A firehouse Thanksgiving

Discover how an amalgamated Portland Fire & Rescue crew at SE Portland’s Station 25 feels about working on cherished family holidays. A turkey was roasted – but they did manage to save some chickens from a fiery fate …

Portland Fire & Rescue firefighters who volunteered to work Thanksgiving Day carry equipment back to Truck 25 after a morning fire.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
Thanksgiving Day has become one of the most cherished American holidays for family gatherings.

But on November 25th, and on every other holiday all year, some 200 men and women in the ranks of Portland Fire & Rescue take the firehouse keys from the outgoing crew at 8:00 a.m. – and are on duty for 24 hours.

The eight firefighters scheduled to work at Station 25, facing SE 52nd Avenue at SE Mall Street, agreed to let us spend time with their crew on this past Thanksgiving Day.

We’d agreed to meet at noon, but the timetable was moved up when we heard the crews of both Truck 25 (the long ladder rig, with both front and rear drivers) and Engine 25 (the pump and hose line truck) were called to a SE Portland garage fire.

Firefighter Stu Johnson, the only of eight firefighters present who is actually posted to Station 25, cleans a chain saw used in the morning’s fire.

“Why not just meet us back at the station?” suggested Truck 25’s driver, firefighter Stu Johnson, after they quenched a blaze which had started in a chicken coop, up against a large, detached garage, half-converted into a residence. (CLICK HERE to see “Chickens saved, at two Thanksgiving Day ‘coop’ fires”).

By the time we walked in the garage, Truck 25 was parked, and the crew was cleaning and stowing their tools, including the chainsaw they’d used to ventilate the structure. “Of all the people working here today, I’m the only one who usually reports to Station 25,” said Johnson as he reassembled the chainsaw. The rest were assembled from other stations to help cover the holiday shift at the Woodstock fire station.

Captain Robert Hutchens, on loan from Station 13, shows his culinary skill, as he prepares the turkey.

In the kitchen, Captain Robert Hutchens – on loan from Station 13, near Lloyd Center – was carefully washing a huge turkey.

“I worked Thanksgiving Day last year; it’s my normal day to work,” Hutchens said. “My wife and child came in and we all had a fun time. When they asked for volunteers so others could have the day off, I said ‘sure’.”

The day’s amalgamated crew agreed to let Hutchens invite his family at Station 25, “On the condition that I would prepare the turkey.”

Hutchens dried, basted, and seasoned the turkey with the agility and skill of a Cooking Channel chef. “I’ve cooked a bird or two in my time. I enjoy cooking. When I was a firefighter, before my promotions, I was the ‘permanent cook’ at Station 3 in downtown Portland. Now, as an officer, I don’t cook every shift, but I take my turn.”

Engine 25 pulls in the firehouse after it’s first “chicken coop” run.

Truck 25 pulled into the station. After cleaning and stowing their gear, they filtered into the common living area – a large room featuring a commercial kitchen, a long dining table, lounge chairs, and giant flat-screen HD television set.

Firefighter Vince Wright, visiting from Station 4 at Portland State University, came into the room. “Working at a different firehouse isn’t much different – this, and the rigs, are all pretty much set up the same. I went through training with several of these guys years ago, and haven’t seen them for quite awhile. It’s a nice treat.”

The daily routine is the same, Wright said: Clean the firehouse, get some coffee, read the paper, and make meals. “Everyone pitches in; it makes the chores easy. Whoever is at Station 4 it doing it there today.”

The only difference, Wright said, is that they don’t keep their work clothing, uniforms, and “turn-outs” (fireproof suits and hats) in their lockers. “When we visit, we bring them with us. The station number patches stay at each house; we hook them on with Velcro.”

Firefighter Kyle Nelson, visiting from Station 7, chops vegetables like a chef.

Kyle Nelson – who usually reports to the Mill Park Station 7 on SE 122nd Avenue to crew the PF&R Medic rig housed there – grabbed a knife, cutting board, and fresh vegetables. “I’m their ‘detail guy’. Anytime they need to send someone out to different fire station, I go.”

Slicing and dicing onions, broccoli, and squash into even portions, Nelson pointed out, “Cooking is definitely part of being a firefighter.”

As the noon hour approached, crew members swirled around the kitchen preparing “breakfast” – long-delayed by their earlier fire call.

Manning a huge cast-iron skillet, Captain Joel Kasprzak, from Station 26 in St. Johns, was busy making the ‘breakfast scramble’. “My station has one truck; it’s cozier with a four-person crew. Back in the ’80s I worked here at Station 25. It’s nice to have twice as many people on duty.”

The firefighters each took a plate and served themselves a hearty breakfast – an egg scramble made with fresh vegetables, sausage, and cheese, hash browns, fruit, toast, juice, and coffee.

Captain Joel Kasprzak, from Station 26, cooks up an egg scramble.

Although each fellow took a man-sized portion, there was plenty left over. They encouraged us to try ‘firehouse cuisine’. It tasted as great as it smelled and looked – actually, like dining in a fine restaurant.

Instead of sauntering off to their rooms or the loungers, the firefighters gathered around the table. “Having meals together are an important part of firehouse life,” Hutchens said. “It’s one of the reasons most firefighters think of their regular shift-partners as family.”

During the meal, the men pointed out many misconceptions about firehouse life. The Bureau only provides the basics: Firefighting gear and rigs, bunks, built-in kitchen appliances, and the table.

The three shifts of crew who typically work at each firehouse pool their resources to buy their loungers, TV sets and video gear, cable TV subscriptions, Internet hook-ups, and even their dishes and silverware. Each shift pays for their own food and beverages, too.

“People usually ask if we get ‘holiday pay’,” Hutchens said. “No, for us it is just another day. When it’s your turn to work, you work. I’m sure most firefighters feel like I do; I love the job. It is maybe the best job in the world.”

After the meal, the guys brought out a tall deck of tattered playing cards. Simple card games determined who cleaned the pots and pans that wouldn’t fit in the dishwasher. In the final game, we won the honor of wiping down the dining room table!

Through the luck of the draw, David F. Ashton wins the right to clean the dining table.

No sooner was the kitchen clean, when a medical call came in for Truck 25. We hopped into the cab and sped out to SE 65th Avenue and Reedway Street. The crew helped move an elderly patient, who had taken a tumble, out of their home and into an ambulance.

Truck 25 rolls south on SE 52nd Avenue toward a medical call.

Truck 25’s driver, Stu Johnson, communicates with crew members via headset, while driving to a medical emergency.

“We are all EMT basics,” said Johnson. “We have the training and equipment to offer first-response aid.”

Arriving back at Station 25, the savory aroma of roasting turkey by now filled the kitchen. Some of the crew members were already starting preparations for their feast, scheduled later that day.

Firefighter Vince Wright, visiting from Station 4, steps out at the medical call.

Truck 25’s crew helps paramedics transport a patient.

After we left the station that afternoon to cover other stories, we wondered if they had enjoyed their Thanksgiving feast.

A little after 8:30 p.m. we found out – when we again met up with the crew – at yet another chicken-coop fire! “I think everyone enjoyed the dinner,” said Captain/Chef Hutchens. “We had a great roasted turkey, but we saved the chickens at this house.”

After a long Thanksgiving Day – but with 11 hours yet to go on their shift – the crew of Truck 25 packs up their gear after their second chicken coop fire of the day.

© 2010 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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