'Bucky's House' helps keep campus safe

Feb. 18, 2014

by Sean Kirkby

Fire Station #4 logo on table

The station’s logo is painted on a dining table made from a former lane from a bowling alley.

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The bond between the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus and the firefighters at Fire Station No. 4 on Monroe Street, just across from Camp Randall Stadium, is a strong and valued one.

Even the firefighters’ unofficial motto, “First, due to the U,” reflects a long-standing kinship with the university that helps keep the campus safe.

Although the campus has its own police force, the fire station performs an invaluable service to the campus community, which functions as a more complicated city within the city of Madison.

“It’s definitely interesting when you get an alarm call to the Chemistry Building because you’re never going to know what you’re going to have. It’s never the same thing.”

Firefighter Mike Howell

They are the first to respond to alarms and fires in the campus area, such as the blaze at the Casa Blanca Apartments last November that injured three people and displaced dozens of residents of the building at 2302 University Ave.

Difficult-to-navigate and sometimes narrow streets, scientific buildings with substances that could potentially leak, an on-campus nuclear reactor and game days where crowds swell into the tens of thousands all pose challenges to the station’s firefighters.

“It’s definitely interesting when you get an alarm call to the Chemistry Building because you’re never going to know what you’re going to have,” firefighter Mike Howell says. “It’s never the same thing.”

During the fall and spring semesters, Howell says the station runs almost nonstop, addressing calls ranging from unopened packages, medical emergencies and pulled fire alarms. Of the 12 fire stations in the city, Fire Station No. 4 is one of the busiest.

Firefighter in truck

Apparatus Engineer Al Schmid prepares to roll out the truck from the Madison Fire Station No. 4.

Game days at Camp Randall Stadium present the firehouse with a different set of challenges when crowds of 80,000-plus, require the city to place an extra medic unit within the station. After five game days, the unit goes on as many runs as other engines do in a year.

“Those are the fun days,” Howell says.

The station also serves as one of the city’s two Rapid Intervention Teams, which specialize in saving downed firefighters. As a result, the team has to carry more tools and equipment than most other engines and go to fires throughout the city.

Adding that extra equipment to a heavy coat and trousers makes firefighting strenuous enough that air tanks, intended to last 45 minutes, empty in less than 20. 

Fire Station #4 engine

A Bucky Badger emblem adorns the equipment wall and the fire truck waits for the next call at Fire Station No. 4, known as "Bucky’s House."

Their daily morning routine consists of an equipment check, including starting chainsaws early in the morning after waiting until students have had the chance to wake up, and a teleconference with the fire chief and other Madison Fire Department fire stations.

When not responding to calls, the firefighters are also preparing meals, maintaining the station or undergoing physical training, including going across the street to run the stairs at Camp Randall Stadium.

The station also boasts two five-foot-long shelves of firefighting instruction manuals and floor plans for UW-Madison buildings so firefighters can study and memorize the material when they are free from their regular duties.

“On down time, you joke around,” Howell says. “We work with these people for 24 hours a day. You see them more than your family most times. They become your second family.”

The firefighters share a living space, including a small kitchen with a large table made from a lane from a bowling alley, its legs made of two fire hydrants. The station logo adorns it – a portrait of Bucky Badger in fire helmet with fire hose and including the station’s nickname: “Bucky’s Firehouse.”

Fire helmet

The firefighters’ gear is organized and ready for the next call.

The station also contains bedrooms, a weight room, a television room and two fire poles. The beds in the station are made, although they sometimes go unused.

“A lot of times we’ll sleep through the night, but a lot of times we’ll get no sleep,” Howell says. “There’re more times that we get no sleep than anything.”

More than three years ago, Howell was attending Colorado State University, when he decided against becoming a history teacher. He considered the military until a friend suggested firefighting. Six months later, he was a firefighter.

Miguel Salinas has been a firefighter for seven years after a mentorship at a local fire department in Colorado. He fought fires alongside Howell in Colorado and came to Fire Station No. 4 last January.

“There was really no one thing,” Salinas says on how he got interested in firefighting. “I got started with it in high school. I’ve been doing it ever since.”

Lt. Paul Komarck, who oversees one of the station’s shifts, comes from a family of firefighters. His dad was a firefighter for 38 years, his uncle recently retired from the profession and two brothers who work at fire stations, one as a paramedic and the other as a fire lieutenant.

Komarck did not set out to be a firefighter – he wanted to be a chef. His father, however, convinced him to attend a “burn,” where firefighters set a donated house on fire to practice putting it out. Komarck was third on the line during the burn.

“I got inside. That was it,” Komarck says. “I knew this was it.”

Loyalty, pride and a the closeness between firefighters keeps the doors open to the public and firefighters throughout the nation. Komarck says he has had dinners with firefighting parents of UW students, including those of Badger wide receiver Jared Abberdaris.

Although Komarck has worked at other fire stations, he has always returned to Fire Station No. 4, a number he has tattooed on his leg.

“It’s the greatest job in the world,” Komarck says. “I’ve been doing this for 33 years and I haven’t worked a day yet.”