The National Guard’s high-water vehicle showed up about lunch, not long after firefighters parked a johnboat and Zodiac in the ladder truck bay.
Deep in the heart of West Ashley, Charleston Fire Station 19 was gearing up for Dorian.
That may seem like a lot of water rescue apparatus for an inland firehouse, even in the Lowcountry, but it makes perfect sense when you realize that Station 19 covers the mega-subdivision Shadowmoss.
And they’ve already lost one firetruck in that place.
More on that in a minute.
The folks who are cleaning up the city today have been preparing for this all week. On Wednesday, men who weren’t scheduled to go on duty until 7 p.m. showed up at Station 19 before noon — just to make sure they were in place before it all went down.
Unlike most people, who either leave town or are idled by a hurricane, this is the busy season for firefighters and first responders. After all, disaster is their business. And we have more than our share.
But they were ready. The crews leave the doors open on the trucks to save the seconds it takes to open them, and keep their gear on the floor next to their stations. When a call comes in, they’re out the door in literally less than a minute.
Luckily, the staff at Station 19 had some down time earlier this week. With a quarter of the city evacuated, and most businesses closed, there weren’t a lot of calls on Wednesday — a traffic accident at Grand Oaks and Bees Ferry; a (false, like many of them) fire alarm at an apartment complex a few hours later.
And between, a lot of waiting.
“This is the calm before the storm,” Capt. Chris Zailiski says. “Tomorrow’s shift is reporting at 12, and we’re all here for at least 48 hours.”
That’s 28-30 firefighters rotating on call. Between getting their gear ready and checking equipment, the off-duty crews do just what everyone else does to prepare for a storm: juggle their family schedules, cook meals while there’s still time and keep one eye on the Weather Channel.
Station 19 staffed up more than some because it’s a double company with an engine and a ladder truck. The ladder truck — Tower 102 — is a replacement for a pretty big piece of equipment swallowed by the 1,000-year flood in 2015.
It rained for four straight days to begin that October and, after a particularly wet September, the ground was saturated. Shadowmoss was basically a swimming pool.
Engineer Sam Ferris spent an entire day essentially running a bus service between the neighborhood and the station, rescuing people from their flooded homes. Finally, while someone else was driving, the water got too deep and the ladder truck drowned.
The National Guard high-water vehicle had to pull it out of there.
No one here has forgotten that, and it keeps them alert and ready for anything. But then, that’s a firefighter’s job.
At Station 19, 80 percent of the calls are medical, which means they go to every traffic accident in their district and make house calls when someone calls 911 complaining of chest pains.
“If there’s an accident, we’ve got to check it out — we don’t take the word of a 911 caller,” says Capt. Ryan Ward. “Most of our guys are EMTs, and if no one’s hurt, we can call off the ambulance.”
But after a storm, they do rescues, check roads to make sure they’re OK to drive on — even clear the trees off them. And there are a lot of big trees out Ashley River Road.
So, yeah, they expect to be busy today.
But if you see the folks on Engine 119 or Tower 102, take a moment to say thanks.
Because they, and all the other personnel at the Charleston Fire Department, took a lot of time and care to make sure we made it through another one.