Archive for Friday, April 12, 1996


April 12, 1996


The high-stress job of a firefighter involves more than meets the eye.

It's 3 a.m. in the still of a Tuesday morning and Pat Karlin is fast asleep.

Karlin seems to be a typical Lawrence resident, considering the hour. But as the lights kick on and the alarm blares through the room, Karlin bolts out of bed, slides down a bright brass pole, throws on his equipment and is behind the wheel of a 40-foot truck in fewer than 60 seconds.

Since January 1993, Karlin has been a member of the Lawrence Fire Department and lived the nontraditional working life as a firefighter. Instead of putting in the typical 8-to-5 day, he does as all Lawrence firefighters do and works 24-hour shifts.

Working a 10-day cycle, which includes starting at 7 a.m. and finishing the next day at the same time, forces Fire Station No. 1 to become both Karlin's office and home.

The 10-day cycle includes six days in which he works every other day for 24 hours, and then four days off. The schedule might seem to allow for a lot of downtime, but Karlin will tell you differently.

``It used to be in the old days of firefighting and fire stations that everybody would be polishing trucks or playing cards while waiting for a call,'' he said. ``But we are kind of a progressive department in that we are taking a real positive role in the community.''

Out and about

During their work day, firefighters get out and promote fire safety and prevention throughout the city -- anywhere from elementary schools to Kansas University sorority houses, Karlin said.

The Lawrence Fire Department also requires a physical and cardiovascular program for all firefighters.

``We're one of the only departments that have a P.T. (physical training) program, where you have to earn so many points for exercise,'' he said.

The program is an aerobic-based system where points are awarded for physical activities. A two-mile run in less than 16 minutes or climbing a stair machine for 20 minutes would fulfill Karlin's daily requirement.

But when most think of a firefighter's job, images of burning buildings and high-ladder rescues take the forefront.

That's not an accurate image of the career, Karlin said.

``People have a real misconception about what firefighting is and what firefighters do. A lot of people think of it like the movie `Backdraft,' but that's not how it works,'' Karlin said.

Always on alert

Nevertheless, a recent study of America's most stressful jobs revealed firefighting to be the second-most stressful job behind the president of the United States.

One reason for the high amount of stress could be the immediate response required for a fire. Calls come at all times of the day, so Karlin knows he must be ready -- physically and mentally -- to do his job.

But is there a fear factor for a firefighter?

``I can't really say that I'm scared, but I have a healthy respect for it (fire) because I've seen what it does,'' Karlin said.

It was not long after Karlin first joined the fire department that he saw in person what kind of destruction is involved with fire. Those events have sculpted his mentality.

``I saw two fatality fires right away when I got on, and that was scary,'' he said. ``It really hits home when there are fatalities involved and it's tough dealing with it. You start to question yourself and wonder if there was anything that you could have done differently.''

When Karlin has an incident that ``hits home,'' he often thinks about his wife of three years, Mary Beth, and their baby due in September.

Mary Beth Karlin downplays the danger involved in her husband's career.

``People will come up to me and say, `Aren't you worried that he's going to die in a fire?' But what I tell them is that I'm really not,'' she said. ``I don't think about him burning and dying in a fire at all, but when I hear the sirens I start to get a little nervous.''

Nervousness is something that Pat Karlin knows how to handle. He was an All-Big Eight Conference outfielder for the Kansas University baseball team from 1987 to 1990.

He uses his athletic knowledge in the way he attacks his job.

``I think that firefighting is a lot like competing in sports,'' he said. ``It's like in a football game when you have fourth-and-goal and you've just got to get it done.''

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