There is something daring and romantic about the idea.
Brave men and women sit around a table, perhaps drinking coffee, perhaps working on a new recipe to share. There is a television in some corner, but no one is really watching.
Something is about to happen. Something is always about to happen. That's why they are here.
Then the alarm rings. Everyone dashes for their boots and then the door. In the cliché there's a pole to slide down, a Dalmatian to put in the truck.
The lights come on and the garage door opens. The sirens blare. Here come the firemen to save the city from burning.
We all know the stories. The Great London fire of 1666 burned for five days, destroyed the central part of the city. In 1871, Mrs. O'Leary and her cow tipped over a lantern and burned down Chicago. Closer to home, 418 people died in the Great Hinckley Fire of 1894, while 453 died in the Cloquet fire of 1918.
There is the Fargo Fire, too. At 3 p.m. on June 7, 1893, a fire began when someone tossed ashes out the back of the Little Gem Restaurant on what is now Main Avenue. The fire department was out sprinkling the dusty streets. An alarm box was locked.
When it was all over, 31 blocks of downtown were destroyed - 140 homes and 219 businesses were smoldering ash.
Fire is both essential and lethal. I admit for a part of my youth I wanted to be a fireman. I also wanted to be a Coast Guard helicopter pilot and an ambulance driver. I believe the idea of rescue, the call to save someone from harm, is embedded in all of us. It makes genetic sense. It makes for story sense too.
And it occurred to me the other day that while the arrival of the fire department, lights and sirens and bright red trucks, may be dramatic and rare to those of us they visit, from the firemen's point of view, it's also routine.
Last year, for example, the Fargo Fire Department made 10,744 runs. Of those, 244 were for fires, 6,416 for medical emergencies, 1,399 for activated fire alarms and 911 were traffic accidents.
Moorhead made 3,565 runs. Fifty-nine were for fires, 2,308 for medical, 426 for alarms and 142 for accidents.
For the entire city, that's 39 runs a day, seven days a week, holidays included.
Speed is essential. Speed to scene is the first step in making sure something bad does not become something catastrophic. Chest pains, leaking gasoline, oven-top grease flames - all of these can turn into something deadly.
Speed is also impressive. From the 911 call to personnel on site takes eight minutes or less, 90 percent of the time. Anywhere in town. Any time of day.
So I gave myself a challenge. Could I get there? Could I document not only the work but the frequency of our calls for help? I have an app on my phone that lets me know when an alarm has been made. So yes, I thought.
I decided to set some limits. I would not photograph medical emergencies or lift assists, out of both privacy and respect. I would also ignore investigations, public service calls and resets of activated fire alarms. But any type of fire or accident would cause me to race to my car. I gave myself 30 seconds to get out of the house. I would curse at every red light. Three days, I thought, should give me a clue.
Saturday, 7:24 p.m.
There is a fire in an apartment building in the neighborhood west of Century Cinema. I dash for my Jeep and rush to get there, but nearly every engine has been recalled by the time I arrive. Only Engine 805 remains. Residents stand outside. Lots of kids on bicycles cruise the parking lot and sidewalks.
"This is cool," they say. "I want to be a fireman!"
On the way out, a fireman tells me it was a laundry fire. Someone didn't clean the lint trap. Really minor run, I think. Until I remember that if no one put out the lint fire, it could spread to the apartment, to the building, to people's lives.
Back home, listening to the scanner, I wait. There is an investigation, a call to Fargo Detox, a medical emergency.
Sunday, 12:33 a.m.
18th Avenue in Moorhead: A dumpster behind an apartment building is on fire. Dispatch says probably youths setting it on fire. When I arrive, a fireman is spraying the inside, flashing red lights illuminating the residents who have come outside to watch.
Back home, early in the morning, I hear on the radio a Code 100 in Fargo. Someone has died.
Belsly Boulevard, Moorhead: Fire alarm in an apartment complex. Dispatch says fire and smoke alarms are going off throughout the whole building.
When the firefighters come out, I'm told it was burnt food.
27th Street South, Fargo: Dispatch says residents can smell and see smoke in the building. Kitchen fire. Another recipe gone wrong.
What was it, I ask a fireman.
"Burnt," he said. "Sometimes it's so burned you have no idea what it was."
At home I start to do the math. If there are roughly 120,000 of us in town, how many ovens, microwaves, gas and electric stove-tops, toaster ovens, crock pots and hot plates get used at roughly the same time? It's a wonder we don't burn ourselves down every day.
I listen as fire crews respond to a stroke victim, then a diabetic with low blood sugar who has fallen.
Dispatch announces an injury accident at the Cenex gas station on Main Avenue in Fargo. When I get there, though, I learn it's just a fender bender. No one, as far as I can tell, is hurt.
Driving there, though, was frustration. Every light was red. I got trapped behind a small car pulling a trailer, people talking on their cell phones, some kid bouncing up and down to the bass line of a terrible song.
Forget jackrabbit starts, I think. These are molasses drivers. I wonder about the frustration of driving a fire truck. Eight minutes seems like a fantasy.
Back home, I listen to a medical run for a man who is bleeding from his head. No one is sure why he's bleeding and Moorhead Police have been dispatched as well. This could be an assault. On the radio, I hear a fireman ask Command if it's OK to proceed. "It's an unsure situation," Command says, which means Your Call. The firemen proceed.
Fargo, north of 13th Avenue, east of 25th Street: The water heater in an apartment in a densely populated part of town is burning. A full deployment. By the time I get there, six trucks are parked on intersecting streets, just in case. But the fire is quickly out with just an extinguisher.
