Fire Station No. 6
You meet the nicest people at Fire Station No. 6.
At least I did.
Visiting College Station’s newest firehouse, my intent was to do a story on the building itself, perhaps my favorite structure in town, at least away from the Texas A&M University campus.
But while there, I met the city’s longest- and shortest-tenured full-time firefighters and found their stories to be of such interest that I decided to turn my attention to them.
Fire Station No. 6 was dedicated in December 2012. It was built on city-owned land at the corner of Tarrow St. and University Drive to fill a gap in College Station’s municipal fire-protection coverage.
“Our goal is to report to the scene of a fire in no more than 6 minutes and 30 seconds,” Joe Don Warren, the assistant chief of the College Station Fire Department, told me while giving me a tour.
“The intent was to build a station on the University Drive corridor. Since the city already owned this land it made sense to put the new firehouse in this location. A belowground water tank were previously located on this lot”
With 34 years of service, Warren is the city’s most veteran firefighter. His office is located in the College Station Municipal Court Building on Krenek Tap Road, but as assistant chief in charge of operations, Warren is intimately familiar with Fire Station No. 6.
“We wanted the design of the building to have a modern look but also possessed some historical significance,” Warren said.
That’s why there’s a three-story tower above the main entrance.
In the old days, a tower like that was where firefighters hung hoses to dry.
Modern-day technology eliminates the need for that, but the tower is a visually-stunning feature. Inside the main doors on the ground level are glassed-in display cases featuring a variety of historic photos and artifacts, as well as a model-and toy-fire-engine collection on loan from Lois and Jim Simpson.
There’s also a meeting room accessible from the entry foyer–welcome for use by the local community–and above the lobby on the second-floor: a landing accessed through the building’s dormitory level.
The view from there is impressive.
According to Warren, College Station employs 155 full-time firefighter/paramedics and 6 civilians. Those on shift work 24 hours on and 48 hours off. Thus the need in each of the city’s six fire stations for a place to sleep and a place to eat. At Station No. 6, a spacious kitchen and dining area occupy the back of the building which has a west view of the city’s Lions Park next door.
In addition, “We have a report room that can double as emergency dispatch,” Warren said. “And communal rooms both downstairs and upstairs where firefighters can study, socialize, or relax between calls.”
I was pleased to see two fire poles, one at each end of the dormitory level. “Some people use them,” Warren pointed out. “Others use the stairs.”
I resisted the temptation to ask if I could give the pole a go. A friend in the media in Houston suffered two broken legs when he forgot to hug the pole tightly enough on his first try.
The vast garage bay of Fire Station No. 6 houses pumper, ladder, and hazardous-materials-response trucks. There’s also an ambulance located there. Most firefighters are dual certified as paramedics.
What you won’t find hanging from the walls of the bay is any turnout gear – the heavy coats and pants firefighters wear in the line of their hazardous duty.
“Toxic gasses are not just a concern on the site of a fire,” Warren told me. “A firefighter’s protective gear soaks in those fumes and it’s important to keep that gear clean.
“In the old days, they’d be washed and hung in the garage to dry...where they’d soak up the fumes from idling equipment.”
Today in the climate-controlled “coat room,” industrial-grade washers and special air-filtration equipment remove toxins and help keep firefighters healthier.
Warren is the son of a firefighter. His father was fire marshal in Matador, Texas–located about halfway between Amarillo and Lubbock in the Texas Panhandle–where Joe Don grew up. As a teenager, Warren served as a volunteer fireman in his father’s brigade.
There was probably never a doubt Joe Don would grow up to follow in his father’s footsteps.
While taking firefighter-training courses at the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service’s Brayton Fire Training Field, now called the Emergency Services Training Institute (ESTI), Warren learned of an opening within the College Station Fire Department. He applied and was hired at the age of 21.
The year was 1984.
And while the technology of firefighting has advanced tremendously since then, the character and psyche of individuals who fight fires probably hasn’t changed all that much.
On my tour of Fire Station No. 6, Chief Warren introduced me to Danielle Vacek a 21-years old native of Katy, Texas, and the department’s most rookie firefighter.
With blue eyes, a bright smile and long blonde hair, Dani Vacek could easily pass for a Texas A&M co-ed. In fact, she was one, intending to major in communications, but she realized a desk job wasn’t the path she wanted her life to take.
Vacek's father, Daniel, was a volunteer firefighter at Southwest Texas State University–now Texas State–in San Marcos, Texas. As a young girl, Dani loved to hear her father’s bedtime stories about his experiences fighting fires.
When she turned 17, she decided to give the profession a serious look herself.
“A friend of mine was a volunteer firefighter, “Dani said. “He told me about the process and so I submitted an application and, lo and behold, I was selected.”
“When I told my parents, they didn’t believe me at all, not until I started to bring gear home from the fire academy while I was training.”
Home-schooled, Dani’s parents encouraged her to attend college. Not long after she settled into her first year at Texas A&M, she did the logical thing–logical if you’re Dani Vacek–she became a firefighter with the Brazos County Precinct 4 Volunteer Fire Department.
In fact, when she’s not working full-time at Fire Station No. 6, Dani lives at the Brazos County Precinct 4 firehouse where she still volunteers. That, plus scholarship assistance, is one of the benefits to being a local volunteer firefighter.
While Dani was taking coursework at A&M, she also enrolled in firefighting classes at Blinn College. She received her Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) certification from Blinn. She’s also recently completed paramedic school there.
When an opening within the College Station Fire Department came up, Dani was quick to jump at the opportunity.
“In my volunteer duties, I’ve worked a lot with College Station firefighters,” Dani said. “They frequently help with mutual aid on county calls and I love everybody. Chief Joe Don strongly encouraged me to apply.
“I did and I got accepted and I’ve been here now for almost eight months.”
With a full-time job, Dani Vacek is no longer a college student, but she’s still a volunteer firefighter in her spare time. It’s not uncommon for firefighters to hold more than one job. After all, there’s that 24-hours-on, 48-hours-with-nothing-to-do thing.
So what’s the day-to-day life of a full-time College Station firefighter like?
“It’s kind of hard to explain,” Dani admitted.
“You know what they say about the culture at Texas A&M? ‘You can’t explain it from the inside looking out; you can’t understand it from the outside looking in’. That’s sort of my life as a firefighter right now.”
When Joe Don Warren joined the College Station Fire Department, there was one female firefighter. Her name was Margaret McGraw, known around the firehouse as “Maggie.”
She’s retired from the firefighting profession, but still lives in the Bryan/College Station area.
Warren told me College Station now has eight women working full-time as sworn firefighter/paramedics within the department. An additional five women work in fire department logistics, emergency management, administration, and community risk reduction.
Regardless of gender, firefighters are family: a loyal, tight-knit clan that looks out for one another wherever they may be.
“You feel it the moment you arrive,” Dani says. “If someone sees that you’re having a bad day, they’re going to come and fix that bad day for you.
“If you go anywhere, anywhere in the country, you walk into a firehouse as a firefighter and you’re going to be treated like part of the family.”