Moments after the alarm sounded in the station house, four firefighters hopped onto an engine, switched on the lights and screeching siren and hurtled onto the streets of Southeast Washington.
The firefighters did not unravel hoses or rush into a burning building when they reached their destination. They walked calmly to the front door of an apartment and found the person needing help: a woman complaining of an infected bug bite on her leg.
District firefighters James Pegues, left, and John McBride respond to a call for medical assistance in Southeast Washington.
(Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
It was a typical shift these days for the crew of Engine 25 in the city's Congress Heights area. Over the course of 24 hours, they responded to calls about stomach aches and other maladies, a car wreck and a shooting. But not a single blaze. The last challenging fire the crew could recall -- after a brain-searching silence -- occurred more than 18 months ago.
Thanks to better building codes and education efforts, the number of fires across the country has plummeted in the past two decades. At the same time, the number of medical calls has risen sharply, a reflection of an aging population. And in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, there is a heightened emphasis, especially in Washington, on dealing with biological and chemical hazards.
The changing demands have altered the job and culture of firefighting, a profession steeped in centuries of tradition and extolled in books and films that chronicle heroic rescues from burning buildings. Because fire stations are located throughout communities and ambulances are often overtaxed, firefighters are increasingly tapped for medical duties. In more serious cases, they are called upon to stabilize patients until ambulances arrive.
Some even wonder if firefighters should be called firefighters anymore.
"When I was a rookie, I responded to four or five fires a day, and we were dog-tired when we went home," said Adrian H. Thompson, chief of the District's Department of Fire and Emergency Medical Services and a 34-year department member. "Now, we get one or two good fires a month. . . . Fire is a very small part of what we do now."
Despite the downward trend, the area is hardly immune to serious blazes. The District has recorded 12 fatal fires this year. Ten people have died in fires in Prince George's County, including an elderly Landover man last week. A serial arsonist is believed to have set 43 blazes, one fatal, during the past two years in the Washington region. And a massive blaze destroyed the historic, red-brick Prince George's County courthouse this month.
Still, fire calls have become much less frequent, and experts credited a range of technological advances and education campaigns for the drop. They pointed to better sprinkler systems, building codes and housing materials; safer cars; the proliferation of cell phones; and public education efforts that encourage people to act safely and to call 911 at any hint of trouble.
Nationally, the number of fires has dropped from nearly 3 million in 1980 to about 1.6 million in 2003, according to estimates by the National Fire Protection Association. The number of medical runs jumped from about 5 million in 1980 to nearly 13 million in 2002, the last year statistics were available, according to the association.
In the District, statistics show the number of fire runs dropped about 26 percent from 1995 through 2003. Medical runs increased about 8 percent during that period and accounted for nearly 80 percent of the department's calls.
Although medical runs can mean the difference between life and death in cases of heart attacks and other sudden problems, officials are concerned that too many calls involve relatively minor afflictions. To curb that, the District recently sent fliers to residents urging them not to call 911 for trips to the doctor's office or for treatment of sprained ankles or scraped knees.
For many firefighters, the evolution into a multifaceted emergency response department has been slow, even agonizing. With fathers and grandfathers who have worked in the service, many grew up hearing stories of large warehouse blazes and daring rescues.
Though still taking pride in their position on the front lines, some veterans are worried that firefighting skills will diminish with less opportunity to use them.