"Things usually pick up in the middle of the night," one firefighter tells me.
Midnight arrives and I do a count: Fargo had 33 calls on Sunday, Moorhead had 12.
Monday, 12:49 a.m.
The fire alarms are ringing at the Holiday Inn Express. Something's gone wrong with the sprinkler system. Could be a plumbing problem. Listening to the radio, I hear discussion of wet versus dry systems, and a narrative of firefighters walking the floors, listening for running water.
I hear a call for a baby not breathing on south university.
A traffic accident a few blocks off University in Fargo. Fluids leaking. Morning rush hour traffic. Dispatch says the cars are blocking traffic. When I get there, the police have left, the tow trucks have yet to arrive, the firemen are spreading something like oil-dry to absorb the radiator fluid. The driver of one car talks on her cell phone. Everyone seems to be in a fine and wonderful mood. With one exception, it's a beautiful morning.
The app on my phone says Aircraft Emergency standby.
An incoming United Express flight has declared an emergency. There is smoke in the cockpit and they are still 25 miles out. This, I think, could be very bad.
The airport fire department is run by the National Guard and highly trained. Every three years they do a multi-agency drill with Fargo and Moorhead Fire and others and the last one was June 12. With advance notice of an incoming problem, calling the Fargo Fire Department is an automatic.
Airport fire trucks go to their standby locations on the airfield.
The airplane lands just as I arrive at the airport. Fire trucks accompany it to the gate. Everyone is safe.
This is, I am beginning to learn, an ordinary day. The medical calls continue.
Someone at the NDSU library has severe abdominal pains. Someone on 20th Street is laying in the grass, behaving oddly. Someone on 46th street is going through alcohol withdrawal and breathing erratically.
The fire alarms go off at the Sanford Broadway Medical Building. A child pulls an alarm box at Burlington Coat Factory.
A traffic accident on University by I-94, in the heart of the construction zone, backs up traffic even more. Police set up traffic cones and diversions, and the fire engine creeps its way to the site. It's hot. Again, there's radiator fluid on the streets, a distraught driver waiting for the tow truck.
At the very same time, an accident on 19th Ave North just west of I-29. Once on site, the fire crews call for an ambulance.
A two-car injury accident on South University at 52nd Avenue. Several adults and children huddle on the raised median while firefighters and paramedics attend to an injured woman. Across the street, a young woman sits on the curb, a paramedic assessing her condition.
A fender bender outside Century Cinema as a movie ends.
A sparking electrical wall outlet prompts a structure fire call to 23rd Street South.
At midnight, I count again. Thirty-nine calls in Fargo today, 13 in Moorhead.
Tuesday, 7:10 a.m.
There is no such thing as an ordinary day.
A call comes through that's described as a rescue. A man is stuck on a roof. A drunk man is stuck on the roof of a three story apartment building on 32nd Avenue in Fargo. In the rain.
At mid-morning, I stop by Moorhead Fire station #1 and talk with Assistant Chief Jeff Wallin to get some background information. We wind up talking about breadth of training. They are trained in fire suppression. Grease and wood and electrical and so on.
Every firefighter is also an EMT. They are trained in basic electrical design in house and commercial buildings, what to expect if they need to cut into a wall that's been on fire. Plumbing, too.
They cross train with Fargo for communications and the development of a Rapid Intervention Team to be on standby if something during a normal event goes catastrophically wrong. Then come the big events, a train derailment, an explosion at a tank farm, hazardous materials, natural disasters.
When we talk about driving, he mentions the biggest problem is drivers not being aware of an engine behind them. Not only because of cell phones or loud music, but also because cars have become so well insulated against road noise.
I learn they even train how to position the large fire trucks in the roadways when they are responding to traffic accidents - not only to safeguard the accident site but to deflect an oncoming car that does not see the situation.
When we talk about response time, he shows me a chart which makes the process more impressive. The 8-minute response time begins with noticing there is a problem. Thirty seconds allowed for that. Another 30 seconds to call 911. One minute allowed for the 911 call itself. One minute for dispatch time. One minute for turn-out time, the guys running for trucks. Then four minutes - only four minutes - to get to the site.
Across town, I visit Captain Robert Cuchna and firefighter William Nelson at the downtown station. With seven stations and nine trucks, with at least three people on each truck, ready all the time, they share the 8-minute response time goal and beat it fairly often. At full staffing they have 36 people on duty every minute of every day. That doesn't include Battalion Chiefs and others.
When we talk about training we talk about technical rescue, high and low angle, building collapses. We talk about the water rescue from last summer when two men were stranded in a boat on a dam in the Red River, the way ropes had to be strung to carry the men to shore. I learn there is a hazmat foam truck, owned by BNSF, housed and able to be staffed by Fargo Fire.
Fargo is also developing a drone program for search and rescue, for on-scene views of fires or accidents even before the engines arrive.
"We don't blast through red lights," Nelson says. "When we come up to an intersection with a red light, we have to make eye contact with all three other directions before proceeding. Winter driving can be a challenge. We've had it so slippery that you can't stand up and the plows aren't out, but we still have to go out for emergencies. And just because we have lights and sirens doesn't mean we're entitled to the right of way. We're asking for the right of way."
"Our people are our greatest asset," Cuchna says.
In Fargo, a 4-year-old eats detergent pods.
In Moorhead, a city light pole catches fire. Black smoke rises into the sky.