Rockledge firefighters bond over family dinner
It’s 4:30 on a Wednesday afternoon, and Ed Syfrett already has dinner on the stove.
He got an early start because the whole family’s coming over, and cooking for 18 to 20 people is no easy feat.
Syfrett is battalion chief for Shift A of the Rockledge Fire Department. By family, he means Shift A firefighters from all three Rockledge fire houses, as well as Brevard County Fire Rescue paramedics assigned to the city.
They gather for dinner at least twice a month. On this night, supper will be served around the big wooden table at the new Station 36, which opened in June on Fiske Boulevard.
“About one third to half of our life is with the same people,” Syfrett says. “We become a close family.”
On the menu? Shrimp over pepperjack cheese grits with cheese biscuits and brownies.
Syfrett boils shrimp peels and water in a big pot to make stock for the sauce. He’s got a big griddle set up in the cavernous garage, where he’ll soften up the celery, carrots and onions, grill a couple of links of Italian sausage and, just before dinnertime, the shrimp. Then, he’ll toss it all in a red sauce.
As the hands on the clock swing past 5 and head toward 6, the house starts to fill up. The firefighters sniff the air as the aroma of Syfett’s stock bubbles on the stove.
He assigns tasks. firefighter/paramedic Ricky Edwards begins mixing brownies while firefighter/EMT Tyler Abernathy works on a batch of biscuits. Firefighter/paramedic Joel Pickel reluctantly accepts responsibility for stirring tomato paste into a light roux Syfrett made as a base for the shrimp stew.
The chief heads out to the griddle. The vegetables hit the hot surface with a sizzle.
As the men cook, Brittney Lawson, a driver/engineer and the station’s sole female firefighter on Shift A, gives a tour of the new house. Bunk rooms, bathrooms, a small room with a desk.
“This is where I do my homework,” she says.
She opens doors and panels on the fire engine, explaining the equipment and how things work.
The truck carries 500 gallons of water, she says. That water buys firefighters about five minutes to get hooked up to a hydrant.
She plucks a couple of pastel backpacks from behind the driver’s seat.
“These don’t belong here,” she says. She picked them up for her daughters at a back-to-school event.
She suffers from a touch of mom guilt, being gone from her kids for 24 hours straight, but in 3 1/2 years on the job, she’s come to appreciate the extra time she gets with them when she’s not on duty. She works three 24-hour shifts, followed by four days off.
Lawson loves what she does. She became interested in becoming an EMT after witnessing a serious accident. She didn’t know what to do to help the victims, so she enrolled in classes. That led to firefighter training.
Back inside the station, she points out three pantries making up one wall of the kitchen. Each holds a refrigerator and several shelves, one for the A, B and C shifts.
The firehouse is just that: a house. The residents buy their own food and prepare their own meals.
They also make their own beds, do their own laundry and clean up their own messes.
Adjacent to the kitchen is a long living/dining room. Big, leather recliners face a television at one end; a family table with a hodgepodge of chairs occupies the other end.
“Houses build their own tables,” Pickel says. Otherwise, it would be difficult to find one big enough to seat the whole family.
Dinner is almost ready.
Edwards dices the Italian sausage and adds it to the sauce.
The biscuits are almost done. The table is set with an assortment of bowls.
“Sometimes we eat on the run,” Johnny Ventura says. “It’s a fast-paced life that we live here. Sometimes we’re eating, and we get a call. The craziest thing is when you’re in the shower.”
They learn to shower fast, he says.
The family meals build camaraderie, Ventura says. “I mean, you’re here half your life.”
These gatherings foster a bond for people who work in life-and-death situations. It’s vital that they trust one another.
“You know you’ve got a backup,” Ventura says.
All gather in the kitchen and dining room, ready to dig in. A sign-up sheet on the counter lets everyone know $6 will cover their share of the groceries.
Almost as if on cue, the alarm sounds. It’s a medical call. Half the crew hurries out to the trucks. Sirens wail as they pull into Fiske traffic.
Syfrett turns down the heat under the stew and covers the grits. Dinner’s going to be a few minutes late. That’s not unexpected.
He’s been on the job for a while. Most of the firefighters are younger.
“They’re like my kids,” he says.
And like any family, they cut up a lot. For example, it’ll be a while before Abernathy lives down burning the biscuits on this night.
About 30 minutes later, the trucks pull back into the station. The firefighters wash up — again — and start filling their bowls.
Another call comes in halfway through dinner. Half-eaten bowls of shrimp and grits are abandoned on the table. One firefighter tosses a napkin over his meal before rushing out.
Those who remain keep eating. A song from an online oldies station plays in the background.
This is life in a fire station. Heart-pounding, adrenaline-fueled moments, followed by calm, quiet tedium.
“Everybody’s probably on their best behavior tonight,” firefighter/medic Michael McCaleb says.
Usually, they’re cutting up, enjoying one another’s company.
“You get tight as a unit,” McCaleb says of his work family.
And just like with any family, it’s not easy to get everyone at the table for dinner.
But it’s always worth the effort.