I make an early morning visit to one of the heartbeats of our Destin community — the District 9 fire station on Airport Road. I immediately fall into the firefighters’ welcoming orbit of smiles and firm handshakes.
I enjoy a fantastic breakfast cooked by star chef of the day, Rob Koenig. The seven supermen sitting around the table consist of winsome youth and a mature, totally confident, group of intelligent men. These guys have given their dedicated service to several communities for a total of 95 years.
We are having a jolly ole talk over a leisurely breakfast when the speaker blares into the room.
“Man down, chest pains, still conscious.”
Off we go: My adrenalin is pumping overtime, as Lieutenant/paramedic Scotty Money beckons me to hurry. Jumping Jehoshaphat, what have I gotten myself into?
The sirens screech, and everybody pulls tight their seatbelts and puts their speaker earphones in place. Everyone in the cab can now communicate with each other. The inside of this paramedic fire engine might resemble an F-35 cockpit, but perhaps more complicated with extraneous equipment located in every spare inch.
We arrive at the scene, and the guys jump out carrying a Lifepak 12 heart monitor, which allows the paramedics to visualize the inner workings of a patient’s condition. In a cardiac case, they can defibrillate the person if necessary. EMS and firefighters often work together in a race against time to save lives.
The immensity of what these guys do for us is overwhelming. Any 911 calls, about 250 a month, sound the alarm in the firehouse. Day or night, around the clock, they respond with lightning speed. The guys’ bedrooms are Spartan — no frills here. A single bed, a small night table, chair and a towel draped over the window. Rob, our firefighter/paramedic, explains: “When you are sleeping you have a heart rate of about 60 beats a minute. The nerve racking alarm sounds at full blast, all the lights come on, a big adrenalin shot sends your heart rate up to 140 beats a minute.”
The guys on duty know the floor plan of every commercial building, every street and every cul-de-sac in their jurisdiction by heart. Before leaving the station, they still must check the current street map posted on the wall. Fingers point, fire station here, we are going there. Check, recheck.
Firefighting suits, boots, and equipment are meticulously prepared and waiting for them in the trucks. When the firefighters are suited up they weigh an additional 70 to 100 pounds.
The front of the truck contains a computer showing the fire plan. It pulls up a drawing of the building, where the water cutoff is located, and what the gate code is if necessary. A four-gas meter picks up hazardous atmosphere and Ben Hartley, firefighter/EMT, shows me a thermal imaging camera, saying, “This helps us identify victims that might be in a room that is so hot and dark you might not otherwise find them.” The number of water controls on the side of the fire truck boggles the mind.
I ask Chief Kevin Sasser what firefighters dread the most. It was an immediate answer: “FLASHOVER.” I could hear the controlled urgency in his voice as he explains.
“When all the contents in a room meet the same temperature, all reach ignition temperature at the same time and FLASH…everything is on fire,” Sasser says.
And a firefighter could be caught in the middle of it! This is when their intense years of training pays off. These guys are physically and mentally prepared: they have ingrained in them that when chaos falls, you stand tall, and you don’t panic.
If anyone out there thinks these firefighters sit around reading or watching TV all day… think again. Monday through Saturday from six in the morning until relax time after dinner at five, equipment is getting washed, checked, oiled, the ladder detailed, fluids checked. The chief and battalion chief’s vehicles are checked for supplies and serviced as needed.
Everything is in pristine condition and equipment must work flawlessly every time, all the time. Nothing is left to chance. All equipment must work when called upon by these men who give you their all.
The camaraderie of this group contributes to their drive toward perfection.
For relaxation time (smile, chuckle), all the firefighters have a mandatory hour in the workout room to ensure they stay in shape. The training room is used to present CPR classes to keep everybody up to date on new procedures.
I’m stressed out just writing this article. I hope you have enjoyed the adrenalin rush! We get to do this once; they get it 3,000 times a year.
Rob says, “There is nothing we wouldn’t do for this community.”
When you pass that blinking light on Airport Road, or wherever your fire station is, please give these guys an extra thought and your gratitude for a job well done.
Laura Hall is a longtime gardener and Destin resident. She explores area gardens and other local topics with her cavalier spaniel Annie. If you would like to show off your garden or be profiled in a future column, contact Laura at email@example.com.
Hail to the chief and the tight bond of a firefighting family
For every strong group there has got to be a leader. On Airport Road, at Station 9, you will find Chief Kevin Sasser sitting behind a desk with a “Gator” throw precisely placed across the back of his chair. Firefighting memorabilia surrounds him in the office. As you enter, there is the firefighter’s beloved dalmatian, forever on alert, sitting with a red fire hydrant. This dog has been sitting here for years and does not require brushing, feeding or pooper scooping.
Behind the desk, I find beautiful, yet somber, fire-related paintings by artist, Jim Davis. Terri Sasser gifted these to her husband on the occasion of his promotion to chief.
Directly by the door is a meticulously placed stack of boots, pants, jacket, and helmet which I’ll bet the chief could be in and heading to his vehicle in less than 3 minutes after the alarm sounds.
My question at this point is how do you get to be chief?
“My fire fighting career began in the military where I spent two years in England. This was followed by two years at Eglin and 14 years at Ocean City-Wright in Fort Walton Beach. I worked my way up from firefighter to driver, company officer and then assistant chief. I came to Destin in 1999 and was asked to become fire chief four years ago — which all together has given me 31 years of service,” Sasser says.
I asked him to explain to me what it means to be fire chief.
There was a moment of quiet contemplation and then came a heartfelt answer.
“I am a manager for the citizens of Destin, and I’m a leader of the men and women who work here. I help guide them through any issues they might be having. If they have mixed emotions after a bad accident or fire, they can speak to the chief and know he understands. They know I have been there.”
“There is a certain, strong bond that is created within the fire service as a family. You know you have to depend on the firefighter next to you; your life could depend on that person.
Few careers can form such a tight bond or camaraderie.”
— Laura Hall