Janesville chief sees the potential for a future without fires
JANESVILLE Janesville Fire Chief Jim Jensen said technology has put a future without fires within reach.
So, when people say they want to be firefighters, he tells them to think twice.
In a recent interview, Jensen answered a wide range of questions—from the future of firefighting to firehouse food.
Q: What are your thoughts on the future of firefighting?
A: “We have the technology in this country to eliminate fires. If we would spend a little bit more on prevention, we wouldn’t need near what we have (in fire department services.)
“As a society, we choose to spend billions on fire suppression, on all these big trucks,” Jensen said.
“We are reactive as a country. Every fire code and piece of legislation has been because of a tragedy. We don’t like to be regulated. We wait until a disaster happens and then come out with a new law or regulation that changes what we do.” For example, the installation of residential fire sprinklers is controversial.
Some builders are lobbying against the requirements because of the added cost.
In Florida, though, a city manger recently required residential sprinklers in homes in a remote subdivision because he did not want to be forced to build another fire station.
Residential fire sprinklers cost $1.50 to $1.60 per square foot in new construction, Jensen said. The sprinklers are small and can be recessed into ceilings or walls.
Sprinklers control a fire until firefighters arrive and “mop up”, Jensen said.
Q: Wouldn’t firefighters miss a future with no fires?
A: “I think most firefighters enjoy going to fires,” he said. “There are things that aren’t fun about it. Usually, if you spend all night at a fire, somewhere you’re going to be asking yourself, ‘Why am I doing this? But you rest up and are ready to do it again.’ ”
Firefighters enjoy the physical demands of the job and the camaraderie.
“Regardless of what it is, you are helping people, and all of us like that.
“When you get the chance to help somebody—it doesn’t matter if they’re sick or what it is—they’re calling you because they’re having a bad day,” he said.
Q: How has firefighting changed through the years?
A: Firefighting has become much more technical and oriented to medical services, Jensen said.
“We are really an emergency medical services department,” Jensen said. “We still do an occasional fire or a fire-type event, but it’s really EMS. You have to be really into EMS nowadays because that’s so much of what we do.”
Significant fires and the number of deaths by fire are down.
“I tell people who are thinking about joining the fire department because they just want to fight fires, ‘This isn’t the place for you,’ ” he said.
Today, many fires are knocked down before they get out of control. Firefighters get to fires more quickly because of smoke detectors, and sprinkler system technology has improved.
“When we have the big one where the place burns down, that makes news,” Jensen said.
“Better education and smoke alarms have really made a big difference.”
Janesville’s last fire fatality was in May 2008.
Q: Why does an ambulance go on every engine call, and vice versa?
A: Ambulances carry two paramedics, so it’s good to have extra personnel from an engine on hand if advanced care or heavy lifting is needed, he said.
“We try to send them out with everything they need to handle every emergency,” Jensen said.
If a fire call comes in while the engine is on the scene of a medical call, the engine can leave from the site rather than returning to the station and wasting minutes.
Q: Are firefighters crosstrained?
A: All firefighters are cross-trained as EMTs. Most are also paramedics, which is a great benefit for the public, Jensen said. Firefighters sometimes also are trained as dive team members, hazardous materials team members and child seat safety technicians. Those who are cross-trained get a half-percent increase in pay.
Q: What is a child seat safety technician?
A: Jensen has been amazed at the popularity of technicians teaching parents to properly install car safety seats. Low-cost seats also are available.
The stations hold half-day events every month. Residents also can call and make appointments .
“We have people calling all the time who need a car seat installed,” Jensen said. “I wish we had more installers.”
Q: What do firefighters do when they are not fighting fires or answering medical calls?
A: Jensen is a strong advocate of fire prevention and stresses fire inspections and code enforcement. He believes that’s a major reason for the decrease in major fires and fire deaths.
“We are in those buildings looking for problems, and we’re also out educating the public,” Jensen said.
When not on calls, firefighters train and maintain the stations and vehicles. City technical service personnel make repairs, as well.
Firefighters have free time beginning after 4:30 p.m., and they eat supper together.
“The meals together is pretty important to most of the shifts,” Jensen said.
Later, firefighters might watch TV or work on a project.
Sometimes, families visit or come over for a holiday meal.
“They get interrupted a lot, but they do things like that,” he said.
Q: Who pays for the food?
A: Firefighters pay. They figure out who’s working each meal and divide the grocery bill.
The stations have some pretty good cooks, but time is shorter these days. Sometimes, firefighters only have time for soup and sandwiches, Jensen said.
Q: Do firefighters ever get a good night’s sleep?
A: An uninterrupted night’s sleep is rare these days, Jensen said. The number of calls drops during the night but not enough to cut staffing. Of the 5,300 medical calls this year, about 20 percent were between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m., he said.
“When I started in 1988, it was fairly common to have a night with no tones,” Jensen said. “Now if it happens, it’s a big deal. Everybody hears about it. It’s very unusual.
“It’s not unusual for the paramedics, especially at this station (station No. 1) to be running all night.”
Many times, firefighters wait for the “11 o’clock call.” When it doesn’t come and the firefighters finally go to bed, “here comes the tone,” he said with a smile.
It can be difficult to get back to sleep with adrenaline pumping after a call.
Q: Janesville contracts to provide fire and ambulance services to surrounding townships. Which ones are those?
A: Janesville has contracts with the town of Janesville and portions of Harmony, LaPrairie and Rock. Jensen wonders how long the towns will be able to afford Janesville’s services.
“We have a tough time doing it cheaper because our expenses keep going up, too,” he said. “We’re trying to keep the costs down to the townships. It’s difficult for everybody, right now.”
One alternative for townships would be creating their own volunteer fire departments.
Q: Firefighters are known for forming close bonds. Is that still the case?
A: “People get pretty close when you spend 24 hours together at a time,” Jensen said. “You become family. And then, when you’re going out and seeing some of the things that we see out there … I think that adds to the interaction and the closeness.
“I think we have a pretty good system of dealing with our own and watching over our own people,” he said. “That’s not always all that we need, but in most cases, that’s pretty effective in dealing with the stress, which is a problem in this business. You see people dying every day.
“Everybody says kids are the worst … I remember calls that I had 20 years ago, and some of those things don’t ever leave.”