Inside Dallas’ Hottest Firehouse

A firefighter’s job is more dangerous than a policeman’s or a miner’s. But what’s his life like when he’s not fighting fires?

Having finished lunch an hour or so earlier, the firemen of South Oak Cliff Station 25 continue the calm lives they live during most of their 24-hour shift. Some watch soap operas, others scan the sports pages while a few make idle chatter, part of the usually not-too-exciting life of a Dallas fireman. Then the station’s radio crackles with a pulse sent from the downtown dispatcher’s office.

“Let’s go men. Got a house on fire at …” The dispatcher’s voice fades into the scurrying produced by his message – firemen jerk their feet off tables. Grabbing their overcoats and fire hats, the men of Station 25 rush to the ladder truck as its driver rams the gear shift into first and rumbles out of the driveway. The truck’s red lights begin turning and flashing as the siren starts to moan. The address, confirmed on the truck’s radio, is on Indian Summer Trail, about two miles away.

The same message is monitored from the car of battalion chief Fordyce Sims, who is just returning from another fire. His driver, Jim Tawwater, flips on the siren while turning the chief’s lime green car toward the Indian Summer Trail address, about a mile away. By the time the fire truck closes on the address from one direction, and the chiefs car from another, smoke is billowing up from the attractive neighborhood of two-story homes. The chiefs car arrives first. “We got wood shingles down here too,” Tawwater mutters.

A crowd of people stands in the street in front of what had been a neat, two-story brown-trimmed brick house. The top floor is ablaze, flames crackling like cellophane being pawed by a kitten. Neighborhood men hurry in and out of the front door, carrying couches, chairs and tables into the front yard. “Jim, I’m going to deuce this one,” Sims says, calling in a second alarm.

Flames feeding on wood shingles leap toward the house next door. “We’re going to lose a second house,” Tawwater says. Tawwater drives into the alley behind the burning house. The whole backyard is ablaze and it won’t take much for the fire to cross the narrow alley. A tricycle and a swingset stand in what looks like a fiery lake. “Call TP&L,” Sims says as he jumps out of his car.

The ladder truck from Station 25 pulls up. There is a sense of relief among the crowd of onlookers, although probably no one knows that the ladder truck carries only a three-fourths inch hose and 100 gallons of water. Only pumper trucks, yet to arrive, can tap fire hydrants. Captain Pete Peters jumps off the truck, unreeling a small red hose as he runs, aiming the hose at the house next door. He knows he can do nothing but prevent the fire from spreading to neighboring houses. Other firemen on the ladder crew start tarp work – pulling clothes out of closets, taking paintings off the wall and laying them on beds or couches, pulling furniture together and covering everything with tarpaulins.

As he approaches the flames Peters’ hands are scorched and his face is blistered. Onlookers can’t understand why Peters doesn’t do more. “Is that all the best they can do?” a man asks. “Why don’t you increase the pressure?” a woman yells at Peters. He continues aiming the water at the scorched eaves of the house next door until a pumper truck arrives, and two firemen start laying hose to the nearest fire hydrant. “Pete saved that neighboring house,” Chief Sims said later. “It’s just like pissin’ against a north wind,” Peters admits.

A pumper engine from another fire station arrives at the scene, relieving some of the tension, but as fireman Cliff Edwards points out later, “When you’re sitting there waiting with a hundred gallons of water and a fire coming out the roof, it seems like a long time. You can imagine how those people felt.” Another pumper engine pulls up and soon the soggy front yard is a welter of hose, water-stained furniture and curious onlookers. Several men push a small orange automobile out of the driveway, across the street and up an embankment. A late model pink Cadillac is locked and can’t be moved and a small car in the garage is covered with ashes and smoldering debris.

A black man dressed in a security officer’s uniform rides up on his motorcycle and steps off. His look of consternation is proof of home ownership. “Everything we own is in that house,” he tells Chief Sims. He shakes his head. Tears come to his eyes. At least no one had been inside.

