Spend a day at one of the locations of the Portsmouth Fire Department, and it won't take long to see calls run the gamut from the primary mission to put out fires and save lives, to extracting a raccoon from a chimney. From rescuing someone from the icy waters of the Ohio River, to scaling a wall to rescue someone from a roof, to, yes, even retrieving a crying child's cat from a tree.
When a firefighter goes to work, he or she never knows what the day will bring.
"Stress. That is what a firefighter lives with every minute," said Portsmouth Police Chief Bill Raison. "And the second an alert tone goes off, it causes the firefighter's heart rate to increase immediately."
Stress also comes when lives are lost, and he said each lost life is remembered by the firefighters involved throughout his or her life.
Raison said seven people have perished in fires since August 2007 in the city, and fire authorities spend a large amount of time considering the causes of the fatalities, and what they can do to reduce the number of fire deaths.
"Investigations are full-steam down at Central," said Lt. Chris Lowery, who also is president of Local 512 of the International Association of Firefighters. "It's been a busy year for the new chief."
The Portsmouth Fire Department consists of three locations: The Central Fire Station is located on Gallia Street, the Hilltop Fire Station on 17th Street, and there's a location on Harding Avenue in Sciotoville.
"At the central station, we have on each shift an assistant chief, a captain, a lieutenant, at least two drivers and - best-case scenario - three pipe men, or firefighters," said Capt. Brian Storey.
"At the Hilltop and Sciotoville fire stations, there is a lieutenant and a driver on duty at all times," Lowery said. "We also have a Rapid Intervention Team. Any time we have a structure fire, we have two firefighters that are stationed outside, are packed up and ready to go. They come to save us or to help us assist in a victim rescue."
Lowery said if there is a structure fire in the city of Portsmouth, New Boston Fire Department will assist city firefighters. The Sciotoville personnel act as the Rapid Intervention Team, "and their only job is to stand by and to get us out if we get in trouble, or assist in victims' rescue," he said.
Lowery said each station has a truck and a back-up truck, with the largest being the 100-foot ladder truck at Central station, and another ladder truck at the Hilltop location.
"We probably need another location on the hilltop," Raison said. "Even though that area has expanded, I think we still have a four-minute response time, which is really good."
Lowery said from the time the alert is sounded until the truck pulls onto the street is even shorter.
"We're loaded, I have my pack on, and we're pulling out in less than 30 seconds," he said. "Coordination is very important. Our pumper at the Hilltop station, holds 300 gallons of water. So when we arrive on the scene, we have enough water for about a minute and a half, and by that time we have located a hydrant."
Firefighter Jerry Cornwell, of the Hilltop station, said that never has been an issue.
"In all the years I've been with the fire department, we have never run out of water," Cornwell said.
Another factor in the smooth operation of the Portsmouth Fire Department is the close relationship between members of the union and Raison.
"The union fully backs our new chief. Things are growing and developing as we go here," Lowery said. "Of course, he's awfully busy now since the first of the year, but it's coming along."
Raison said it's easy to explain why there is such a close working relationship between his management position and the union firefighter.
"Their objective and my objective are the same - to provide service to the public. That's what they want and that's what I want," he said. "That's my goal as chief, to work with our union. We're in unison together."
Raison said another of his priorities when he sends a crew to a fire is the safety of the officer, and equipment like the IRISH camera, which allows them to see anyone in the structure through the smoke, aid them in their work.
"Over 100 firefighters die in the line of duty every year," he said.
Portsmouth firefighters count several pieces of equipment and self-contained units among the items they operate.
From the Search and Rescue trailer to the boat used for rescue and recovery by the dive team on the Ohio River, to the rope truck for scaling buildings to rescue people, to one of the most important pieces of lifesaving equipment - the Jaws of Life - firefighters in the Portsmouth Fire Department are fully trained and say they go into each situation ready to handle the job.
"All water rescues, in fact, all rescues are handled through the fire department," Lowery said.
Second-generation Portsmouth firefighter Steve Aldridge has the daunting task of keeping all air tank gear repaired and in top condition, as well as filled and ready to go. But the capacity of a tank is based on several factors.
"It depends on your respiration rate. When we make first entry, our respiration is up, our cardio is up, so we burn air a lot faster," he said. "If we're in pretty good shape, a bottle will last about 15 minutes. If you're not in such good shape, I've had guys breathe one down in five minutes. They're rated for 30 minutes. But the more calm you stay, the better shape you're in, the longer the bottle will last."
Aldridge said each air pack is required to have an annual float test, and he performs any repairs that are needed for not only the fire department, but also the city Water Treatment Department, Sewage Treatment Department and Scioto County Sheriff's Office - 52 units in all.
While the firefighting world continues to grow and change, updating almost daily, Raison said the mission never has changed.
"Our first priority is the preservation of life. That's why we are here," he said. "And our second priority is the preservation of property."
FRANK LEWIS can be reached at (740) 353-3101, ext. 232.