When a big red truck pulls close behind you, light bars flashing and siren screaming, what’s your first thought?

“Fire!” says Jeff Wallin, the Moorhead Fire Department’s interim chief. “It’s right there in the title, so it’s pretty obvious.”

But fire suppression is only one part – and not the largest – of the services that Moorhead’s full-time force of 33 firefighters handles every day. More than two-thirds of calls to 9-1-1 are for medical conditions and injuries, he says – and the round-the-clock crews at two city fire stations stand ready to pile into the department’s emergency trucks and head to the scene.

When a caller reports a medical emergency, one of Moorhead’s big red rescue trucks is going to arrive on the scene, along with F-M Ambulance and a city police cruiser. It’s protocol: Firefighters roll out for all serious medical emergencies within the city.

Jeff, who joined the department in 1994, concedes that the public may still not be fully aware of the rescue role firefighters are equipped to play, even though their medical mission dates back to the early 1980s. Along with their professional counterparts in Fargo and most other cities, the Moorhead corps is fully certified as emergency medical technicians. Jeff heads the ongoing training program that keeps their skills up-to-date and maintains their biennial licensing.

There’s plenty to keep up with, not only on the fire side – where new technologies and materials continually mean managing new risks – but also in medical care. “It’s moving faster all the time,” he concedes. “What I learned in my first training classes in the 1980s still was pretty much the rule ten years later. That’s not true today. Everything’s changing, and fast.”

Consider perhaps the most basic emergency medical technique, CPR. The method most adults were taught only a few years ago, chest compressions alternating with mouth-to-mouth breathing, is no longer considered optimum. Instead, the American Heart Association now recommends hands-only CPR, a series of rapid, hard pushes in the center of the victim’s chest. The best rhythm? About 100 beats per minute – the same tempo as the disco-era rock hit “Stayin’ Alive.”

“First, deploy someone to call 9-1-1, then begin pushing. Push hard. Push fast,” he explains. “It seems counter-intuitive, but research has found the blood retains enough oxygen to support life for six to eight minutes – long enough for medical help to arrive.” He adds, “We remind people not to worry too much if they don’t have training or don’t remember. We find any type of CPR on a person in cardiac arrest is far and away better than doing nothing.”

The assistant chief, who’s filling in for Chief Rich Duysen while he’s deployed with the Air Force in the Mideast, credits – of all things – the interstate highway system for broadening firefighters’ role in medical rescues. “The interstates brought much higher highway speeds and, as a result, more and more severe accidents, both out on the road and in cities,” he explains. “The Department of Transportation commissioned a study of ways to deal with those medical emergencies. They focused on the ‘golden hour,’ realizing that if help can get to the scene within an hour, the chances of survival are much higher.” Fire departments, with their 24-hour staffing and technical capabilities, were the logical experts to whom health and safety advocates turned.

When he was growing up in the 1970s, Jeff was glued to “Emergency,” the TV drama that chronicled what was then a pilot cross-training program in the Los Angeles Fire Department. By the time he graduated from Forest Lake, Minn., High School in 1987 and joined the local volunteer fire and ambulance crews, it was widely accepted as a natural fit with the mission of fire departments all over the country.

“Emergency medical service is a good fit with our culture,” Jeff observes. “You need a good number of people to be available and ready to respond to fire calls, but for much of your time at work, you’re just waiting. We probably respond to six medical calls for every one fire. It adds a lot of value for the taxpayers and the city.”

Nor do fire calls and medical rescues fill all the firefighters’ days. Fire prevention education is an ongoing mission. The fire marshal and his assistant speak to countless school classes and community groups. They inspect commercial sites and day cares for hazards every year, and work with other firefighters in covering rental properties and high-incidence areas like mobile home parks.

As new building materials and techniques come into play, firefighters face a growing number of unknowns in both their flame suppression and rescue duties. Changes in automobile design and features have complicated the already-challenging task of removing crash victims from their vehicles. “Air bags can be problematic,” Jeff points out, “when we’re trying to use the jaws to cut through cars. The hydrogen technology that’s coming in carries other challenges.” Smoldering plastics and other materials can present both technical issues for fire suppression and risks to the firefighters themselves, forcing them to use breathing apparatuses even when the flames have been beaten back.

Hazardous materials traveling the highways and rails, too, have upped the ante for rescuers. Since 1995, Moorhead has participated in what began as a joint hazardous materials team that covers 13 counties in northwestern Minnesota. Now a stand-alone program, the local hazmat specialists have faced unknown emergencies all over the area – most recently, a tanker leaking potentially lethal liquid at the I-94 weigh station near Moorhead. The truck was carrying highly corrosive liquids from the oil fields of western North Dakota. “Fortunately, the wind blew the vapors away from the city, and they were able to seal the leak,” Jeff notes.

Administrative and training commitments today occupy much of Jeff’s time. His heart, though, is still withthe trucks when they roll out on a fire or emergency call. “The hardest part of my promotion to the desk (in 2005) is not going out to help people on the street,” he says, reflecting on what draws every firefighter to the field. “I don’t get to respond to calls like I used to. When all is said and done, that’s still the best part of the fire service.”

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