This article appears in the November issue of 400 Life Magazine
There’s no such thing as a typical day at a Forsyth County Fire Station, where firefighters and paramedics respond to calls, train and live during their shift.
But with crews working 24 hours at a time, that means, along with trucks, hoses and other equipment, stations must be outfitted with everyday necessities like a gym for working out, bunks for sleeping and a kitchen to cook.
When 400 Life recently visited Station 4 in west Forsyth, Lt. Billy Bean and crewmembers FAO John Stancel and Firefighter Vino Ramgopal were working on that night’s meal. The feeling in the room was like interacting with a family. And that’s what they become as they navigate these long shifts together.
Bean said cooking and eating meals is not only a basic need but also a communal activity that strengthens the bond between members of the crew.
“It does help with camaraderie because that is our time together,” Bean said. “We did not see [the paramedics] until 5 o’clock today, and we [firefighters] came on at 8 [a.m.], they came on at 7 [a.m.]. We had our [training] class — we’ve been gone all day — but they’ve been busy as well.”
This particular night, the group was working on a meal they had never tried before: chicken tenders marinated in pineapple, honey and a sweet chili sauce, with roasted potatoes and steamed broccoli with cheese and garlic.
“Anytime we get an opportunity to test something, try something that’s a little different, we jump on that opportunity,” Bean said. “We’ve done low-country boils, I’ve done steaks … Mississippi mud roast.”
Like any meal made prepared with friends or family, there was a lot of cutting up and joking with the crew while they prepped the meal and tried to get the food ready before their favorite shows start, usually sports and gameshows like Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune.
“We try to make that 6 o’clock [meal] dedicated, that’s family time, where we all sit together, no one eats sitting [around the TV]. We’re all sitting at the table, talking, and venting if there’s been any issues through the day. There might be a movie or program on TV that we’re laughing at, so that’s kind of our destress time,” Bean said.
Bean, who was promoted to lieutenant this summer, said the cooking duties are decided by each crew and he usually tries to at least have a meat, a green vegetable and usually a healthy carb.
“That gives us our carb, but not a big fatty carb,” Bean said. “[Paramedics] have to stand by for the football game tonight. We’ve got some clean-up to do, so it’s not one of those eat [and sit nights.]
To pay for the meals, each member of the crew puts $8 a day into a house fund to go toward ready-to-eat breakfast items, snacks, groceries and two hot meals, and firefighters usually grab something to cook for dinner when out getting lunch.
“If we want it to take all day, we need to go to the store early,” Bean said. “If it’s something where we’re short on time, there has been plenty of days where it’s Stouffer’s lasagna, throw it in the oven, we’ll check it in an hour, just depending on the day.”
While cooking a big or unique meal can be a luxury, there are some busy nights with calls or other duties where cooking takes a backseat.
“There are those nights where it’s burgers and French fries, brats and tots,” Bean said. “The goal is to get the meal cooked, but not necessarily spend all day doing it because we have other responsibilities as well, but we still have to eat.”
There are also those nights when a call comes in and the food or cooking has to be left behind or first responders have to grab something convenient, like fast food or items from a gas station, during their duties.
“We’ve eaten many cold meals,” Bean said.
While cooking usually falls on the firefighters, there are also those in the community who bring meals or snacks and leftovers from the holidays, though that has been impacted by the pandemic.
“If there is a church function and there’s food leftover, people stop by,” he said.
Though they haven’t been getting together during the COVID-19 pandemic, Bean said in the past, it was pretty common for nearby firehouses to get together for big meals.
“Before COVID, it would be a regular event to call the neighboring station [and say]: ‘Hey guys, do you want to do some training, and then we’ll throw down on a meal … together?’ We’re hoping to be able to get back to that and have the fellowship because that’s what helps you get through the shift,” Bean said, “being able to talk to your friends and brothers and sisters here.”
When asked if he cooks at home, Bean said he splits time cooking with his wife at home.
“I think she just likes it when I cook.”