A shift in the life of a battalion chief: ‘My phone dings again’
24 hours filled with constant alerts, plus meetings, training and little sleep
“The officer goes to bed last.” I remember hearing this at a conference years ago. As my career has progressed, I find it quite easy to relate to this quote, especially as a battalion chief assigned to the busiest of the city’s six stations. A 24-hours shift is wildly unpredictable, exciting, emotional and exhausting. And as a member of an organization serving residents and visitors with seasonal influx, it can be a whirlwind.
Our department surpassed 15,000 incidents in 2021. We provided emergency service response to fire, medical, hazmat and, our most unique specialty, ocean rescue.
I hope you are able to relate to this 24-hour diary describing life as a battalion chief working the best job in the world.
24 hours in the life of a BC
5:50 a.m.: My alarm sounds. I sleepily hit the snooze button. I need the extra nine minutes, but not for the extra sleep. As I continue to lay in my comfortable bed, my mind begins to fill with thoughts for the day. A mental checklist, which, truthfully, I began two days ago when I first got off of work. These details are consciously narrowed down during these final few restless minutes.
5:59 a.m.: My snooze time is up, as my phone annoyingly reminds me. This second alarm always wakes my wife. I turn off the alarm and begin to get ready for the day.
6:25 a.m.: Most days, I’m out the door and on the road by now. I feel decently rested, as I didn’t get woken up by one of my 4-year-old twin girls during the night. I turn on my portable radio to monitor the dispatch channel during the short commute to work. Most of the time, I listen to music on the way in, but this time, I choose to drive in silence instead with a symphony of thoughts playing in my head. It’s a Tuesday and on the slate is a morning staff meeting with the chiefs. On days like this, it’s hard not to imagine all the potential topics and discussions that could happen.
6:35 a.m.: I reach the firehouse. I always look at the fire trucks parked in the apparatus bays and feel happy. The engine, rescue, squad and BC car are in their spots with the firefighters’ turnout gear laid at-the-ready. The only company missing at this moment is the medic unit – not uncommon for a station this busy.
The shifts are supervised by a single battalion chief, who is responsible for six fire stations and over 39 working personnel. Shift change has a palpable feel in the air. The station feels quiet, as the oncoming shift members slowly file into the building. Everyone eventually gathers at the kitchen table, coffee in hand, softly talking about the shift before. This isn’t the case for me, though.
I get my coffee too – a must-have to jolt my mind – but I take it into the battalion chief’s office to talk with my off-going counterpart. He is usually still at the computer, buttoning up reports and emails compiled from his busy shift.
I look at the shift roster and see two members have called in sick. The off-going BC informs me who will fill the mandatory OT spot. I jot the name down on the roster, as I send text messages to the affected company officers to inform them of the call-outs and the members who will be on OT. One thing I’ve learned as a BC is the importance of reaction, because no matter how carefully you plan, something always changes. The good ones can react. I’m tested daily.
7 a.m.: I now have the reins. I log into the computer to double check the calendar and filter through the loads of emails to ensure that there aren’t any last-minute appointments or events that need to be added to the updated shift roster. I make the personnel changes on the roster and add the surf report for the day. (Note: The surf report is used to predict ocean conditions for the day, as we provide ocean rescue services year-round.) The roster is printed out and added to my clipboard – also resent via email to all the shift members and the dispatcher.
7:20 a.m.: I grab the department-provided shift commander phone and head to the car. Sometimes, if the crew is still sitting at the kitchen table, I’ll stop in to chat, but not today. I grab my gear and complete a check of the car. The batteries are charged in the four additional portable radios. The MDT is cleared of messages. I lay my gear out in the back seat. Next, I will wash the car, a task I love to do for the mental and physical cues telling me that I am ready for the shift.
8 a.m.: I’m settled in a chair inside our fire administration’s second-floor conference room. This is located across the street from the station to which I’m assigned. The other chiefs arrive and take their positions at the table. The usual sarcastic bantering and poking of fun begins. Luckily, we all have a good relationship, and the laughter generated at one another’s expense relaxes us a bit. I adjust the volume on my portable radio so I can monitor it without disturbing the meeting.
8:11 a.m.: My BC phone chimes. Our CAD has a pre-alert sent to the shift commander and safety officer’s department phones for designated incidents once the call is created by the dispatcher. This function can provide a minute or two heads up. “What is it?” is asked from an administrative chief as I pull the phone from my pocket. “Hazmat – gas leak,” I reply. Shortly after, the recommended units are dispatched on the radio. This call is at a commercial restaurant that sits on the invisible boundary line for two of our stations. It won’t be long for them to arrive simultaneously. I excuse myself from the meeting, hustle downstairs and join in the response.
