- Photos by Charles Bruce III
Co-workers turned family when working at the fire department.
“Family” is the word that comes to mind as Tommy Goran, an alumnus of the 2020 class of 20 under 40, talks about his experiences working with the Columbia Fire Department. Tommy has worked in a couple different departments over the span of 12 years, but he came back to his hometown to work for the CFD for the past eight. Tommy works as a captain and follows the city’s schedule of working 48-hour shifts followed by having four consecutive days off. Many members of the fire department have secondary jobs that they work during their days off; Tommy owns his own lawn care company, J&S Lawn and Landscape.
While the schedule is a huge sacrifice for a firefighter and their family, it also allows Tommy to do things with his children that other occupations don’t allow for, such as going on field trips with his two children, Sophia and Jeffery.
These 48-hour shifts begin at 6:30 a.m., when the new shift members come in to relieve the previous shift members while they finish up any work and head home. Tommy explains that there are three different shifts within the department, and then within those shifts, each team member is also assigned to work at a certain station. These assignments remain the same unless there is a promotion or a person specifically requests to move. The beginning of each shift is spent settling into the station while checking all trucks and equipment.
Tommy says he catches up on emails and paperwork in the morning to ensure that he is ready for the next 48 hours. The rest of the day is spent doing training and staying available for any calls they may need to respond to. These calls can range from fires to medical issues to car wrecks to any other emergencies that the fire department has to respond to. At any given moment during the shift, a beeping noise can blare over the intercom, followed by the dispatcher’s voice. The firefighters are alerted to what type of call it is, the location of the call, and which trucks are needed to respond to the scene.
If the specific truck that the firefighter is working on that day is called, they immediately head to the bay, where the trucks are kept, and gear up. Within two minutes, each firefighter is on the truck headed to respond to whatever emergency is waiting for them. The team on shift keeps their gear right next to the truck, over their boots, so they can quickly get ready to go.
Each station is a little different when it comes to the number of members on shift, the types of firetrucks they house, and the prevalence of certain types of calls. While each station can provide a slightly different experience, each member of the department is trained and educated to work at all of the stations. Just like any other job, they try to keep the clerical and training work during normal business hours so they get the evening to relax and do as they please. All members have to be prepared to respond to an emergency, day or night. This can often make getting a good night’s sleep difficult when on duty, but they try to rest as much as possible during the evenings.
Spending 48 hours at a time with the same crew makes them a family unit as they work, eat, relax, exercise, train, and even spend some holidays together. Tommy says he spends “more physical hours with them then my own family in a month.”
There are sleeping quarters that are typically separated from the main living area of the fire station for the crew members to sleep at night, if they aren’t responding to emergency calls. Visitors are allowed to come see the crew members at the station, but the crew could be called away at any minute, so Tommy often uses FaceTime to keep in touch with his family while on duty.
Every shift, the crew takes the truck to the grocery store to purchase the food that they’ll eat while on duty, which they pay for collectively out of their own pockets. When it comes to holidays on duty, the crew comes together in amazing ways to try to cover at least the morning hours for those who have children. On days like Christmas, this allows them to watch their family open presents in the early morning before heading to work. Members of the community often generously donate food and other items to help the crew celebrate holidays at the fire station.
On the occasion that there is an important family event while on duty, the crew members are occasionally allowed to leave the station. They stay readily available to respond to any emergency while away from the fire station. We think of fire stations as housing brave heroes, but the men and women of the fire department see themselves as normal people doing what they love — helping others. Tommy says he often can’t believe that he gets to call this profession his job and gets paid for simply doing something he’s passionate about. Helping people at some of the worst moments of their lives and leaving the scene safer than he found are Tommy’s favorite parts of the job. While it takes hard work, dedication, and bravery every single day, firefighters also make sure to have fun and enjoy their time spent at the fire station with others who become like family to them.
I can speak about the family life of firefighters from personal experience — my dad, John Ambra, is also a member of the Columbia Fire Department. Despite the hectic schedule, he never missed a special event when I was growing up. I remember taking my senior prom pictures in the Shelter Gardens parking lot in front of the fire truck with the entire crew of Station 2 in the pictures. When you have a family member who works for the department, they all become like family. They show up to birthday parties, school events, sporting events, and even cheer competitions.—Taylor Ambra, author