‘‘Anything that can happen will happen, says Senior Firefighter Josh “Moose” Moskaitis, Station 1, Engine 1, of the Columbia Richland Fire Department. “When you think you’ve seen it all, you experience something wilder. So we never say never, and we’re always ready to solve problems. We’re honestly prepared for anything and everything.”
The City of Columbia Richland Fire Department has grown significantly in 100-plus years, from a horse-drawn, water-toting wagon and a one-chief department with a handful of firefighters to 32 stations featuring modernized high-tech trucks and gear for a staff of at least 500. While early 20th century $40-a-month salaried firefighters did primarily what the department name implies in fighting downtown Columbia fires, today’s highly trained officers are at-the-ready for any number of emergencies.
“We’re for all people in need,” says Capt. Andrew Stender, Station 1-Rescue. “We say we don’t get cats out of trees,” he says with a chuckle, “but we’ve gotten cats out of trees and off roofs. You name it — we’ve done it. Mostly, though, we’re problem solvers. The firefighting community in general loves the challenge of solving a problem, come hell or high water.”
According to Mike DeSumma, public information officer, the Columbia Richland Fire Department is responsible for serving nearly 500,000 citizens not only within the City of Columbia but also throughout Richland County. On average, firefighters respond to 35,000 to 40,000 emergency incidents per year.
Although no day is routine, Moose says firefighters can count on motor vehicle accidents, fire alarm pulls in buildings, and coronaries almost daily. In fact, firefighters are the initial first responders to arrive on the scene of most emergencies, with car accidents being the most common. However, suicides, gunshots, falls, drowning, overdoses, and much more are realities as well.
Aubrey D. Jenkins, fire chief of the Columbia Richland Fire Department since 2011, began his career as a firefighter in 1979 after graduating from Eau Claire High School. He says firefighters in training learn quickly that rescue, medical calls, education, and demonstrations are all part of the job description. “Fifty-one percent of calls, in fact, are medical calls.”
Interestingly, fighting fires is a less frequent occurrence.
“Of course we don’t wish for a fire,” Moose admits, “but if one occurs, we all want to be the ones on call. Fighting fires gives us a certain sense of pride because that’s ultimately what we are most trained for. The fact that we can save people and things from fires is why many of us do what we do.”
Comprehensive initial training and ongoing training is imperative. However, just becoming a firefighter is a lengthy, detailed, and grueling process that requires stamina, patience, and commitment, according to Chief Jenkins.
“I miss getting in there and fighting fires,” says Chief Jenkins. “But I still go to car, house, commercial, and room and contents fires, and I show up when I can at other calls. I want to be there and support the firefighters in any way I can.”
In order to become a career firefighter with a full-time paying job with the department, interested individuals have to first pass a rigorous vetting process. A potential applicant must be at least 18 years old, have a high school diploma or GED, a valid class D driver’s license, and have no prior felony convictions and no suspensions within the previous year.
After the preliminary hurdles, applicants are called in for a written exam to test reasoning skills since so much about being a firefighter involves assessing predicaments and determining solutions on the spot. Plus, a physical agility test is given at the department’s training grounds. The test includes what is referred to as “the maze,” a small, tight, dark building that applicants must crawl through in two minutes wearing black-out goggles, a breathing mask, and weighted vest; they must also drag heavy dummies, carry a hose up a drill tower, and more. Instructors ascertain if applicants are physically fit enough to successfully accomplish the required 18-week training academy.
Applicants, usually 20 to 30 in number on average, who pass written and physical tests must be interviewed before becoming hired officially as paid Columbia Fire Department firefighter recruits. At some point in the 18-week training, recruits experience training in all types of fires, including ones generated by flammable liquids and gas.
After graduation, recruits are assigned to shifts and stations as probationary firefighters. Then, after the probationary period, which lasts a period of several months, recruits become full-fledged firefighters.
“There are a lot of moving parts,” says Chief Jenkins. “Even I still go to training, especially because of technology. Once upon a time, we went into a burning building and couldn’t see anything. Now we have thermal energy cameras and the latest breathing apparatus. We’re constantly learning, training, and keeping an eye on the pace of things.”
Capt. Stender said a typical day in and around a fire station involves an early a.m. shift start; a rundown of activities, gear, and issues from the guys coming off the previous shift; switching out gear and inspecting gear; ongoing training sessions; cleaning the station, trucks, gear, and equipment; filling out log books; exercising; and planning meals.
“Since we’re such multi-taskers, we’re booked solid,” says Capt. Stender. “It’s a complete misconception that firefighters are sitting around or sleeping and just waiting for a call.”
“That couldn’t be further from the truth,” attests Moose. “I’ve rarely gotten through a shift during my past three years with the department and been able to actually sleep through a night.”
“Everyone has different roles,” says Capt. Stender. “We’re tag teaming in all areas.”
Because a call can and does often interrupt meal times, firefighters learn to eat quickly and enjoy food that is cold.
“The biggest disability is knowing how to cook,” quips Moose. “But seriously, I’m from a large Italian family, so I love to cook, and we really share the load at this station. But some like to take the reins more than others. And we all help clean up. It’s the way we work — together.”
Moose explains that firefighters and their families make expected sacrifices, such as long shifts and exhausting hours, while the firefighters also risk their lives and sacrifice their well-being, comfort, and emotions at the expense of serving others.
“I was in the Marines before I became a firefighter,” says Moose. “I had two tours overseas. And I learned that we want to act tough, but over time things chip away at you. But we counsel each other and spend time together outside of work and do a ‘check up from the neck up’ with each other to learn what might be someone’s needs.”
Capt. Stender says that traumatic calls are a given. “Every call takes a little more off your humanity. And people deal with it in different ways. We want what’s best for each other, and we will walk through issues together.”
“We knew it when we signed up,” says Moose. “The job’s tough in many ways. But the career is a passion, a way of life. And we have the mindset and are trained to be fixers. We fix things and thrive in that environment. So we’re willing to make sacrifices because part of the gratification of the job is saving property, lives, and mementos.”