Among the intercom’s garbled words that echoed through the Central Fire Station on a Wednesday morning, paramedics Paul Nelson and Ben Shelby didn’t hear what they were listening for: “ambulance 91.”
Still, their captain told them to handle the call. Nelson and Shelby are used to it; ambulance 91 is one of the Janesville Fire Department’s most-used ambulances.
They hopped in and peeled out, sirens blazing. A fire truck followed closely behind.
The two men had started their 24-hour shift at 7 a.m. It was just past 10. This was already their fourth call.
The ambulance made it to Fresenius Kidney Care within seconds. Inside, they helped a patient before loading her onto the ambulance and taking her to SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital-Janesville.
It was a tame call, but the excitement was palpable. For Nelson and Shelby, though, it was just another part of the job—one of the thousands of calls the Janesville Fire Department responds to each year.
A day in the life
Part of the appeal of being a firefighter and paramedic is that you never know what your day will bring, Nelson said.
Both Nelson and Shelby are also firefighters, so they rotate between operating the ambulance and the fire engine. That keeps things exciting.
One day they might be responding to a structure fire, and later in the week they could be helping victims of a car crash. Calls can vary wildly even within the same shift.
“It’s never the same,” Shelby said. “You never know what’s going to happen.”
Within a few hours on Wednesday, Aug. 16, Nelson and Shelby responded to a chest pain call at a kidney care facility, took a withdrawing alcoholic seeking help from one hospital to another, and responded to a diabetic in her apartment.
On their way to the hospital during one of their calls, they passed a car fire on the Interstate. It could have just as easily been their emergency to handle.
When not on call, life at the station isn’t necessarily easy.
“Lots of people think we play cards and sleep all day, and that’s not the case,” Nelson said.
Every call paramedics respond to must be logged. A paramedic might spend eight hours responding to calls and five hours in between reporting on them, he said.
The department has a new reporting system that makes the process a bit faster. Ambulances also are equipped with tablets so paramedics can punch in quick data such as a patient’s vital signs or what medication they were given to jumpstart the reporting process, which helps, Nelson said.
“When you spend five hours writing reports, the little stuff adds up,” he said.
Back at the station, Nelson and Shelby had just started filling out backlogged reports from earlier calls when the intercom interrupted them. They heard “ambulance 91,” and without a word, they were off.
Janesville has five fire stations but only four staffed ambulances. Because Fire Station No. 3 on Janesville’s west side doesn’t have one, ambulance 91 at the Central Fire Station handles many of its calls, which is why the ambulance is used more than others.
“We have five response areas, but we only have four ambulances, so we have a couple ambulances that are running hard trying to cover the west side of town. Those couple ambulances are taking a beating, 91 one of them,” Fire Chief Randy Banker said at a recent Janesville City Council meeting.
Despite its high use, ambulance 91 is the department’s most outdated.
It’s the only ambulance without a power-assisted system that helps lift heavier patients. It’s been about two years since other ambulances got such systems while ambulance 91 has been without, Nelson said.
The council recently approved buying two new ambulances to replace old ones, including 91. Banker said he negotiated with another fire department to buy their ambulances together in bulk to save a bit on cost.
If the department wanted to operate a fifth ambulance, it would need six employees—two working three different shifts—which doesn’t come cheap.
But staffing at the Janesville Fire Department hasn’t changed much since the 1980s. On top of that, the number of calls the department responds to each year has been growing.
In 2011, it was 7,300 calls. In 2014 and 2015, it was 9,200 and 9,500 respectively. Last year, the department had its highest number of calls ever just shy of 10,000.
And this year, the department is on pace to break that record.
Ambulance 91 responds to an average of 9 or 10 calls a day, Nelson estimated. Some days it might go to four calls, and another it might go to 15, he said.
“There are days you feel it more, where you ran more calls and you’re more tired,” Shelby said.
Paramedics clock in at 7 a.m. and clock out 24 hours later.
“Anytime in between there, whatever happens, that’s what I get paid to do,” he said. “We show up and do the job.”
At 11:45 a.m., Nelson and Shelby took a break for lunch. Employees shop and pay for their groceries and rotate who cooks for the station.
The employees eat together when they can. Nelson and Shelby hadn’t even finished their lunch when “ambulance 91” blared through the station’s intercom. The pair slid down the fire station pole and drove to yet another call.
Nelson and Shelby work together each shift, and they get along well.
“You get to work with somebody so long, you kind of know their idiosyncrasies and you kind of can read their thoughts before they do,” Shelby said. “It’s kind of nice when you get to work with (the same) people regularly.”
They also joke with each other. On the way back to base after one call, they playfully argued over what genre of music they would listen to for the day. Shelby blasted Spice Girls’ “Wannabe” and sang along, ending the dispute.
Being a paramedic/firefighter can be stressful. Nelson said the suicide rates for emergency services employees is “astronomical.”
“That’s why Ben and I, we like to joke around, we like to have a lot of fun. That kind of relieves the tension on some of the more serious calls you go on,” he said.
“There’s days where we like to joke enough you might think we don’t get along, but it’s just our sense of humor sometimes.”
Nelson and Shelby share that attitude with their patients. Nelson speaks softly and uses patients’ names. Shelby calls his female patients “dear.” They both crack jokes to keep patients comfortable.
On one call, “master chef Ben” Shelby made a diabetic patient a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It’s all part of the care they provide.
While Nelson and Shelby get along well, the same isn’t true for every department employee. With more than 90 employees, sometimes there can be tension at the station, but when it comes time to respond to calls, those grievances vanish, Nelson said.
“There are zero grudges when it comes to that,” Nelson said.
“Everyone is there for the same reason,” Shelby agreed.
Around 1 p.m., Nelson and Shelby made it back to the station. They were finishing up backlogged reports when a higher-up told them they had to go to training. An endless barrage of calls had caused Nelson and Shelby to miss their morning training.
Nelson and Shelby had another 18 hours left in their shift. Things hadn’t really slowed down.
“It’s always fluid. It’s always changing. It’s always different,” Shelby said.
“Everything is very dynamic in this job, and that’s what makes it exciting,” Nelson said. “That’s what makes it fun.”