Supported by two neighbors, a middie-aged woman, crying uncontrollably, walks slowly down the sidewalk. She is the security officer’s aunt. “We were down at the shopping center,” she sobs, “and this man came up and told us our house was on fire.” A bystander watches the woman being taken into a neighbor’s house. “Hell of a Christmas they’re gonna have,” he says, shaking his head. A fireman carries out a pair of cymbals and a drum set, placing them in the yard.

Once the pumper engines arrive, bringing the fire under control is routine. The most tedious chore comes afterward – wading through the smoldering debris, stepping carefully in the second story to avoid crashing through the ceiling, looking for a spark that might rekindle. “Rekindle is a dirty word around the fire department,” Chief Sims explains. He will return later that night to check the house.

It is nearly five p.m. before the last engine drives away from the blackened, roofless house. For the men of B-shift, that will be the end. The cold night that follows is uneventful. The day had been hectic, a bit out of the ordinary because a second call had come in even before an earlier fire had been tapped out, but for Station 25, not much busier than usual.

The engine at 25 answered 1,603 calls last year, more than any other engine company in Dallas. That’s not as many runs as an inner city station in New York or Chicago makes – Dennis Smith in his book Report From Engine Co. 82 writes about making 30 or 40 runs a day from his South Bronx station. But Station 25 answers more than twice as many calls as most North Dallas fire stations without ambulances. In December, engine 25 made 147 runs, speeding to house, apartment, kitchen and grass fires, a barn fire, auto accidents, a service station explosion and heart attack calls. The station also answered a clean-up call after a huge fire in a South Dallas box factory and various false alarms and scare calls. On the average last year engine 25 left the station each five hours.

Firefighting, according to the National Safety Council, is the most hazardous occupation in the United States, more hazardous than police work, mining or construction. Most Dallas firemen who have been in the department for any length of time have experienced some kind of injury, minor or otherwise. “They don’t know anything about fighting fires if they don’t know about getting burned a little,” says a 17-year veteran. Chief Sims, who still vividly remembers a blaze which killed four firemen at the Golden Pheasant Restaurant in the early Sixties says, “You know the danger’s there, but you try not to think about it.” In the Golden Pheasant fire, the ground floor collapsed under four men. As they fell into the burning basement, three other floors tumbled down on top of them. “I think everybody who was there that night was thinking about just how easily it could have been them,” recalls Sims. “But you can’t dwell on it, although my wife thinks about it.”

Forty-nine-year-old Fordyce Sims is a short, ruggedly handsome man with dark, graying hair and mustache, and a stomach that protrudes comfortably over his belt. In 27 years with the fire department, he’s seen a lot – from countless routine grass fires to blazes which killed his fellow firefighters, and on one occasion, nearly took his own life. Several years ago he fell waist deep through the floor of a burning building, while embers poured into his bunkers (a fireman’s overalls), inflicting excruciating burns on his hips and groin. “It’s a horrible feeling knowing your flesh is burning,” Sims says. “I had one line in there and I was the only one in the building at the time. I was caught in the collapsed floor and had to scream through my oxygen mask. I didn’t think anyone would ever hear me. They finally heard me outside and Jim Wood came in, grabbed me by the shoulders, dragged me outside and threw me into the backyard. It was a pretty good drop to the ground but I didn’t care. I hit the ground laughing,” he says.

Although fighting fires can be excit-ing work, much of a fireman’s time is devoted to sitting around waiting for the action to begin, which can be quite boring. Watching television is the favorite pastime of firemen waiting for something to happen. Morning TV fare includes inane game shows, Hollywood Squares, Wheel of Fortune and the Gong Show. “You think that guy there likes girls better than men?” cracks a voice from the darkened TV room, taking a shot at a game show host. “I don’t know, the way he acts,” comes the reply. “You make the kind of money he makes,” chimes in another voice from the dark, “you can like anything you want.”

Naturally a television favorite is Emergency 1, including the program’s daily reruns, complete with a fire every day. “The big difference is that we ain’t got the same kind of smoke they do,” fireman John Kellum points out. “In a real fire you can’t see your hand in front of your face.”

