Lawrence/Douglas County Fire & Medical
| 2015 Q3 | story by BOB LUDER | photos by STEVEN HERTZOG |
A painting on a wall of his office at Station 5, on the corner of 19th and Iowa streets, goes a long way in telling the story of Mark Bradford. It’s a portrait of a young, wide-eyed boy, a broad smile across his face and an oversized fireman’s helmet resting atop a mop of blond hair.
Surely, Bradford, chief of the Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical department, looks at that painting every morning he comes to work and sees himself.
Most boys in their early, grade-school years dream of one day becoming a fireman, riding on the big red truck and sounding the siren. For a majority of those boys, life’s experiences and curveballs cause a change of mind and offer a different direction during adolescence or young adulthood.
Bradford, who turned 56 on August 16, never wavered from his boyhood dream. From his formative years growing up in Lee’s Summit, Mo. – a time when he wanted to sound the siren on the big red truck – to today, putting on the fireman’s helmet brings a smile to his face.
“A real good friend of our family’s while I was growing up was the fire chief in Lee’s Summit; I was always playing with kids whose dad was the fire chief,” he says. “Then, in my teenage years, I was in the Boy Scouts. I was part of their Explorer program, and the Lee’s Summit Fire Department had an Explorer program.
“I started with the (Lee’s Summit) fire department right out of high school, and all my higher education was completed while working full-time,” he continued.
That education included an undergraduate degree in business from Sterling College (“A friend from church recruited me,” he says) and a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Kansas.
Bradford went on to serve 23 years with the Lee’s Summit Fire Department. Because that department was one of the first in the area to include ambulance transports, he quickly immersed himself in that discipline in addition to firefighting, becoming a fully licensed paramedic in 1980.
“Ambulance service is a great blend with fire service,” Bradford says, a foreshadowing of the department he’d later mold in Lawrence.
In fact, Bradford served with the International Association of Fire Chiefs and eventually became that organization’s EMS (emergency medical services) program manager.
It was his involvement with that association and through other various career-development gatherings that Bradford met Jim McSwain, the longtime chief of the Lawrence fire department. The two forged a close working relationship, and when McSwain began thinking about retirement and who he wanted as his successor, he reached out to his friend and colleague in Lee’s Summit, about 40 miles east of the city.
“Chief McSwain contacted me and asked me to come over and be deputy, and become chief when he retired,” Bradford says.
So he joined Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical as a deputy in February 2001. When McSwain retired at the end of summer in 2005, he stepped into the role of interim chief. He was officially named chief of the department on Nov. 7, 2005.
In the 10 years since, one station, Station 5, was built at the corner of 19th and Iowa streets, on land that once housed the Tau Kappa Epsilon house, which ironically burned to the ground several years earlier. That new facility, completed in 2006, not only houses a station but also the department’s administrative offices. It’s an impressive structure that proudly displays out front an old fire bell from a station in Troy, N.Y., circa 1872. In the main lobby are seven glass encasements that display antique fire gear, from old horse harnesses to axes, helmets, tools and water tanks.
Also in 2006, Station 4 was moved to the north side of Clinton Parkway, on Wakarusa Drive.
During his tenure as Lawrence’s chief, Bradford has overseen significant upgrades to the department, especially in the area of equipment, where he’s spared no expense in ensuring the men and women who work under him are afforded the safest working conditions.
“He’s done really good things for our station,” says Jim Saladin, captain of Y Shift at Station 5. “He’s great with protection issues. He’s going to buy the best gear and equipment that we can afford.
“Chief Bradford looks at things on a more global scale,” he continues. “By maybe spending a little more on the best equipment, he’s reduced maintenance costs. He’s a well-rounded leader who has a balanced outlook on the department as both a business and as a government entity.
“He’s also a dynamic thinker who thinks on a large scale and does real well with it,” Saladin explains.
John Darling, lieutenant on Z Shift at Station 5, says Bradford leads by example, often being the first to arrive at work in the morning and the last to leave.
“I’d say my management style is participatory in nature,” Bradford explains. “I take a lot of input from members of staff, or a team’s input, before I make a decision.”
A prime example of this, he says, is in the design of the fire apparatus on various trucks within the department. Members of the operations teams are selected to make recommendations on the design.
“I believe it is extremely important for individuals who work on the trucks to have input on how the trucks are constructed,” he says.
Bradford manages a department with six stations – five in Lawrence and an ambulance station in Baldwin City. There are 139 uniformed members, and during any one shift, 36 to 40 are on duty, with about seven to eight per station. Most stations have one fire truck with four personnel on it and one ambulance with two. Station 5 also has a heavy rescue truck that carries three personnel. There are eight department chiefs and 48 certified paramedics within the Lawrence department.
Each station rotates three shifts, each of which works on what’s known as the Berkeley System – work 24 hours, off 24, work 24, off 24, work 24, off for four.