8:27 a.m.: Crews investigate and confirm that a pilot light was out on the stove, causing a small gas leak in the kitchen. The initial companies can handle without assistance, so I head back to the meeting.
8:45 a.m.: This time the phone rings – it’s one of the fire stations calling. The engine company lieutenant informs me there’s a significant coolant leak, so they are out of service until the department mechanic can take a look at it.
9:03 a.m.: The meeting is in full swing with no sign of slowing down. My phone dings again, this time for a mutual-aid structure fire with the City of North Myrtle Beach. With our normal engine recommended for the response out of service, our next closest engine is dispatched with our safety officer. I call the dispatcher who informs me that they were requested to cover responses at one of their firehouses. This is relayed to the engine and safety officer. I look up the CAD notes on the phone, and it appears that the fire is already under control. Fortunately, they are both turned around prior to ever reaching their designation.
9:40 a.m.: We are starting to lose steam as we take turns speaking. It’s nearly my turn when the phone beeps. It’s a vehicle fire on the highway. Normally, this would be single engine response, but it is dispatched as a commercial vehicle, and with zero access to hydrants plus the complication of high-speed traffic, we add resources. Of course, I dispatch myself, too. This is another incident that is handled quickly. The reported “white van” is actually a white jeep, which is easily mopped up by Engine Company 1.
9:44 a.m.: I get a text from the engine company officer advising that his apparatus is fixed and running.
10 a.m.: The handline is picked up and traffic is re-opened in all but one lane on the highway. We gather on the shoulder of the highway to talk about the call, protected by the two engines. I love it when team members are able to critique themselves right after the call. Advice mixed with prior experiences is gently shared with one another. The scene is left in control of the engine officer, and I make my way back to fire administration. Surely the meeting is over by now, right?
10:06 a.m.: It is not.
10:45 a.m.: The meeting finally ends. I find myself hanging around, discussing ideas with the others as one by one they leave. I am summoned into the chief’s office to talk. No matter how confident I am, the chief’s office always feels like an away game for me. As is often the case for these meetings, we skim through personnel issues, shift needs, and general fire department and city business before closing with a short talk about our personal lives.
12 p.m.: Lunch? What is lunch? I usually don’t take a lunch, instead choosing to take the time to catch up on administrative work or getting a quick workout completed at one of the fire stations. Today, I spend it sitting behind the computer screen. I sift through the endless emails full of vacation days, training requests, work shifts notifications, general fire department correspondence, plus all the other city staff emails and random inbox items.
1:30 p.m.: EMS training. Generally, our weekdays are filled with scheduled training for the shift personnel. This afternoon, EMS in-service training is on the docket. I arrive at Station 6 and sign the attendance roster. I need the continuing education to keep my paramedic certification.
2:07 p.m.: While sitting in training, one of our ocean rescue units calls out an active rescue over the radio. Lifeguards from one of the beach services are already responding to swimmers in the water. A second ocean rescue unit immediately informs that they are responding, followed by our safety officer. The battalion chief assigned to special operations/ocean rescue chimes in that he is responding as well. He places me in service, a good decision since I am pretty far from the incident scene, but still the radio is glued to my ears. Two individuals are pulled from the ocean and assessed.
4:50 p.m.: I successfully complete the CE and answer a few questions from my personnel who were in the class, then return to Station 1. The grill is pulled out in front of the bay, signifying that dinner prep has begun. I drop off some things inside the BC’s office and head into the kitchen to see what’s on the menu. Food will be ready in 30 minutes. I convince myself that I need to get a workout in. I unsuccessfully attempt to recruit some others to exercise with me and head out to the bay alone.
5:11 p.m.: My workout begins. Less than 15 minutes into the 30 minutes when “dinner will be ready,” a firefighter pulls the chicken off the grill and dinner is announced over the station PA. I continue the workout on the rower. The crews assigned here know not to wait on me to eat, as it is precious enough that they have time to enjoy it. I join in after my workout, catching the slowest eater at the table while the others begin to clean up around us.