At 25, firemen also pass the time by raising a garden at the station, tended by each shift. “Whatever day the t’maters get ripe, that’s the shift that gets to eat them,” Kellum explains. They also play volleyball, but rarely checkers or dominoes, as firemen were once wont to do. Each shift buys and prepares its own food (each man pays $3.50 a shift), even keeping the food in its own refrigerator – there are three refrigerators – one for each of the station’s three shifts.

Of course not all firehouses enjoy the camaraderie that prevails at Station 25. “Often at fire stations where there’s not much to do,” Cliff Edwards says, “firemen will get on each others’ nerves. They’ll get to bickering and won’t have much to do with each other. If a station doesn’t have a common meal fund, there’s probably something wrong,” he adds. “It’ll get so bad you’ll go in the kitchen and see four pots of coffee on the stove.”

“At a good station,” says a fireman from East Dallas’ Station 19, “nobody has to tell anybody to do anything. They don’t need officers – work is done without firemen being ordered to do it. The fire department is supposed to be a quasi-military organization,” the East Dallas fireman continues, “but most firemen are country guys – ranchers, farmers and kind of redneck – they don’t go in for that spit- and- polish military approach. It never works.”

Shortly after 10 a.m. a loud horn sounds in Station 25. Men stop what they are doing. Conversation ceases. The alarm is for the battalion chief only – an engine from another station, closer to the box number, will respond. Chief Sims, a swing chief filling in while the regular chief is on vacation, hurries to the garage, jumps in the passenger’s side of a two-year-old Matador with the number 5 (5th district) on its door. His aide and driver, 49-year-old Tawwater, presses the button to raise the station’s garage door, then hops into the car. Tawwater pulls out of the station and turns the car, lights flashing and siren moaning, south down Lancaster Boulevard.

Within five minues the car is nearly out of town, speeding south on Interstate 35. Chief Sims monitors the radio for more information while Tawwater maneuvers to avoid surprised motorists who sometimes pull over and sometimes don’t. They turn into a bumpy street in a poor white neighborhood with small, shabby frame homes. At the end of the block two fire trucks and a police squad car are parked in the street but there is no sign of fire. As Tawwater stops the car, a teen-aged girl, hugging herself against the cold, opens the screen door and walks outside. Two small children wait at the door. Embarrassed, she laughs. “I don’t know what happened,” she shouts to neighbors standing in the yard next door. “I didn’t call them.” Chief Sims talks for a while with the fire captain who answered the alarm, then returns to the car and they start back to town. “That happens all the time,” he says, “especially in winter. Somebody’ll see steam coming out of a bathroom window and he’ll call the fire department.”

“Of course we get a lot of false alarms too,” Tawwater adds, “what we call malicious false alarms. These folks out here, they get mad at each other and they’ll call the police and the fire department, and we’ll all converge on them at two or three o’clock in the morning.”

“This one was what we call a ’scare,’” Sims explains. “They actually thought it was a fire.” Tawwater pulls up in front of a sparkling new firehouse near downtown Oak Cliff, and Sims gets out to chat with the boys. Sims chats easily with them – he is a slow-talking, easy-going man, well liked by the men who serve under him.

Five minutes later an alarm sounds and the chief is back in his car, racing south on R. L. Thornton Freeway. “All we need is a grass fire on a day like this,” says aide Tawwater, pressing on the siren. He zips past a slow moving car that had just pulled onto the freeway. The elderly driver jerks his steering wheel violently to the right as the chiefs Matador streaks past. “You don’t have many two-alarm grass fires,” Sims says, explaining the unusual call. Thick, billowing gray smoke appears off to the left. “Twenty-five’s going to the grass fire,” he announces on the radio.

Still headed south on I-35, Tawwater passes the fire, comes to a crossover and drives back to a street lined with frame houses. “Boy, we got water problems down here,” he said. The street ends at an open field but Tawwater keeps driving across a downed barbed-wire fence and through headlight-high grass, weeds and mesquite bushes. A couple of hundred yards into the field thick, black smoke and orange flames engulf a house and the grass which surrounds it. Several fire trucks are already on the scene. Tawwater heads straight for the burning house – stumps and bushes threaten to pierce the car’s floorboard. He drives across another downed barbed-wire fence, then wildly turns the steering wheel. “Forgot about the damn catalytic converter,” he mutters, coming to a halt next to a long, lime-green engine. Catalytic converters get red hot, he explains, hot enough to ignite grass underneath the car.

