When Mint Hill firefighters arrived at the crash site, the SUV was on its roof, its male driver injured inside. An infant, dispatchers said, was thrown from the vehicle when it hit a brick mailbox on Lawyers Road.
But the baby was nowhere to be found.
While some firefighters tended to the driver, others with the department used thermal imaging cameras and flashlights to look for the missing child. They combed both sides of the street, shining light into residents’ yards, ditches and even trees.
After about 15 minutes – a long 15 minutes – word came from Mint Hill police that the infant wasn’t in the vehicle after all. The child was safe at home.
Just another example of the reality of each emergency call: first responders never know what they’re getting into.
“We went from (the driver) telling us that the baby was with him, to we don’t see the baby and we know we’re going to have to do a search,” Fire Chief John Phillips said. “In a car accident, things go in a lot of different directions, you just don’t know. The cost is too high for us to make assumptions.”
For members of the Mint Hill Volunteer Fire Department, calls have been coming more often with each passing year. The department, which includes 23 paid town employees, logged more than 3,300 calls in 2012 – an 11 percent increase over 2011. That’s 535 more calls than Matthews Fire & EMS responded to in 2012, according to town records.
To keep up with demand, the Town of Mint Hill has hired more firefighters in recent years and revenue from the county’s new fire tax service is paying for three new hires. The agency is the only fire department in the county to provide ambulance transport to area hospitals, Phillips said. Other departments rely on Mecklenburg County’s MEDIC service to transport patients.
To get an idea of what it’s like to work at a department that’s being kept so busy, Matthews-Mint Hill Weekly tagged along for part of a 24-hour shift on Friday, Feb. 22.
“C Shift” was on duty under the leadership of Capt. Steve Jackson and within 15 minutes of the 7 a.m. start time the department already had fielded two 9-1-1 calls: a senior having a seizure and a resident complaining of abdominal pain.
With two ambulances en route to the hospital, the rest of the crew returned to the station. After the trucks were washed, it was time to start the day’s list of duties.
First on the list – every day – is checking all equipment on each rescue vehicle and restocking supplies, Jackson said. Before his shift starts, Jackson meets with the previous shift’s supervisor to review recent calls and get any announcements he needs to pass on to his colleagues. That shift, led by Phillips, had 13 calls in 24 hours. Each shift has seven paid employees and volunteers are always around.
“I want to come through the door and check things off before we go,” Jackson said as fellow paid firefighters checked equipment. “You never know what you’re going to need, so you have to stock it all. It’s just the nature of the beast. There’s a chance you could use everything.”
Or be called at any time. After volunteers and staff returned from the hospital, a 9 a.m. breakfast trip to Jimmie’s Restaurant was cut short for EMTs by an emergency medical call: a student at Rocky River High School was having chest pains.
Their food, which hadn’t yet arrived, was boxed up and Jackson paid the bill.
“They’ll get me next time,” he said.
C Shift didn’t have time to settle in at the station before receiving their next call at 10:20 a.m. Mint Hill Police were requesting medical help during a welfare check off Cabarrus Road.
Back at the station by 11 a.m., Jackson assembled paid staff for a classroom training session on water pumps.
By 1 p.m. it was workout time in the weight room upstairs. After a break for lunch and some cleaning around the station, the next call arrived at about 4 p.m. from Carolinas Medical Center’s Urgent Care on Blair Road where an elderly man was having trouble breathing. Paramedics suspected pneumonia and he was soon hospital-bound.
At about 4:30 p.m., firefighters got two medical calls within minutes of each other – one off Brief Road and the other across town off Margaret Wallace Road. One rescue vehicle headed to the Brief Road call was forced to turn around when the second call came in.
Because patients had to be transported to hospitals in uptown Charlotte, it was nearly 7 p.m. before everyone from the shift had returned. Jackson was in charge of dinner that night, but it was a team effort to prepare the London broil, peas, corn on the cob and garlic bread.
At about 8:45 p.m. firefighters were called to the Lawyers Road crash where they worked until about 10:30 p.m. When they returned to the station, the trucks were cleaned – again. C Shift had seven total calls that day.
Like most shifts, there was little downtime on Feb. 22. It’s a trend, Phillips said, that is a far cry from the “laid back” Mint Hill fire station he knew when he joined 38 years ago as a junior firefighter at age 16.
“The first year we answered 100 calls in a year, we thought ‘Wow, we’re really busy.’ We’re answering over 300 calls a month now,” Phillips said. “Now we stay busy at (the department). You can sit at home and watch TV. If you’re at the fire department, there’s always something to do.”
Can rescuers see your house?
One of the biggest problems first responders face when trying to locate a house is the lack of visible house numbers, Chief John Phillips said.
The Mint Hill Volunteer Fire Department sells reflective blue address markers for $15. Proceeds benefit the department’s Fireman’s Fund, which is used to help members who are sick or injured or buy drinks and snacks during fire scenes.
To order an address marker, call 704-545-4866 or drop by the station at 8313 Fairview Road and fill out an order form. Markers are generally ready within 24 hours.