Amanda Leigh is a firefighter at Station 7, located in the heart of NoDa. She’s been a firefighter for six years and is the mother of a one-year-old son. She’s the only woman at her station. Department-wide there are under 40 female firefighters.
I visited Leigh, who prefers to go simply by her last name, at the postcard-worthy station to find out what it’s like not knowing if you’re heading into work to aid Charlotteans during minor medical concerns or serious car accidents and life-altering fires.
Here’s how she works.
(1) What does it take to become a firefighter?
First, you have to take a written test. When you pass that, you take the physical portion.
Then there’s a series of interviews, which include a background interview, an interview with the chief, and then you have a lie detector test. They want to know if you can be honest because we’re going into people’s homes, and we’re supposed to be trusted by the community that we serve.
Then you do a physical assessment where they test your heart, your vision, your hearing, and things of that nature to make sure you’re healthy enough to be able to do the job.
(2) How do you decide who drives the truck?
We have an actual position for that. It’s the engineer’s position, which is a promotion. You have firefighter 1, firefighter 2, and then you go to engineer. So it’s a written exam and then a practical scenario.
“All of our promotions past firefighter 2 are competitive processes,” Battalion Chief Matthew Westover, who sat with us while we chatted, chimed in.
If you’re the engineer you drive, obviously, but you’re the one controlling the pump panel and helping ladder the building. But they’re still expected to be able to perform like a firefighter. They still have to do all the training and keep up with their certifications.
(3) When you show up to a call, what information do you have before arriving?
Alarm will ask questions and screen calls. That’s what gets us our location and the nature of the call.
It’s not always correct, because it’s chaotic at times. But that helps us know kind of what we’re getting ourselves into, whether it’s assault or a stabbing or an unknown medical event or a fire.
It helps us get our mindset of “what are we going to do when we get off the truck? What am I going to grab?”
(4) What percentage of the time are you not even dealing with fire?
With the technology they come out with these days, the sprinkler systems, and the fire codes that they have to be up to date with, our job is mostly EMT.
I will say that fires burn faster today because of the synthetics our furniture is made of. So when it does catch, it’s pretty quick.
(5) What’s the most scared you’ve ever been on a call?
I’d say I’m most scared when guns are involved. We don’t have protection, and we don’t stand back and wait. Granted, the police are there.
But if there’s someone down, we’re not going to wait. We’re going to go in and pull them out or try to treat that patient as is, and if there’s gunfire going around you, it’s nerve-wracking.
(6) What’s your weekly schedule like?
When we’re on-duty, it’s 24 hours, so it’s 8 a.m. to 8 a.m. the next day.
The day usually consists of a morning station cleanup. We make sure we clean the station every day because this is our house. We live in it; we’ve got to make sure we take care of it.
The engineers make sure they check off the truck, make sure everything on the truck is ready to go for the day and is in working order.
We’re checking off our gear, making sure that’s ready to go, checking our air pack because that’s our main survival component when we’re going to fires.
We train for a few hours and then we normally eat lunch.
Then we try to have a little bit of downtime, just because it’s a 24-hour shift. So, you know, working out if that’s what you choose to do or read a book or something like that.
And then we like to have family time. So dinnertime, have a little bit of family time, and then we normally do lights out at 10 o’clock.
But, of course, in between all that scheduling, we’re out running calls.
(7) How many times are you typically going out?
It depends on what station you’re at. Here’s a middle-of-the-pack station, so we probably average 12 calls a day, I would say.
Today’s been slower. We’ve only been out two times today, but it varies.
You could not run anything all day but run all night.
A lot of people think, “Well, you only work ten days a month!” But that’s ten days you’re not getting sleep. It’s not like if you have to get up and use the bathroom and it takes a minute and you’re back asleep.
You get up, your adrenaline’s going, the call could take 30 minutes, by the time you get back and fall asleep you’ve been up for an hour, hour and 30 minutes.
You fall back for 30 minutes and then your next call comes in. It does take a toll over time, the lack of sleep that you get, which is why your schedule is the way it is.
(8) So how did you do that while pregnant?
Once they find out you’re pregnant, they take you off the truck and move you to a desk job, which is Monday through Friday.
When I came back I had to pass a physical test again to make sure I was ready to get back on the truck. Once I passed that I resumed my normal schedule. But now I’m extra tired these days!
(9) A lot of people get nervous about leaving a stove or a curling iron on. How many times do these things actually turn into fires? Are we right to drive home to double-check?
The leading cause of fire in the city of Charlotte right now is unattended cooking. I would say at least half of what comes through I could contribute to unattended cooking.
That’s, you know, middle of the night somebody decides they want to make something on the stove, they fall asleep.
Or they go outside for five minutes when really it’s been 45 minutes.
We had that last night. The guy was cooking and he wanted to go see his friend, but he locked the door. We had to break his door down.
“That’s one of the things we’re trying to push out as a fire department is, ‘Hey, when you turn the stove on, you have to be aware of what’s happening,'” Westover added.
(10) Do you have an especially heroic moment you’re proud of?
That’s a hard one. I had a good CPR save at a CrossFit gym. The guy was there just working out and went down.
Those make you feel good, the ones you save.
Unfortunately in our line of work, we don’t always know if we made a save, so that makes it hard.
You do your job, you ride to the hospital with medic for extra hands, and then you drop them off and you don’t know. Sometimes that’ll get to you. Sometimes you can check in if you know someone at the hospital and ask how it went.
For me it’s not necessarily heroic, it’s just that some calls have more adrenaline than others.
(11) When you’re home at night with your family, do you see the images from the day?
It depends on the day and it depends on what you see. There are some things that we see on the job, unfortunately, that stick with you.
