University District

In photos: A day in the life at Fire Station 18 on Southern Avenue

Firefighters are a unique breed of hero. They're one part healer with a deep, driving desire to help others and one part adrenaline junkie. They don't want to see people and property in peril, but they hope they're there to help if it is.

"If it's going to catch on fire, let it catch on fire on my shift," said Lieutenant Mark Johnson, echoing a sort of unofficial firefighter's creed.

Johnson is a 25-year veteran of the force and shift leader at Memphis' Fire Station 18 in the University District. It's one of the department's smallest stations and is located at 535 Southern Avenue just west of the Southern-Highland Street intersection. 

According to the Memphis Fire Museum, Memphis' fire department is one of the top five in the country in terms of both call volume and size. It has roughly 1,500 employees and 59 stations.

The crew of Station 18 said its firehouse was built in 1930, expanded in 1990 and renovated again more recently to add shower facilities for female crew members. 

Lieutenant Wayne Cooke, the Memphis Fire Department's public information officer, said the station might be small but its crew is dedicated and committed to the department's mission to educate and protect the public. 

"When we have one fire casualty in this city, that's one too many," he said.

Three members of the crew of Fire Station 18. Left to right: Private Michael Pence, Private Brian Keller and Lieutenant Mark Johnson. (Ziggy Mack)

Twenty-year veteran Shane Howell (left) stops by with paperwork as Private Michael Pence (right) works the Station 18 desk where crew members field emergency calls and help citizen who walk in with an emergency. (Ziggy Mack)

Private Brian Keller stands at the door of Fire Station 18's pumper truck. (Ziggy Mack)

Station 18 is home to three four-person teams who spend 24 hours at a time living, working, learning and relaxing together.

The teams include one lieutenant, one driver and two privates. They're all trained as EMTs or paramedics to address medical emergencies as well as fires.

While at the fire station, their days include studying, training, cooking, cleaning, inspecting and caring for equipment including the truck which is known as a pumper. The teams respond to emergencies in the surrounding neighborhoods, meet residents and business owners and study the buildings they might be called upon to save.

"The citizens of Memphis expect us to be able to respond to any emergency," said Johnson. "We are expected to be able to respond to every hazardous material, medical, fire, life threatening emergency, flooding. Every issue that there is."

One of three four-person crews who call Fire Station 18 home. Left to right: Driver Daniel Griffith, Lieutenant Mark Johnson, Private Michael Pence, Private Brian Keller and Lieutenant Wayne Cooke, the Memphis Fire Department's public information officer. (Ziggy Mack) 

Memphis Fire Department Public Information Officer Lieutenant Wayne Cooke poses next to the pumper at Fire Station 18 in the University District. (Ziggy Mack)

Many of the firefighters wear special wedding rings while on the job. They're made of silicon and break away if caught to keep from damaging the crew's fingers in an emergency. The thin red line represents the fellowship and family of firefighters. (Ziggy Mack)

A firefighter's schedule is odd by conventional standards. Crews alternate 24 hours on duty and 24 hours off for five days before taking four days off. They say there are advantages and disadvantages to the schedule. Pence noted that four days off is great for travel.

"I like the hours," said Driver Daniel Griffith. "It's periods of boredom interrupted by periods of amazing activity."

"It could be a slow day or it could be the craziest day of your life," added Pence.

But it can also be hard to plan for regular commitments and the crews' families have to learn to make sacrifices. 

“It makes it hard to do things like coach little league because for three Saturdays in a row, we’re going to have to work," said Johnson.

Private Brian Keller inspects his turnout gear as part of his morning routine at Fire Station 18. (Ziggy Mack)

Lieutenant Mark Johnson inspects the pumper truck and its equipment as part of his daily routine to ensure everything is in working order for any emergency. (Ziggy Mack)

A daily routine is an important part of life at the station.

Shifts start at 7 a.m. and end at 7 a.m. the following day. Most of the firefighters at Station 18 arrive at 6:40 a.m. to be debriefed by the last night's crew. After debrief, they inspect their equipment, supplies and the pumper. They also get their 'turnouts' — the pants, boots, coats and other gear they will wear to a fire — ready to be thrown on at a moment's notice.

“In the four days you’re gone, a lot can change," said Pence. "So you just really go through and check everything and put your hands on everything, make sure it’s in working condition.”

After inspections, the crew has breakfast and cleans the station before meeting for their daily training. They rotate cooking duties and say mealtime is much more than a chance to eat.

“At this engine house, we eat together, we take turns cooking," said Johnson. "All of that builds that camaraderie. That opportunity to break bread together kind of seals the deal so you can count on these guys when you need them out in the field.”

Lieutenant Johnson (left) and Private Pence bantered about the best way to cook pancakes as Johnson washes dishes and Pence cleans the grill. “We have a galley style kitchen, really not big enough for more than one or two guys at a time," said Johnson. (Ziggy Mack)

Three members of the four-person crew sit down to a hearty breakfast of eggs, bacon, pancakes and fruit. The crew rotates cooking duties. (Ziggy Mack)

Driver Daniel Griffith cleans the window between the on-watch desk and engine bay. Daily chores are part of life at Station 18. (Ziggy Mack)

After training and chores, the crew heads out into nearby neighborhoods to meet with residents and perform commercial property assessments. 

“It serves a couple of purposes," said Johnson. "We’re visible in the community, people see us, they know we’re out here and recognize our faces.”

They also help the crew stay informed of what buildings are in the area, where the exits are located, what hazardous materials are on site, if there is a sprinkler system and any other concerns they may face in an emergency. They also get contact information in case there's an after hours emergency.

Johnson said the fire department hopes to have a central database with this information in the near future. 

"We try to be proactive," in both education and assessments, said Cooke. 

The crew of Station 18 meet with a Kimberly Hopkins who runs ABC Childcare in the University District. They help her assess the best way to save her property, staff and the children in case of fire. (Ziggy Mack)

Lieutenant Mark Johnson performs a property assessment at a University District barber shop. In the background, Randy Richmond cuts Marvin Freeman's hair. Commercial assessments are part of a strategy to educate the public on fire prevention. (Ziggy Mack)

When not responding to an emergency, the crew's afternoons and evenings are spent at the station.

From 1 to 4 p.m. they have downtime to nap, study, work out or play games before they eat dinner as a group. In the evenings, they typically watch movies or a sports game, talk and decompress from their day. 

Private Michael Pence studies in the fire station's designated quiet area. In the first four years, crew members must earn several certifications from medical, fire and hazard materials trainings to continue their careers. (Ziggy Mack)

Study materials on topics from resuscitation techniques to chemical reactions line the bookcases at Station 18. Daily training is also part of life at the station. (Ziggy Mack)

Private Michael Pence polishes his boots during afternoon down time as Driver Daniel Griffith text messages with his family. (Ziggy Mack) 
The crew said life as emergency responders can be traumatic, and it's important for them to have down time, humor and good relationships. It's also important to know they do good work, though they don't often get the chance to hear updates about the people they help. 

On this day, 46 year-old Mark Tye stopped by the station. A few weeks earlier, the crew of Station 18 responded to a 911 call. Tye was having a heart attack after a morning jog. The crew got Tye to the hospital where he received four heart stints and a good prognosis.

“I wanted to let you guys know, hey I’m doing great," he said, shaking Johnson's hand and posing for a selfie made possible by the crew of Fire Station 18. 

Mark Tye (left) poses for a selfie with Lieutenant Mark Johnson. Johnson helped save Tye's life after a recent unexpected heart attack. (Ziggy Mack)

Read more articles by Cole Bradley and Ziggy Mack.

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