And, for those who think firemen spend their time taking naps instead of out on calls, think again. Their days are fully scheduled from the time they arrive at their respective stations at 7 a.m.
“The first thing they do is check their personal equipment and perform truck checks,” Bradford says. “From 8 a.m. to noon, there’s training, or there could be an outside lecture or some kind of interactive activity in the community. I also take that time to communicate with each station.
“From 1 to 4:30 or 5:30, there’s public education, inspections, equipment maintenance, public events. There’s an hour for physical fitness. People don’t realize the leading killer of firefighters is a cardiovascular event. At 6 is dinner followed by downtime.”
During a recent hot summer afternoon, firefighters from Station 5, Z Shift, drove a half-mile to Naismith Hall on the University of Kansas campus, practiced repelling down a wall off the roof of the building and later simulated several high-elevation rescue scenarios.
Department personnel catch sleep at night when they can, but that’s often interrupted by calls. Also, any of those daily duties set aside to go on calls during the day have to be completed when firefighters return, so often those tasks are being completed well into the evening.
As it says in the name Fire Medical, the relatively new look of the department has those two disciplines completely integrated.
“When I first got on the job in 1995, it was just fire,” says Richard Bull, driver/engineer of the fire truck for Y Shift at Station 5. “In ’98, we merged with the county ambulance service. We were probably one of the first in the country to get on that. It’s pretty progressive.”
Bradford says 80 percent of the calls that come into the department are of an EMS nature.
“We don’t distinguish between (medical and fire),” he explains. “It’s all-inclusive.”
Eve Tolefree, division chief of EMS for the department, says, “When we hire, everyone must be trained in EMT (emergency medical technology) or be a paramedic. Having some sort of medical background is a necessity. Then, we’ll train you in fire.”
Tolefree, who’s been with the department for 31 years, says the department’s EMS services often are a last resource for people in need in the community.
“Many times people lack insurance,” Tolefree explains. “They call us out of desperation. Our elderly population is increasing. We’ve had a significant rise in number of responses at assisted-care facilities.”
Tolefree says call volume has doubled since she started in 1984.
“We still try to do as much prehospital care before transport,” she says. “And, we do more transport.”
While transport destinations typically are determined by the patient – if he or she is conscious and lucid – Tolefree says 90 percent of calls are transported to the emergency room at Lawrence Memorial Hospital (LMH). When a patient is transported to LMH via EMS, a basic report is communicated by radio to the emergency room (ER) – vital signs, patient condition, presenting complaint and anticipated needs. The charge nurse in the ER uses this information to ascertain and order needed resources.
When a patient enters the ER and is put into a room, nurses receive a verbal report, and EMTs answer any questions for attending physicians.
“The goal is seamless communication,” explains Dr. Caleb Trent, LMH emergency physician and medical director for Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical.
“The men and women of LCD Fire Medical do a very good job,” Dr. Trent says. “They often are called to make instantaneous decisions, often in a chaotic and emotionally stressful situation. They have to act in the patient’s best interest while acknowledging desires of family members, practicing medicine, managing the scene and following the laws of the state. This is a difficult job to do correctly 100 percent of the time, and I’m proud of the way our medics manage and truly care for our patients.”
The department’s tasks and responsibilities don’t stop at fire and EMS. They also include, but are not limited to, prevention, handling and disposing of hazardous materials, water rescue, rope rescue, tight-quarters rescue and business inspections. The department also provides ambulance services by contract to the entirety of Douglas County.
But, it’s still structure fires that get a firefighter’s blood pumping and adrenaline flowing. Every firefighter on site is faced with an intense flurry of tasks and action, from establishing water supply, to breaking in and searching the premises, to establishing primary and secondary water attack lines. Ladders are positioned at windows on every level of the structure.
“Basically, it’s like juggling chain saws,” Station 5’s Darling says. “You’re always doing tasks while thinking about what’s coming next.”
As chief, the rare situations when firefighters die or are injured on the job, or the near misses always stick with Bradford. By nature of the job, the boundary gets pushed on a regular basis.
“There are a number of times where you’re thankful things turned out the way they did,” he says. “It’s what we’re here to do. We’re not trained to exchange lives. But we’re always pushing the envelope.”
Bradford says he’s had little turnover in his workforce over the years. The men and women who work under him serving the public good become extended family, and once in that family, you don’t leave until it’s time to retire. He worries a little about the generations of those coming up, however. More and more, he explains, he sees young men and women get into the profession for themselves and not for the long-term.
In the end, it’s still Bradford’s department, his family of firefighters and EMTs, and the work he loves in a community he loves. He’s still that kid with the big fireman’s helmet resting atop his head, a smile as broad as a rainbow across his face, wanting to ride the big red truck and sound the siren.
“This line of work has always intrigued me,” he says. “It’s been good to me so far.”