Firefighters of Station 15 Wait for the Big One
Firefighters rarely get to do what they really want to do-fight fires. For most of us, this is not a bad thing. But for the men at Charlotte's Station 15, the busiest firehouse in the city, it presents The Paradox
Josh Johnston, thirty-one, sports Fire Station 15’s unofficial insignia, the shamrock. The station is near Shamrock Road. Their truck is named the Shamrock Express.
This could be The Big One.
A little after 8 p.m. on a Thursday, Trey Martin is up in the cab of a fire truck, listening to the radio. “Caller advised heavy smoke,” it squawks.
“Nice!” he says. He punches up a map on a monitor. Every Charlotte fire truck carries a GPS device. A red rectangle represents each engine. The rectangles flicker, inching closer to the fire. Martin watches them race.
The voice returns. The sprinklers are working. Fire’s out.
“Tsk,” Martin says. He turns off the monitor.
Martin is thirty-five. He’s been with the Charlotte Fire Department since he was twenty-one. He’s wearing a gold chain and a self-named million-dollar mustache. He’s bored now. There was no chance that Engine 15, the Shamrock Express, would have gone on that call. The truck blew a gasket a half hour ago. It’s in the city service shop on Louise Avenue, waiting on a mechanic. The crew is there, too, manning a replacement truck.
The driver, Engineer Wally Love, passes time by smoking a cigarette. He, like Martin, has been with the department for fourteen years. He grew up on Shamrock Drive. Relief Captain Tom Montgomery, slim, quiet, and bespectacled, is in charge tonight. He’s five years from retirement. Thirty-one-year-old Josh Johnston, who has his daughters’ names tattooed on his wrists, pecks at his smartphone.
A mechanic fits a new gasket on the wheel, and Engine 15 is headed back to the station. Near The Plaza and Parkwood Avenue, Johnston smells something. A sweet potato cooking, he says. Moments later, heat, steam, and the sugary odor of coolant flood the cab. A busted radiator hose. Back to the shop.
Most of the time, the crew waits, but they are always ready to go at a moment’s notice. This is Wally Love and Josh Johnston.
Fire Station 15 is a boxy beige brick building tucked behind a cinder block car wash at Eastway and Shamrock. It’s been there since 1965, when Stan Brookshire was mayor and the neighborhood was new. It was born among the small brick ranches that popped up after World War II and really began to bloom in the late 1950s. But Charlotte kept pushing outward, and the money moved out with it. Today, Station 15 resides in one of Charlotte’s poorer neighborhoods, sprinkled with mom-and-pop restaurants, Laundromats, train tracks, and strip malls. The station itself sits on Frontenac Avenue, a dead-end street with an apartment building on it that creates an unusual amount of foot traffic.
Inside is a rumpled rec room, with a green fire department shield on one side of the TV and a shamrock on the other. Green Christmas lights wrap around an old hydrant on an end table. Four plush recliners form an amphitheater of upholstery facing the big-screen TV. Behind them, there’s a long table for dinner, and behind that, a kitchen.
This is the busiest station in Charlotte. Some stations only get a call or two a day. This one averages thirteen.
Firefighters want calls. They want to do their job. They can’t predict when calls will come. They can guess. The final Friday of the month is always busy. It’s supposed to rain. That helps. Cold weather might lead to some fires. Tonight, the temperature is dropping fast. The final Friday is approaching. Something could happen.
Or, nothing could happen, and it often does. Fires don’t just happen of course, they’re the product of some kind of combustion, a frayed wire, ashes dropping from a cigarette, sizzling grease, a flick of a match. Something causes a fire.
It’s 10 p.m., and right now, something is causing a fire. The men inside Station 15 don’t know it. Yet. Right now, they’re bickering about the baseball game they’re not watching on TV.
“How do you not watch the World Series?” says Love, the engineer who grew up down the street. “It’s un-American.”
“Simple,” says Martin with the million-dollar mustache. “I turn the channel.”
Love won’t let it go. Martin gives up. He flicks the TV over to game six.
At 10:01, the alarm goes off.
Watch a short film about Fire Station 15 from the Charlotte Video Project