SCHENECTADY — The loudspeaker squawked. Within moments, city Fire Department personnel suited up. An engine and rescue rig left department headquarters in tandem and rocketed up State Street, sirens blazing.
The call was called off near Wilson Avenue: A routine boiler issue.
“We just got cancelled,” said firefighter-paramedic Jon Wayand.
Within minutes, the vehicles were back at Fire Station No. 1 on Veeder Avenue.
It happens often, said Wayand, “which is a good thing.”
The rapid stop-start burst was part of just another day at the city Fire Department: For every call that dominates the headlines, several more fizzle out.
But all require the same amount of training and readiness.
Wayand and John Falotico were among the nearly two-dozen firefighter-paramedics on patrol last Tuesday.
Personnel work 24-hour shifts: One day on followed by three days off, a 48-hour work week.
Schenectady Fire Department (SFD) is unique in that it serves as the city's primary ALS, or advanced life support, provider.
SFD has 115 firefighters when fully-staffed. Of those, 111 are certified paramedics.
And of the 20,000 calls that come in annually, 70 to 75 percent are medical-related.
“We are the primary paramedic service in Schenectady,” said Assistant Fire Chief Don Mareno.
Rescue Rig No. 1, one of two citywide, is packed with paramedic supplies. While it does not transport patients — a task instead handled by Mohawk Ambulance Service and other supporting agencies — it does see a lot of mileage (and accompanies Mohawk to the hospital on more serious cases).
Responding to an average of 18-19 calls daily, it’s among the busiest in the state, and one of the top 10 in non-transporting rigs in the U.S.
The mid-day sun broiled was and the temperature was scheduled to reach 92 degrees later that afternoon.
At Schenectady Inner City Ministry Food Pantry on Albany Street, Wayand and Falotico listened as a volunteer described how a woman fell on the ground and laid there before getting up and walking away.
“She didn’t look so good,” said the staffer.
The pair fanned out through the neighborhood, knocking on doors: calling out, inquiring. A man wandered over with a pit bull and pointed at where she lived, and the pair eventually located the woman lying on a couch behind a building.
They asked a series of questions:
What year is it? Who’s the president? How old are you?
The pair quickly evaluated her, took her blood pressure and cycled through questions about her medical history, asking about medications and allergies before asking if she wanted to be transported to Ellis Hospital.
She did, and was whisked away by two paramedics from Mohawk.
Following a rash of destructive thunderstorms, the past several days had been hectic even by the department’s busy standards: SPD responded to 48 calls the night before, with similar numbers on Sunday.
Wayand paused for a moment in the station’s kitchen.
“Usually we don’t get much downtime,” he said.
Firefighter-paramedics continually cycle through training modules. At any given time, classrooms buzz with continuing education sessions: In order to maintain their Class A Interior Firefighter Status, firefighters are required to complete 100 hours of annual training, while paramedics require 24 hours of annual training and must renew their certification every three years.
“They are highly trained,” Mareno said. “They’re constantly honing their skills.”
There is special training available for any interest and skill set, such as the Special Hazards Team.
Oftentimes, that knowledge trickles through the department as specialists teach rank-and-file members, so even if they are awaiting a shot at formal accreditation, members can still obtain those skills.
In addition, all deputy chiefs are either arson investigators or are in the process of being trained, Mareno said.
Roughly 82 percent of incendiary fires investigated by the department’s arson division ended with an arrest, he said, with a 100 percent conviction rate.
With Falotico behind the wheel, the pair pulled into the Burger King on Erie Boulevard, where a man had collapsed at the counter.
A Mohawk crew assisted in wheeling him outside and into their ambulance. This time, Falotico hopped in and Wayand followed close behind:
What year is it? Who’s the president? How old are you? How many quarters in a dollar?
The man was nodding off — a sign of possible opioid influence — but the first responders engaged in a gentle round of non-accusatory questioning, seeking to understand his health condition while also potentially winnowing in on a culprit.
He admitted to taking tramadol, an opioid-based painkiller.
“Tired?” Falotico asked.
“I’ve been working non-stop the past couple days,” the man said.
“We’re going to get you feeling better, OK?” Falotico said.
The patient was given oxygen and intubated and wheeled behind closed doors at Ellis Hospital.
The doors back swung open and two Mohawk paramedics emerged, scrubbing down their stretcher following the Albany Street transport.
Working as a paramedic and EMT is a fulfilling job, they said. And rewarding. But it can be tough and particularly difficult when trying to comfort survivors.
And there are the physical risks. One paramedic displayed a faded bite-mark on her arm, a wound she incurred after administering the anti-overdose antidote Narcan to a patient in withdrawal.
She advised a reporter not to mention the dreaded “Q-word.” Doing so, she said, would inevitably lead to disorder and chaos, a kiss of death in the world of first responders.
Wayand and John Falotico emerged and responded to a call on Manhattan Street, where someone phoned in a possible fire at a construction site.
“Just take them one at a time,” Wayand said. “That’s all you can do.”
Every shift carries the unexpected, but some can be even more unpredictable — quixotic, even.
While waiting at a light, a man motioned for Wayand to roll down the window.
“Do you want some mustard?” he asked. “Beer mustard. I can drop it off at the station.”
He did, and they later found it deposited in the kitchen's fridge.
Incoming calls are steadily increasing annually, from 5,500 in 1991 to 20,000 in 2018.
Mareno said he didn’t have data which would definitely highlight a reason. But several trends could be responsible, he said, from an uptick in uninsured residents calling 911 for what should be calls to a primary care physician to an aging community.
Development is also surging, Mareno said, with new apartments, offices, construction projects and Rivers Casino & Resort all taking shape as part of the city’s economic revitalization.
“I’ve never seen such a fast-moving pace of development,” Mareno said. “There are more people, more changes and more stuff happening. So I think all those things add to more calls.”
During the same time period, however, SFD staff has been reduced from 153 to 115.
More manning is always welcome, Mareno said.
But while some municipal fire departments are at loggerheads with their unions and City Hall, Mareno said that adversarial relationship doesn’t exist here, which he admitted was rare.
“These guys and girls always get the job done,” Mareno said. “The members respond by being the best they can be. They’re highly trained professionals, and I’m happy to be around them.”
For Wayand, the latest in multiple family generations of firefighters, nothing feels more natural.
“It’s a new adventure every day,” he said.