A few weeks ago, I spent 24 hours at a firehouse in Charlotte. I wanted to see exactly how the guys at the busiest fire station in the city do their jobs. This includes answering calls in the middle of the night. Firefighters work 24 hour shifts, but they do go to sleep. They set me up in a spare twin bed. I brought a sleeping bag and a pillow.
The World Series kept us up until 1 a.m. After that, all but one of us went to sleep. You know the feeling you used to get on Christmas Eve? You know something is going to happen overnight. Gifts will arrive. You can't say exactly when. You don't know exactly how much. If only you could go to sleep, Christmas morning would be here before you know it. It never works.
It's kind of like that in a firehouse. The rest of the guys assured me that something would happen overnight. The alarm would go off. I'd have a matter of moments to get up and get on the truck. I'd already been assured that if I slept through an alarm, the rest of the guys would leave me. So I laid tense, my head hovering above the pillow. 1:15. Nothing. 1:30. Nothing. Finally I fell asleep in my jeans.
At 3:12, the lights kick on, automatically. The tone sounds. The voice announces an address on Shamrock Drive. Something instinctive says, Get up. Go. Martin is the first one to the door. He passes Johnston, who’s rubbing his eyes and throwing his legs over the side of the bed. Up into the truck. The doors slam. Sirens. Lights. Love pulls out. He could find this address in his sleep. Martin puts on his gloves with a blank stare. Montgomery gives instructions. Everyone else is silent. Johnston’s eyes are closed as the truck rumbles back into an apartment complex. He sleeps through the speed bumps.
Five minutes ago, everybody was sound asleep. Now, at 3:16, Engine 15 is on scene.
The call wasn't much of anything. Some kid was bleeding too much after a surgery. We were back at the station by 3:30 or so.
Different people deal with it in different ways. The guy who didn't go to bed with the rest of us said he couldn't sleep. Another guy said he could never go to bed early. His body gets tired around ten, but his mind doesn't settle down until midnight at the earliest. He's always thinking through the possibilities. It's always what if. A third guy mentioned a study he heard once. Something about how the shot of adrenaline you get from an overnight wake-up call and how it doesn't dissipate like it should. It fizzes into his system like a shaken-up can of Coke. He's convinced that too much of it is leading to plaque in his arteries. He shrugged. He's not about to quit his job over it.
The amazing thing about hanging out with firefighters is the way they make the insane seem commonplace. They always go from a dead sleep to a potentially life-changing event. In the middle of the night. In five minutes.
There's more in December's Charlotte magazine. But tonight, just know that somewhere, while you're fast asleep, a firefighter is too. But not for long.