I know it sounds crazy but some men choose to run into burning buildings while most people run out, Sapulpa has forty-six of them. I had the honor to visit with the Fleak Firefighters, retired Chief Steve Fleak and his son Paden, who is a Driver/Relief Captain. Combined they have served our community for thirty-five years and they aren’t the only father-son team.
We met at Central station on Dewey Street, one of Sapulpa’s four fire stations. They run on three 24-hour shifts, known as A, B, and C, lasting from 8 a.m. – 8 a.m. As of the interview they have received 3,576 calls this year including 35 structure fires since July. The coming winter months are prime time for grass and structure fires due to heaters, fireplaces and tall, dry grass.
The station has five different kinds of trucks (each specific emergency requires different vehicles) and one boat. A new addition that came from a FEMA grant is a rugged Skeeter Brush truck where water can be operated from inside the truck which makes a huge difference.
Another change coming in December of this year is the dispatch system will be switched to CAD (Computer-aided dispatch) which will help with keeping track of times which is vital for reports and dispatch calls will go straight to specific stations instead of all four. Right now, all stations are awakened at night for one call. It will also allow for dispatch to see where the firefighters are located. This system will be a “game-changer.” As a side note, they don’t even have time to visit the bathroom on night calls; they go to work immediately after jumping out of bed. And, the adrenaline rush never goes away.
There are at least three men on duty during a shift which includes a firefighter, driver, captain and a battalion chief who visits all stations. There are several steps to earn ranks with written tests, evaluations and scenario training. No doubt, these guys work hard. After most calls, they critique how the situation was handled down to routes chosen and what they can do better, always striving to meet the SOG (standard operating guidelines.)
During the interview, several firefighters came in and out of the station, some on duty and some not. They all visited with one another and you can probably guess they are like family. The men on shift work, sleep, shop and eat at the same time, doing everything together. But, what I didn’t expect to learn is that their families at home all become one big family with each other. Because their schedules are challenging, they sacrifice some family activities and holidays. So, their loved ones simply go to the station to visit when they can. It’s not uncommon to all have dinner together. Paden was “raised” at Central Station where he is now stationed.
What is the toughest aspect of their chosen career for them personally? Paden said serving the community that he loves and where he was raised can be hard, not knowing if one of his friends or family members may be at the other end of a call. Steve reminisced about how fulfilling his career was, while the challenging situations were hard. He associated it with filling up a bucket and making sure the bucket got emptied by hobbies and spending time with family and friends.
I asked Tami Fleak, Steve’s wife and Paden’s mom about how she feels about being a firefighting family and I don’t think she would change a thing. She admitted to saying “a lot of prayers” and trying not to worry. She knows the firefighters receive excellent training and are good and what they do, so good she trusts them with her son’s life wholeheartedly.
The father and son both agree you don’t leave unmarked food around the station unless you want it eaten. Single-serve ice cream containers are best. Otherwise, they trust each other 100%. Paden said, “You are depending on him (the driver) to get you water in a fire.”
I think this career almost needs to be a calling for the entire family. Paden remembers working a 16-hour call when all of a sudden his mom, an Auxiliary member, showed up and tossed him a cheeseburger while he worked. It’s not a good fit for everyone and I am so grateful for these men, and the families that support them, who fill this dangerous role. The more time I spend with first responders the more genuine concern, bravery and compassion I see. They and their families deserve our respect and prayers.
And, what did they say to me as I walked out the door? “Thanks for coming and let us know if you want to do a ride-along!”
“When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not harm you.” Isaiah 43:2