You can’t get them out of your head because it was a bad call or because you’re worried it’s going to happen to your kid.
Especially kids. Those are the hardest.
(12) What’s it like working in such a male-dominated space?
I’ve been super lucky. I’ve worked with a group of guys that have been extremely comfortable with working with a female and have trusted me to do my job.
But also I think that goes both ways.
Whether it be male or female, if you’re good at your job and you train and they can tell you want to be there, it makes it easier to work with each other.
Because you both have the same goal in mind.
I’ve never felt singled out. I’ve been very lucky with the people that I’ve worked with.
(13) What do you eat to keep your energy up?
We pay $5 a meal and we do lunch and dinner, so it’s $10 for the day. We go to the grocery store and most houses take turns cooking. Today I cook lunch and someone tonight will cook dinner.
What we try to do is eat slim so we can save money and have a steak dinner or something.
Luckily we have people with different talents. Surprisingly, these guys can cook a good meal.
(14) It seems like some drivers see a firetruck and try to get out the way, but can end up making it worse. What should we actually be doing?
Pull to the right and stop or slow down.
These people cross over double yellow lines into oncoming traffic, man, let us do that! We have the big ole truck! I think people just panic, and they’re not sure what to do. It’s easier for our massive truck to go straight as opposed to having to stop and weave around you. That slows us down, which in turn slows us down to get to the call.
We’re trying to get to people as fast but as safe as possible. So it’s just easier to get as far right as you can.
Our drivers are taught to go left. We’re hoping by continually doing that there will be some consistency and people will catch on.
(15) How do you start the first hour of your day starting from when you wake up?
I typically jump out of bed, brush my teeth, throw on some clothes, and come straight here.
That way I can get as much sleep as possible because I do have a baby at home, plus I want to beat traffic. I typically get ready at work. That’s what most people do, come in their street clothes.
I don’t like to bring my work clothes home because we’re walking in people’s homes that have blood, secretions, terrible accidents, stuff’s getting on your clothes and boots. I don’t want to bring it home to my kid.
I like to leave it here.
(16) How long does it take you to get into your full gear?
We’re trained to try to get in in under a minute.
The expectation is for the firefighters on the back of the truck to be able to pull out of the station and make one turn and be ready to go to work.
Your driver’s going fast, going around corners, so if you’re standing up you’re going to get thrown to the other end of the truck. You want to get dressed as fast as possible.
(17) What’s the weirdest or worst place you’ve ever been caught when the alarm sounded?
The shower’s the worst!
Your underwear sticks to you and your sports bra. It’s terrible. It happens to everyone. You don’t like getting called in the shower.
(18) Is it hard to relax during downtime knowing that you may get called at any moment?
I think you get used to it. I don’t ever worry about that.
(19) In this series, I typically ask people about a situation that makes them nervous or intimidated and how they prepare. I feel like you might have a different answer than most. Does anything scare you?
I don’t think I get intimidated easily. And I’m not saying that to be cocky, but … I think this line of work is built for a specific person who’s made to do this.
I want to say this job helps with your emotions, but it also creates other emotions from things we see on a daily basis that other people never would have in the first place.
But I’m always nervous to go into a fire. Not because I’m scared to do my job. We’re well-trained, and we’ve got the best equipment out there. However, all fires are different. You never know what you’re getting yourself into. I have no idea the layout of the house, everything’s unfamiliar. I want to go home. I know the people beside me want to go home.
Part of me feels like if you’re not a little bit nervous, you’re not aware and you’ve lost that respect. People who say they aren’t nervous makes me nervous.
I definitely respect a fire.
(20) How long do you have from when you first walk into a house that’s on fire before that house falls?
It’s all dependent on what it’s made of. Typically five minutes, 10 minutes. It depends on what year it was built, what synthetics are inside. It could fall in as little as two minutes.
It depends on how the fire was started, how long it’s been burning before we got the call, and we never know that.
So when we get on scene we let alarm know.
They stay with us the whole time throughout the call and they let us know, “Hey, you’ve spent 10 minutes in this working fire” so that whoever’s in command is aware.
They can be like, “Are we close to getting the fire out? If we’re not, should we go defensive? It’s been 10 minutes, there’s potential that that thing’s coming down on the people inside.”
We have radios that we use to communicate. But it’s extremely hard to hear and understand because it’s muffled in your mask.
It’s very loud inside a fire. You can’t see.
So sometimes when people call you on the radio you don’t hear it or you don’t understand what they’re saying. Also sometimes people start talking really, really fast and their tone changes because they’ve got adrenaline going in a situation like that.
At this point in our interview, the alarm sounds and Leigh has to leave. It takes me a minute to notice anything is happening (you don’t instantly hear a jump-out-of-your-skin alarm like in the movies) but she’s so in tune with it that she hears it immediately. She stands up from her chair, meets her colleagues, who are sliding down the pole, and they peel out of the station and are gone for about 15 minutes. When she comes back, she tells me it was a medical call. Someone called 911, reporting seeing a man lying on the sidewalk. He ended up being okay, and we’re back and ready to chat again.
(21) How do you decompress after the situations you see all day?
Working out. It’s healthy, it gets you a good sweat. It makes me feel better as far as if I’m tired or lethargic.
(22) What’s a purchase of less than $100 that’s most improved your work or life?
I like nice things. Most of my purchases in life are above $100! (laughs). I’m not gonna lie. Everything in life is so expensive!
Love learning how people work? Here’s the whole How I Work series including interviews with Miss USA 2019 Cheslie Kryst, Governor Roy Cooper, developer David Furman, elevator lady Cherie Berry, Hornets player Cody Zeller, restauranteur Frank Scibelli, lawyer Michael A. DeMayo, and Charlotte Checkers COO Tera Black.