6:45 p.m.: I’m at the computer working on next shift’s roster. The PA opens up and a structure fire is announced. This is a veteran dispatcher who knows the importance of getting the call out quickly. My BC phone dings just as she finishes her last sentence. I jump up and join the others running to the bay. I sit in the car, double-check the responding units, and read the call notes.
The report is for a fire visible on a hotel balcony. This is a typical call for us, usually resulting in a candle or grill on the balcony, but our crews learned less than a year ago that these fires can be very real. First-due companies report nothing showing from the street side, as the safety officer makes his way to the beach to complete the initial size-up 360. “Nothing showing from the Charlie side” is broadcasted by the safety officer. Still, I take my position to establish command. The next-arriving companies are assigned until the initial engine company confirms another grill on the balcony. Feeling both disappointed and relieved, I clear the call and head back to the station.
7:30 p.m.: I work on completing report checks, finish the roster and respond to emails. I somehow find time for some additional online training that I needed to complete. Simultaneously, I have entertained station personnel entering the office to ask questions or pause to access the supply warehouse. I’ve also fielded miscellaneous phone calls and FaceTimed with my family.
11 p.m.: Phew, finished for now, I head to the bunk room, get a quick shower and change for the evening. I’m always the last to set up my bed. Luckily, the lieutenant can sleep on a dime, and the captain is on the same schedule as me. I’m physically tired but my mind stays alert.
12:11 a.m.: My cell phone rings. It’s the dispatcher advising me that the police patrol supervisor wants the fire department to assist with an occupancy check at a local restaurant. I take down the officer’s number and call him. He gives me the details and requests that a fire marshal meet the officers there in 30 minutes for the capacity check/code enforcement. I put on my uniform. I contact the on-call fire marshal to tell him the situation, and he gives me the occupancy number for the business. The safety officer agrees to meet me. I head out the door. I notice the 7/8s fuel level on the gas tank. Knowing I’m 15 minutes early for the check, I head to the gas station to fill up.
12:25 a.m.: My phone dings. “Structure Fire - Commercial/Multi-Family.” I quickly call the PD sergeant to tell him we won’t be able to meet because of a fire. He giggles a bit as he tells me it’s a good excuse but acknowledges that he has officers responding to it as well. I give him the occupancy number and tell him I will contact him after the fire. Already on the road with 9/10 fuel, I make the scene right after the first-due company. Time to take command.
12:30 a.m.: The first-in officer advises that it is burnt food with no extension. We hold the scene with two companies.
1:57 a.m.: Back at the station, trying to sleep, my phone rings again. It’s the dispatcher advising me that personnel went to the hospital to assist a county ambulance. The unit is out of service as the safety officer retrieves the personnel from the hospital. “OK, thank you,” I whisper to the dispatcher, trying not to wake the other officers sleeping.
4:50 a.m.: Consistently awoken the last few hours with the other 12 firefighters inside the firehouse as the calls come in, my phone dings again. Another mutual-aid fire, this time a second-alarm fire with the county. The dispatcher calls, telling me about the request and incident location. Shaking the sleep from my brain, I realize that I am not familiar with the street. She tells me that the GPS places it in a certain area. We both agree that Engine 3 is the best option. The company is dispatched. I hear them mark responding. I can’t help but to listen to the fire on the county’s channel for a little while. Our engine company is put to work. I hope they do well.
5:45 a.m.: With my alarm set for 6 a.m., I throw my sheets off in surrender. I get up, using my cell phone light to find my shoes. I tip-toe out of the bunk room and make my way to the kitchen. I have beat our probationary firefighter to the coffee pot, so I make the coffee. After I pour it, I chuckle to myself thinking how the new guy is going to wonder how the coffee is already made. I start a second pot, just to make it more of a mystery.
6:20 a.m.: I have the Weather Channel on while I sip coffee at the computer. I perform the same tie-up of loose ends as the off-going BC did the day before. My relief BC is always early, so I try to make sure he can get the computer by 6:30. We share pertinent information and I turn over the computer to him. I sit behind him at my desk, dividing my attention between him and the TV until the cup of coffee is gone.
7:05 a.m.: I have collected my gear from the battalion vehicle and hung it in the gear room. I gather my belongings, including my laundry. I walk out to my car, always looking at the apparatus in the bay as I leave. I say goodbye to the other firefighters from my shift who are leaving for home or their second job. My portable radio is still on. I start my car.
7:07 a.m.: I always take the boulevard home in silence. It’s my time to decompress and think about the shift. This ride home is a reset for my days with my family. But I always start my list ….