When Todd Smith arrived on the scene of a major car accident on Highway 99, a woman is lying on the pavement, a pool of blood surrounding her head. Her husband lies near her already pronounced dead. He and his fellow firefighters rush to get her to the hospital, not knowing whether or not she will make it out alive.
Years later, while in a grocery store a woman approaches Smith and a few other firefighters. The woman says she would like to thank the Eugene Fire Department for saving her life after her husband died in a car accident they were involved in on Highway 99. As she speaks, Smith remembers the accident – “I was on that call.”
Chance encounters like those are what Smith says he loves about being a firefighter. An engineer at Fire Station 10 in Churchill, Smith has been a firefighter for the last eight years. “We get to help people. The few times that we really do makes it all worth it,” he says.
Smith is a Eugene native, graduate of South Eugene High School and the University of Oregon class of 1992. While attending the university, he participated in the Disney College Program and travelled to Orlando, FL., where he spent two terms studying management and working as a Lifeguard at the park’s pools. Having enjoyed helping people so much, it is there he first considered becoming a firefighter.
Smith credits the Disney program for landing any job he’s interviewed for since. That includes making it through the extensive process of becoming a firefighter which entails, multiple written tests, grueling physical training tests, and an interview portion where a panel of five fire questions back to back at you. “You go through it because most of us think this is the best career ever,” Smith says.
Being a firefighter is the best career ever to Smith for a number of reasons, he says. Having to spend 24 hours on duty, 3 days each week, the other firefighters become family. He has developed a bond with his co-workers that he thinks others only dream of. “There’s a great sense of camaraderie,” he says. And his fellow firefighter Jason Lockett, a five year veteran agrees, “We have a blast all day,” he says. They exercise together, live together, cook for one another, watch each other’s backs, play pranks on one another, but most importantly walk side by side into dangerous situations together. “We work as a crew, and play as a crew,” Smith says.
It’s in the middle of a sunny day in the Churchill neighborhood when the station’s alarms begin to sound. Todd and the rest of the on duty staff wait to hear if it’s a call for the medic unit or the firefighters. Once they find out, they rush out to the garage and frantically change into their gear, dropping their pants and throwing their boots on with the laces already tied. Smith hops in the driver’s seat of the fire truck. As the truck rushes through traffic, sirens blaring, horns honking, Smith and the other men in the truck try to mentally prepare for what lies ahead. This particular call is for a car accident at the local Wal-Mart, but the firefighters never know the severity of a situation until they arrive on scene. “As I ride to a scene I think about the possibilities of what the call could be to prepare myself,” Smith says.
After arriving, the firefighters quickly learn it was only a minor bumper to bumper accident in the parking lot, but this is just one of many calls Smith and the others receive that day.
While many of the calls the receive are non-emergency, not every call is this painless, and Smith spends a lot of his time on duty helping people who are less fortunate in the Churchill area. “We see how people live, see things other people don’t see,” he says. He recalls going to homes that have a week’s worth of dirty dishes piled around the sink, and in particular one house that was so cluttered he said it would have taken five minutes to even reach the kitchen sink to turn it on. “You know when you invite someone over and you usually clean your house before they come? Well people don’t invite us over, and they’re usually not prepared for us to see their home the way it is when we come,” Smith says.
But the hardest part about being a firefighter for Smith is spending so much time away from his wife and 2-year-old son. “As much as I hate leaving family, I love coming here to work. I work with my friends,” he says. Even though they spend a lot of time away from family, getting to bring their families to the station on holidays and for ride-alongs is a plus. “My son loves the fire trucks already,” he says. His son doesn’t talk yet, but makes a loud growling noise whenever he’s playing in the fire trucks that can be heard throughout the station.
But working as a firefighter has been far more rewarding for Smith than challenging and it has shaped his life in a number of ways. He has learned that in order to be a firefighter he has to be motivated, driven, a team player, a quick thinker and very adaptable. “You’ve got to have a toolbox and have plans A, B, C and D ready,” he says. But most importantly Smith says it has taught him, “To live everyday, be happy, glass half full, and make sure you tell loved ones you care.” Because like the woman’s life he saved on Highway 99 that day, his life could change forever with just one sound of the alarms.