A fireman walks over to Sims as the chief pulls on his heat-resistant coat and boots. “We’re holdin’ the grass,” he says, “but we can’t get to the plug from here.” Hose from two engines will have to be spliced together to reach the plug, far back down the street. Sims approves the plan, puts on his helmet, then strides toward the house, now totally engulfed in flames. “It’s been deserted for years,” another fireman tells him. Fifty yards from the roaring, crackling blaze, the heat wards off a bone-chilling wind – any closer and the heat is stifling.

As firefighters drag hose through the smoke, driving the flames back with a steady spray, Sims notices a line of fire advancing rapidly across the back yard, toward the open field behind. The yellowed grass seems to stretch all the way to Waxahachie and a strong wind could set it ablaze in an instant. “Get the engine over behind the garage,” Sims calmly orders. A fireman runs to the engine, drives it closer to the burning grass, and begins dousing the flames with a stream of water. The house has become a blackened, smoking hull.

Except for a station wagon from squad 33 that caught fire after its gas line ruptured, the fire was routine. Although the abandoned house was a total loss, the fire had been denied acres of dry grass. As Tawwater drives back toward town, Sims laughs about the station wagon catching fire. “I just happened to look up and see flames coming out from under it,” he says, “but I couldn’t get anybody’s attention. Old John said he saw me waving at him, but he couldn’t figure out why I was being so friendly.”

“I’ve never enjoyed going to a job except this one,” the slender, blond man with a creased face and deep blue eyes said. He sat on a bench at the long, Formica-covered table, one hand around a cup of coffee, trying to explain to a visitor what it was like to be a fireman. Dragging hose through the burning two-story house three days earlier had probably been easier, for he’s been a firefighter a long time; he doesn’t reflect much anymore about why he does what he does. “I’ll tell you one thing,” he says in his East Texas drawl, a stream of tobacco juice squirting through a gap in his front teeth and into a coffee can, “there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing.”

Like many Dallas firemen, Lt. N.D. “Cotton” O’Rear lives outside the city he’s paid to protect. Every three days, he gets up early enough to drive to the firehouse from his home near Ennis, 39 miles from Station 25. He arrives by 7 a.m., stays until seven the next morning, then goes to a second job selling used cars. O’Rear is 38, a 17-year veteran.

The satisfaction O’Rear and the men at 25 who serve under him find in their work is what most impresses a visitor to the station – more than the excitement of watching firefighting. To a man they claim there’s nothing else they’d rather be doing, a claim many people, even some who make more money, wouldn’t think of making. Some of the men at 25 probably could be making more money elsewhere.

J. W. “Bigfoot” Wallace is a good example. Wallace, a tall, round-faced man with prematurely gray hair, drives a truck for Central Freight on his days off, a job which pays more full-time than does firefighting. Other firemen at 25 have second jobs – one is a carpenter, another cleans up used cars and another is a farmer. Pay for Dallas firemen isn’t too bad – a starting fireman, who must have 60 college hours credit, draws $985 a month, and if he has a college degree, the pay is $100 a month higher, a fact which is resented by many firemen.

Part of the satisfaction from being a fireman comes from what W. B. “Buzz” Busby, B-shift’s only black fireman, describes as “the high you feel when you’re fighting a big fire.” Some firemen, especially the veterans, are reluctant to admit they enjoy fighting a fire, but Busby, at least, feels, “If you don’t get your ass hurt, it’s a trip. Maybe it’s the risk involved,” he says. “Maybe since I quit playing football I miss that high.

“The excitement’s really in the buildup,” he continues. “When you get a nozzle in your hand and don’t know whether you’re gonna put that fire out or back away, that’s exciting. Don’t get me wrong – I’m here because I needed the money. I didn’t know what it was like until I got here.”

But that’s not all there is to it. Many jobs offer a sense of public service and the high that comes from flirting with danger, is offset by the tedium. What keeps a man like Bigfoot Wallace fighting fires, when he could make more money driving a truck, has something to do with the special atmosphere that develops when men live together day-in and day-out.

