p.m. An aging woman — blind, frail — has fallen and needs to be transported to the hospital. Suszek, bending from his six-foot-something height, carefully scoops the woman up in his arms, carrying her gently to the waiting cot.
Firefighter strength is not only for hoses and pickaxes.
In the ambulance, while Suszek tends to the patient, Hibner calls home.
“Can I say good night to my little baby bear? Goodnight, little bear. I love you. Be a good girl for Mumma.”
A sweet, pixie voice answers back from the phone: “Goodnight, Daddy. See you tomorrow.”
Suszek pokes his head forward to ask for a clipboard.
“Anything else you want? The kitchen sink? A chicken dinner?” Hibner razzes his partner before putting the vehicle into gear and pulling out into the night.
9:22 p.m. Hockey muted on the TV; the rooms are quiet. Most everyone is tucked into their curtained-off sleeping spaces in the bunk room. It’s important to rest, when possible. The night may be a busy one.
9:57 p.m. Sleep slides away as the scratchy voice squawks. Alpha 1 strides silently out of the bunk room, coats and hats already in place, and disappears down the stairs. A minute later, the ambulance pulls onto the quiet city street.
10:20 p.m. Suszek flicks his head back toward the receding ER entrance, where an elderly woman has just been dropped off.
“That is about 70 percent of our job,” he says. “It’s not glamorous. But it’s someone’s mom.”
Later, in front of computers and reports, the talk turns to memorable incidents in the paramedics’ pasts.
There are different kinds of memorable, Suszek says: sad memorable, gross memorable, funny memorable.
They have seen all kinds, between the two of them. They’ve delivered babies, poked at bones, shocked stopped hearts back to life, seen horrors and saved lives. They tell their tales calmly, as though it’s all just part of the job.
11:04 p.m. A call drops. Reports will have to be finished later.