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Grand Rapids in 1856

Scene of early Grand Rapids viewed from the...

The "Elevens Firehouse"

by G.F. Korreck

Located at the corner of Diamond and Chester, in the heart of the East Hills neighborhood, sits the Elevens, the oldest continuously operating firehouse in the state of Michigan. Older than most everything around it, including many of the trees, the Elevens was, and is, so named for the number on the truck that operates out of this location. Engine House 11 is currently home for 15 firefighters rotating in 3 shifts. The Elevens is run by Captain Nancy Boss and boasts the 2009 Grand Rapids Firefighter of the Year, Kristy Kehl.

The Elevens is ripe with history. When the station first opened its doors on November 1, 1902, there were no stoplights, no cars, no sophisticated dispatching system. Horses rented from local junk dealers or ice haulers pulled the fire engines. Instructions were shouted from a bugle — a megaphone that only the senior firefighters could use. There were no hydrants, but water mains made of wood. Firefighters dug a hole and chopped through to get water.

Memories of those earlier times are easily found in the Elevens. Ivy creeps up the west wall and into what used to be the hayloft. The loft’s walls are marked with postings from firefighters throughout the years. Some notes mark dates of new and retired equipment and personal stories of time at the engine house. Others can be politely referenced as topical humor. The century-old stairs leading to the second floor bunks and exercise room bear the grooves formed by the tens of thousands of boots that have trod up and down them.

There are ghosts, too. A young woman dressed in white, either a nightgown or a wedding dress, occasionally sits on the edge of the beds of the younger male firefighters. A pair of children has also been reported, but only other children see them.

While the building may be full of whispers from the past, it remains home to three shifts of firefighters whose duties go far beyond any that people could have imagined in 1902. For starters, there are women in the department — including Elevens’ Captain Boss. There are smaller duty rosters — there used to be 10 full-time firefighters at the Elevens — and an increasingly broad range of responsibilities, including meeting the community’s requirements outlined in the Homeland Security Act. Then there are building inspections, River Rescue training, HAZ-MAT (Hazardous Materials) training, hydrant inspection and a required 30-minute daily exercise session. Grand Rapids firefighters are also medical first responders.

Who’s got your back?

For Boss, a 28-year veteran, and her shift mates Paul French and Joe Skrycki, the job is always a double-edged sword.

“When do you call the fire dept?” asks Captain Boss. “When no one else will come. Electrical problems...water problems...snakes...”

“We don’t see people at their best,” says Skrycki, acknowledging the resolve one has to have to confront situations in which lives are lost.

But Boss adds: “Someone is always glad to see us.”

And not all calls are horrific. Over the years Boss and company have removed a 12-foot albino python from a wall, rescued a rare macaw from a daylong holdout atop a tree, and extricated a young boy from inside a laundry chute.

“His sister pushed him down it,” Boss smiles, remembering the incident. “Her folks weren’t home and we had to take out a large section of the wall to get him out.”

Still, danger can always be just one call away. The most dangerous, says Boss, are vacant buildings. “These are usually set fires and they can be booby trapped,” she explains, adding, “The philosophy used to be that one risked a lot to save a lot, but I will not risk the lives of my team for property alone.”

When you’re here, you’re family

The closeness of the team is understandable. They are together almost as much as they are with their own families and come to rely on each other. It’s a dorm-like existence in many ways. The lunchroom has a microwave, a small fridge, and a smaller TV. The bunk area is clean and the exercise space neat but there are no frills.

It’s a tightly run team. Paul French is the driver of engine 11. Boss refers to him as “my eyes and ears outside the fire.” French also handles all the truck maintenance. Joe Skrycki is the junior member of the team and although the station is considered too small to warrant a cook, Skrycki’s occasional Sunday breakfasts are welcomed. Skrycki also gets the short straw on some of the smaller jobs.

But in most cases, everyone pitches in, literally. The team takes pride in keeping the station neat following their shift (“we blame other shifts if it’s dirty,” French says). They also have ongoing chores, such as painting, laundry and, yes, they do windows.

“Years ago, the stations all used to do spring cleaning,” Boss recalls. “They would close down for a month.”

The family analogy works in other ways as well. Each member of the team has other family members involved in either the police or fire departments. Boss’ father spent 42 years as a firefighter. She also has two sisters in the department. Skrycki’s father was a police officer; one of French’s brothers is a retired captain.

And there is, to hear people tell it, an enduring sense of satisfaction.

At the end of the day, when the shadows rise up the red brick of the venerable old building, Boss can take a moment to reflect on why she chose to become a firefighter.

“It’s knowing in your soul you’ve done something,” she says. “Something that can make a difference.”

Next time you drive by give them a wave . . . if they're not too busy you'll get one back.

July 11, 2010


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