The firehouse has always been a masculine domain, although female fire fighters may soon have something to say about that. The jokes are bawdy, friends are loyal and life is free and easy. A firehouse such as No. 25 is similar to army barracks, somewhat sterile, but comfortable. “A home away from home,” as one fireman puts it, “a place where we spend a third of our lives.”

“We’re here with each other probably more than we are with our wives and families,” Cliff Edwards points out. “When we’re at home our kids are at school or our wives are working, so we don’t see them as much as we see each other. When you walk into a firehouse you’ve got to leave your troubles at home. If you don’t, you spend a miserable 24 hours and you make everyone else miserable too.”

It’s an arrangement not particularly conducive to family life, even though a fireman has two days off between each work day – some say because a fireman has two days off. Divorce among firemen is perhaps no more prevalent than among other professions, but most firemen agree that the job creates special problems. “Some firemen, if they don’t have a second job, don’t know what to do with themselves on their days off,” Lt. O’Rear points out. As another fireman put it, “Men will be men – they’ll go out and start havin’ a few beers, start messin’ around, and before you know it, their marriage is in trouble.”

“I’ve thought about how we act around the firehouse,” says Pete Peters, B-shift’s captain. “I think a lot of the joking, the laughter, the horseplay you see around here is a way of keeping our minds off the kinds of things we see during the course of our work.”

Charles ’Pete’ Peters is another of those firemen who could be doing something else; he’s only a few hours away from a master’s degree in urban affairs from UT/Arlington. A big, handsome man with thinning brown hair and full mustache, Peters is soft-spoken and articulate. Thirty-eight years old, he joined the fire department during the 1958 recession. “I just wanted a job, man, I just wanted to get soup on the table,” he recalls. “But after I was here for a while, I loved it.

“I’ll give you an example of the kind of things we see,” he says.”We had a fire when I was working over in West Dallas where there were three kids in the house; I think the oldest was five years old. The grandmother was babysitting and she’d gone to a neighbor’s house to drink coffee when the house caught on fire. None of those little kids was old enough to reach the doorknob, and by the time we got there it was too late. If you think about things like that, then you’ll lose your mind. So we laugh and joke and act happy around here most of the time.”

On Thursday before Christmas the men of B-shift sit down to a supper of ground steak filets wrapped in bacon, creamed broccoli, cottage cheese with pineapple, and boiled potatoes. One of the firemen, Cliff Edwards, is the chef. Edwards, nicknamed Festus because of his droopy mustache and easy-going drawl, doesn’t get paid for his services – it’s just that he’s a good cook and he likes to do it. “We only had one guy get sick eating with us last year,” Cracker, a tall, ruddy-faced fireman warns a visitor. “Course he looked like a wrung-out grub worm, but he lived.”

That afternoon B-shift had answered a call at a service station which had exploded while an attendant was cleaning the garage with a gasoline-soaked mop. The ensuing explosion knocked him ten feet through the air, leaving him cut and burned but free from serious injury. The building was a charred shell.

The evening’s conversation turned toward the attendant. “I guess that’ll teach him,” remarks a visitor to Station 25. “The last one like that I saw killed the old boy,” answers Chief Sims. “He didn’t have a chance to learn,” says Sims, taking his place at the table.

The alarm sounds. “Let’s go men,” booms the loudspeaker’s voice. “It never fails,” says Cracker, dropping his fork and clambering over the bench seat. The ladder truck and pumper engine pull away in the dark, loaded with hungry firemen. The chiefs car follows the column of flashing red lights.

The box number turns out to be a grocery store two blocks away. There is no sign of fire. An old man standing nearby on the sidewalk says he doesn’t know anything about a fire. “Maybe somebody saw smoke coming out of the incinerator,” the chief says. “Maybe dinner won’t be too cold,” says fireman Homer Cook.

Back at the station the men of 25finish their evening meal, which isn’ttoo cold. “Cliff, that was just enough,”Lt. O’Rear advises the cook. “I’m full,but not too full.” Lt. O’Rear was justlaying his napkin on the table whenthe alarm sounded.


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