A call for a dumpster fire blares to Savannah Fire & Emergency Services Station 3 as I’m arriving at headquarters to eat dinner with Fire Chief Charles G. Middleton and the “The Mighty B-Shift” personnel of Engine 3 & Rescue 1.
Twenty six seconds later the engine starts. At 49 seconds the siren sounds as Engine 3 leaves the station.
Well... definitely “wow,” but also definitely “damn.” I’m really hungry and the guys I’m having dinner with have just left the building.
I’ve always been a hero worshipper. As a 10 year old in 1972, my heroes were from the TV show EMERGENCY!, starring John Gage, Roy DeSoto and the personnel of Fire Station 51 and Rampart General Hospital.
I still remember the theme music. We kids from the neighborhood built forts and rescued the victims trapped inside. We started and extinguished many fires. I had toy fire trucks and a bright red firefighter’s helmet.
After recently watching “Season 1: Episode 4: Cook’s Tour,” I believe EMERGENCY! is how the legend of great firehouse cooks got entrenched in my brain. I remember the episode as I watch John Gage rib his partner Roy De Soto about his cooking. Roy promises confidently “The best tasting dinner you’ve ever had.” They purchase $9.03 worth of food at the grocery store...to make Beef Bourgignon for six! Roy delivers on his promise: And I make Beef Bourginone for dinner.
I speak via phone with Randolph Mantooth, who played Fireman John Gage on EMERGENCY! He’ll be in Savannah on Aug. 28th as the keynote speaker at the Georgia EMS Conference. I ask him about “Cook’s Tour.” I’m hoping to get the Beef Bourgignon recipe.
Turns out that it was prop food: as Mantooth says, “Never put food in front of an actor. He’ll eat it.” He does share a firehouse food anecdote: Occasionally, even now, when invited, Mantooth does buy into meals at L.A. County firestations.
Mantooth will be speaking on the history of EMS services at the convention. A “firm believer that you can’t go forward unless you know where you’ve been,” Mantooth has been speaking and working as an EMS ambassador for almost 20 years. For information and just plain fun catching up with a childhood hero visit Mantooth’s website: www.RandolphMantooth.com
How do firefighters justify running into burning buildings to save someone while everyone else is running out?
Here’s Chief Middleton on the psyche of the firefighter: “As it pertains to doing their jobs, firefighters are by their nature two things: they’re aggressive and they’re arrogant. If you find a firefighter that’s not aggressive and arrogant, then they’re probably not a good firefighter.”
Chief Middleton is strong with joy, confidence and pride in who he is and in Savannah Fire and Emergency Services.
Here’s how he put it: “The Fire Service is unique. I don’t believe there is a job that has the sense of reward that you get doing this job. I can say that having been doing it for 33 years. In terms of overall operation, of how we handle our business out in the street, Savannah stands up with anybody.”
In Savannah, firefighters work 24 consecutive hours on duty, followed by 48 hours off. On work days they eat together as a crew for lunch and dinner.
For the Mighty B Shift, everyone who wants to be a part of the family meal contributes their share of the total expense: for two meals, lunch and dinner, usually $5 to a maximum of $8 or so each depending on what everyone agrees to. That’s right — firefighters pay for their own meals! I assumed we taxpayers picked up that tab.
Our chef for the evening is Master Firefighter Jonathan (J.T.) Thomas. And he couldn’t have picked a better meal: Meatloaf, mashed potatoes, green beans and garlic bread. J.T.s meatloaf is spot-on with the flavor, and the texture. But J.T. won’t reveal his secret recipe. All I can get from him is, “secret seasoning and stuff. I can’t get into all that.”
He won’t reveal the mashed potatoes recipe either. And they’re instant potatoes!
According to Chief Middleton, in the fire service “the place you’re assigned, the people you work with become your family. There’s nothing more sacred in the fire service than the kitchen table. That’s where it all comes together.”
The chief, our photographer for the evening, Steffanie Halley, and I have the honor of joining for dinner Battalion Chief Dennis L. Cook; from Engine 3 B shift, Captain Tony “Big Un” Johnson, Firefighter Howard Tillman and Firefighter Christopher Vance; and from Rescue 1 B-Shift, Captain Kelly A. McDaniel and Master Firefighter Jonathan Thomas.
It’s a jovial, unique, entertaining evening. But as we dine it’s always in my mind that these firefighters sitting around eating meatloaf and chatting with me, had just moments before been battling a fire that Captain Johnson had said, “turned out to be a construction dumpster. When we got there you could see the flames as we were coming down the street.”
I ask about nutrition in firefighter meals. Chief Middleton responds:
“We take an educational approach to it. One of the things we’ve done that I’m very proud of here in Savannah is we have six people that we call peer fitness trainers that have actually gone out to take courses in nutrition. They put out articles on nutrition. The only requirement that I have is that they pass their annual physical and that they participate in our fitness program.”
And they do. I see Savannah firefighters at the Downtown Athletic Club regularly. They’re strong and they’re fit, and they like to eat well.
While they’ll give everybody a shot at cooking, don’t screw it up. The crew tells a recent story of a firehouse cook who made honey mustard chicken and breadsticks and screwed it up. They went out for Popeye’s and now they don’t let him cook anymore.
When I ask, “Who is the best cook?” Captain Johnson offers this:
“When I first came on and I made my first meal, the other cook got fired.” He even remembered what he made: “Fried chicken, collard greens, stewed squash and corn bread. There was seven of us and I made a big thing of banana pudding.”
Not to be outdone, J.T. remembers grilling steaks with his “own little secret steak marinade” that were so good that he got tipped by his captain. There’s chest thumping talk of a firestation cook-off between the two. I’d like to get an invitation to that.
It’s all in good fun of course, but there’s that underlying aggressiveness and arrogance that Chief Middleton mentioned. These two want to be, and believe they are, the best.
By the time I’m through with one plate, Firefighter Driggers has downed three. Or is it four? And everybody else is long through eating. All too soon the night is over.
As the crew and I exchange parting words a call comes in over the loud speaker system. There’s a “fully involved” fire. In 49 seconds, siren screaming, Engine 3 is completely out the firestation door.
Keysha Wilson, Chief Middleton’s senior assistant, who helped me immensely with this article, gave me a gift bag when I arrived at the station. Amongst the gifts inside are a Savannah Fire Department hat and T-shirt. When I get home I put them on and plop down into my couch.
Thanks to J.T. my belly is full. I’m happy and content and that night as a 46-year-old kid, I sleep in my Savannah Fire and Rescue T-shirt.