Bells rang, lights flashed, and Mark Allen quickly dunked his bread into a bowl of balsamic vinegar and olive oil. It was the first and only bite of a long-postponed dinner for the firehouse cook. An instant later, still chewing, he was at the wheel of Sacramento's Station 10 fire engine, racing to a medical call.
Returning to his cold meal 30 minutes later, Allen was philosophical. "There are no guarantees in a firehouse," he said. "But I'm afraid the broccoli is a total loss."
That's life in a fire station - domesticity and danger, doing the dishes one moment and dashing off to God-knows-what the next. The men and women who choose this singular lifestyle say the daily intimacy they share builds camaraderie and trust when lives are on the line.
But sometimes intimacy breeds something else. In recent months, a series of scandals has rocked the Sacramento Fire Department with allegations of drinking on duty, cruising bars in fire trucks, hanging out at X-rated events and group sex in a fire station.
This misconduct - the firehouse as frat house - is limited to just a handful of the city's 23 stations, insiders say.
More typical of the department's 500 firefighters is the B shift at Station 10 on Fruitridge Road, whose crew members agreed to allow The Bee to spend an evening with them.
There, the crew of 10 says they're on duty all the time, whether battling a blaze or sitting in their identical brown recliners, watching TV and awaiting the next alarm.
How could one department, thoroughly steeped in the proud traditions of fire service, produce such extremes?
Each firehouse has autonomy, with its own values and subculture, according to Linda Willing, a consultant who advises fire departments nationwide on organizational issues. The captain sets the tone for the crew, she said.
"Fire stations do develop their own cultures and practices," said Willing, a retired Colorado firefighter. "You develop a certain amount of autonomy - that can be a good thing. It bonds people. You develop sort of a group humor that wouldn't fly at a church picnic.
"So, to some degree the variations will always happen. But the fact that they were really doing inappropriate, illegal things is indefensible. It's just outrageous, and everyone knows that."
The firefighters at Station 10 on Fruitridge Road shake their heads at the sizzling revelations. After finishing - finally - their dinner of chicken parmigiana, pasta and overdone broccoli, they sat around the station's long table and spoke of the scandal's impact on their department.
"It has been difficult for all of us, the hurt and the pain," said Capt. Lisa Stumpf, a firefighter since 1989. "It has affected everybody. As for me, I was dumbfounded that it happened."
Andrew Ramos, one of her crew members, raised his eyebrows. "First, where did they get the time to do all that stuff?" he asked. "You see how it is around here."
Indeed, Station 10 is a busy firehouse, with its truck, engine and ambulance averaging 30 calls in each 24-hour shift. But two of the firehouses affected by the scandals - stations 6 and 20 - are even busier.
The C shift at Station 20 - a company that averages an emergency call every 40 minutes - found two hours July 2 to spend at the Porn Star Costume Ball.
A four-man engine crew from Station 6 spent time cruising midtown bars last year, giving women joy rides and even taking them on a fire call. And four firefighters from Station 12 allegedly stole away during working hours to engage in consensual group sex.
Firefighters from those three stations have been reluctant to talk to The Bee in the wake of the scandals.
The 24-hour shifts Sacramento firefighters work, from 8 a.m. one day to 8 a.m. the next, admittedly do provide some downtime, said Dave Whitt, battalion chief for Station 10 and eight other firehouses.
"It's like every other job - there are ways to cheat the system," Whitt said. "There are times when you can sneak away."
Whitt and other fire officials defend round-the-clock shifts and communal life as more than mere tradition. They contend the system saves the taxpayers money by cutting down on personnel and builds teams that work together more cohesively.
"We operate in a team atmosphere, and that carries through to our everyday life," Whitt said. "One person cleans the bathroom, one does the dorm, one cooks, people pitch in and help each other out. That's important because on emergency scenes, if we don't have that camaraderie, we're not as efficient."
At Station 10, just back from a gritty vehicle fire, Stumpf's crew members were quickly up to their elbows in soap and water, polishing their yellow truck until it gleamed.
"It's a matter of pride and of practicality," Stumpf said. "We all jump in and help. We chat and work together - it's a team-building thing."
Later, after dinner, the crew formed a bucket brigade in the kitchen, passing dirty plates and silverware from the table to the sink to the dishwasher. Only Allen, the shift's permanent cook, is excused from doing dishes.
Their finances are also communal, with each firefighter chipping in $7 a day for lunch and dinner and $20-a-month house dues for what Stumpf described as the "comfy things" - those brown recliners and the station's three televisions. Any leftover money goes toward holiday feasts; the B shift enjoyed prime rib last Christmas.
Willing, the organizational expert, sees this communal atmosphere as positive.
"There is a benefit to the team to having people share more than just the business aspect of working together," she said. "When you wash the truck together, when you eat meals together, you truly become a team. The time to do team-building is not at the scene of the emergency. That's when you need to trust each other and already have the team in place."
The intensity of such personal relationships creates what is often referred to as the firefighting family - or, sometimes, the brotherhood. But that strong identity can be problematic if it leads to covering up misconduct.
The philosophy that "what goes on in the station stays in the station" is an axiom in firefighter culture everywhere.
A part of that, said Fire Chief Julius "Joe" Cherry, is the tendency for station captains to handle misconduct themselves.
"There was a culture of handling it in-house," Cherry said. "If you are a captain, it was expected that you would step up to the plate and handle your crew. It is not that you would cover up totally abhorrent behavior, but it's your job to take care of it. I believe that some people took advantage of that."
Cherry, chief since June, is taking active steps to change that attitude. Of the 24 people disciplined in the first round of scandal, the only terminations were two captains. And four other captains were disciplined for failing to report what they knew about the misconduct.
The department's investigation into the allegations of group sex at Station 12 is still under way, with more than a dozen witnesses interviewed so far. That situation involved a male captain and three other on-duty firefighters, two men and a woman.
Cherry said this behavior is clearly wrong, but that it's important to recognize firefighters are human. "We're not purer or worse than any other parts of society," the chief said.
And, despite this recent spate of scandal in Sacramento, the trend in the fire service is moving away from its rowdy past and toward greater professionalism, said Gordon Duncan, a retired Sacramento battalion chief who now heads the Saratoga Fire Protection District.
Duncan said he's seen the atmosphere in Sacramento firehouses go from "80 percent fraternity and 20 percent strait-laced, to 20 percent fraternity and 80 percent strait-laced."
From her perspective advising departments nationwide, Willing said such blatant abuse - an alleged orgy in the fire station - is extraordinarily unusual.
"I'm just appalled at this group sex thing," she said. "Please! A high school kid would know that was wrong. And it's surprising. My take on it is that a firehouse dorm is about as romantic as a hospital ward."
The bare-bones dorm at Station 10 fits that description: two rows of six single beds lined up along the pale yellow walls, fluorescent lights overhead. The beds are supplied by the city, but the firefighters provide their own sheets and blankets
All 10 members of the shift, male and female, share the room. They say that snoring is a more significant problem than gender. "The real offensive snorers go to sleep last," said Ken Murray, captain of the station's engine.
Not that they get all that much sleep. Throughout the night, alarm bells ring, and drowsy firefighters open an eye to glance at a row of lights signaling which crew is needed.
"What surprises me," said Allen, cook and engine driver, "is the ability to get up and do the job at 3 a.m." Dinner was over and he had a moment to reflect.
"A big fire is one thing," he said, a half smile crossing his face. "But an attack of back pain? Well, it's a little less exciting."
About the writer:
- The Bee's Dorothy Korber can be reached at (916) 321-1061 or firstname.lastname@example.org.