Putting out fires: Columbia Company gives police a hand

If the U.S. Capitol Police protects Congress’ civilians, who’s there when the force needs help of its own? Often, it’s Washington’s Columbia Company fire department.

When Capitol Police Officer Bryan Nickelson recently dropped to the ground after suffering a heart attack while on duty, the Columbia Company’s firefighters raced four blocks from their station house on New Jersey Avenue NW to the Senate side of the Capitol while one of Nickelson’s colleagues administered CPR.

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The firefighters stabilized Nickelson and helped scoop him into an ambulance bound for the hospital, where he eventually made a full recovery.

Columbia Company is the oldest continuously running fire company in Washington, founded in 1804 specifically to serve the Capitol. Situated at the foot of Capitol Hill and boasting a plaque on its station’s giant red doors reading “Protectors of the Capitol,” Columbia Company’s Engine 3 is one of the first responders to the area’s biggest (and smallest) disasters — from a tourist’s twisted ankle to a life-and-death scare like Nickelson’s.

Engine 3 was the city’s sixth-busiest last year, making nearly 5,500 runs. It works closely with the Capitol Police, most often on the police force’s arrests. Medical calls make up approximately 80 percent of the company’s emergency responses.

The company’s firefighters pride themselves on their speed.

“Most of the time, we’ll get to a scene before any ambulance or police even show up,” said Lt. Ed Conway, a member of the city’s fire department for 28 years. He has been riding Engine 3 for the past two years.

Conway recalled responding to a shooting last year in a dark alley in Northeast Washington. At the scene they found a man who had been shot and began treating his wounds.

“Then from a shadowed corner, this guy steps forward, and in a low voice, he says, ‘I did not shoot him so that you could save him,’ ” Conway said at the station house in between calls last week.

Conway took a step back until police arrived; he and his colleagues then took the man to the hospital.

For their part, Capitol Police appreciate the support.

“A lot of times we’ll make an arrest, and as soon as we go to book them, the next thing you know, they’re complaining of chest pains,” said a Capitol Police officer who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media. “So we have to call Engine 3, because if they’re not faking it, then we’re in trouble.”

Capitol Police Chief Phillip Morse pointed to Columbia Company’s role in Nickelson’s case and its response to a motorcycle accident two years ago involving a Capitol Police officer as examples of the departments’ close working relationship.

“When one of our officers is injured or hurt, Engine Company 3 is always there first,” Morse said. “And it’s not that they treat us any differently than they would anyone else. It’s just that, when they’re working on our guys, you can see it in their eyes.”

The Columbia Company’s firefighters said that, after a string of 24-hour shifts with dozens of calls each day, one incident runs into the next.

But they recalled coming to the Capitol Complex recently to help an older man who had fainted in the sun and a tourist who twisted her ankle on the stairs of the Visitor Center. They also aided a man who fractured his toe and an intern who slipped down the stairs in a Senate office building.

They respond most often to the 1,350-bed Community for Creative Non-Violence homeless shelter a block away from the station house and a stone’s throw from the Capitol.

“I treat everyone the same, whether they’re at the homeless shelter or they’re a politician on Capitol Hill,” said Pvt. C.J. Isbell, a paramedic, sitting in the back of the fire engine. He was en route to yet another medical call for a drug-addicted woman he said they regularly find passed out on a sidewalk near Union Station. He recalled earlier this year running 32 calls in a single day — one every 45 minutes.

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When not on Engine 3, Columbia Company firefighters often huddle in the watch room around a computer screen monitoring medical and fire calls. When they get dispatched to a fire, one of them yells, “Box!” — a term that refers to the firebox levers from pre-telephone days that people would pull to alert the fire department of an emergency.

Each firefighter has a fixed spot on the engine. At the first sign of a call last week, Isbell and Pvt. Amanda Patterson jumped into the rear seats of the engine while Wagon Driver Chris Eiker sprinted for the wheel. Conway jumped into the shotgun spot, already monitoring which other fire departments were responding. Patterson, Isbell and Conway threw on their heavy layers of protective gear and oxygen tanks while Eiker weaved through dozens of blocks of afternoon traffic. Patterson sat perched behind the driver, ready to pop out at the scene and connect a fire hose to the nearest hydrant. As they neared the fire alarm’s location, everyone kept watch for smoke.

The history of Columbia Company is closely linked to the city’s own. The British obliterated the company firehouse before burning down the Capitol. And, in 1851, when the Library of Congress went up in flames, Columbia Company was there to put it out with a pump wagon.

The Architect of the Capitol’s fire inspector, Wayne Higdon, was a firefighter with Columbia Company for 20 years. He was a part of the crew that responded to the Capitol after the Senate was bombed in 1983.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) knows the rigors of the job. Her grandfather was a Washington firefighter.

“There’s a very special kind of person that signs up to get called only when something pretty awful is happening,” she said.

There are occasional moments of levity for the firefighters. Earlier this year, they responded to a medical emergency call at the nearby homeless shelter.

“We get there and I’m asking him where it hurts,” said Isbell while eating a plate of baked ziti at the station. “And he just keeps saying, ‘My heart hurts.’ So I take his blood pressure and run my other tests, and I can’t find anything wrong with him. So I ask him once more what kind of pain he’s feeling. And he turns to me and says, ‘My heart hurts. They won’t let me stay the night, and it hurts my heart.’ ”

But Isbell and his colleagues try to stay focused on a singular goal.

“I’m just trying to make sure you see another day,” Isbell said.