The bell sounds right as the crew finishes saying grace for lunch. “The surest way to get a call is to sit down to eat… or get in the shower,” jokes Lieutenant Clint Earp, an 18-year veteran of the City of Raleigh Fire Department and one of two Lieutenants on Ladder 4 at downtown Raleigh’s Station 1.
The following scene of covering plates to rush to a call isn’t unusual for one of Raleigh’s busiest fire stations.
Built in 1953 on Dawson Street, Station 1 has three trucks: “The Flagship” Engine 1, Engine 13 and Ladder 4, also known as “Precious.” Three platoons, which each have four firefighters per truck and one person to monitor calls, all cover a 24-hour shift every other day for three shifts followed by four days off.
B Platoon is starting the first shift of a new cycle at 8 a.m. After positioning their gear and cleaning the station from top to bottom, they head out to get groceries. Today, it’s Engine 1’s turn in the kitchen.
“You know, there’s a misconception out there. People get upset when they see the fire truck at the grocery store, like we’re using tax dollars to do our personal shopping,” says Chris “Bubba” Townsend, Lieutenant on Engine 1. “But they don’t realize, we pay for our own meals. A lot of people don’t know that.”
Each shift, every person contributes $10 ($130 total for the day) to cover lunch and dinner for the whole platoon. But this mix of limited funds, full-day shifts and a rambunctious crew creates a unique mealtime culture.
As Townsend says, “Some of the best times are in the kitchen; we hang out and joke and laugh and just mess around. It’s a lot of fun.”
By 11 a.m. Ivon Lendl Johnson, a senior firefighter on loan to Engine 1 for the day from Ladder 7 at Station 20, and Aaron Dickson, Engine 1’s newest and youngest firefighter, are busy chopping coleslaw and preparing shrimp for some po’ boys that could rival any of downtown’s top restaurants.
“We’re lucky; we’re close enough to go the farmer’s market from this station,” say Johnson. “These shrimp were caught Thursday.”
But such things are a luxury. Mostly, they plan meals around what’s on sale, coupons and items like massive bottles of off-brand ketchup, something that gets plenty of jokes around the lunch table. (“Man guys, we can’t chip in the extra 80 cents for some Heinz?!” one of the crew laughs.)
Saving one week, however, can mean a feast the next, maybe even steaks, so the main goals in the kitchen are to not go over budget and to try and mix up the meals.
Some station favorites? Spaghetti, hibachi, chicken pot-pie, canned chickens (“Like beer-can chicken, but we can’t have alcohol obviously, so other canned chicken,” says Johnson.), country style steak and other kitchen staples.
“We do a lot of grilling,” adds Jim Pearce, senior firefighter and fire investigator on Engine 1 who has been with the department since 2002. “People are trying to be healthier. Back in the day, we fried something everyday. Now it’s seldom — twice a month maybe.”
And thanks to Pearce’s off-hours fishing, Engine 1 is also known for their wild game and fish, a money-saving option for the crew. But it’s not always easy. Dickson says, “We typically haven’t cooked a lot before we come here, but the guys really pass along what they learn.”
At noon, the platoon gathers around the massive table, and even the call that beckons Earp and the Ladder 4 team doesn’t stop the liveliness of the bunch.
When everyone is finished, Dickson initiates a water fight at the sink, laughing. He smirks, “I get blamed for everything around here.” The scene perfectly captures the spirit of the group.
David Carroll, on Engine 13 for the day covering from Station 5 in Cameron Village, sums up the fire department well: “Every station is different, but it’s all about the people you work with. Any station you go to, you’ve got a good crew there. You’re going to have a good time.”
The guys at Station 1 may rib each other and crack a lot of jokes, but they’re hard working, selfless and dedicated to serving the community. So the next time you walk by, stop in, say hello and get a tour. They’ll be more than happy to show you around — and for $5 or so, they’ll even share their lunch.