The Day Of
May 6th is a particularly hard day for the firefighters of DC’s Big House (Engine 6, Truck 4). The entire company gathers to pay their respects to Lieutenant Kevin McRae who died on the line, responding to the call of Box 264 - an apartment fire at 1330 7th Street NW. Still today, several years later, each company member wears a patch in his honor and the engine itself carries his name in the decals.
“He always had everybody laughing, no doubt about that,” remembers one of his crew, “and all his guys would follow him anywhere. He had that kind of reputation. He took care of his men and they'd follow him anywhere. That's high respect to get in this fire service, and he had it.”
But it wasn’t the fire that killed him. The official cause of death was a heart attack. Lt. McRae was 44-years-old and ‘fit’ by standard measures. Just a day earlier he had taken his son, Da’Von, to get fitted for a tux for his senior prom. His death was a tragic, shocking loss and it continues to sound a different alarm for the simple fact that it was preventable. Across America, from smallest towns to biggest cities, the leading cause of death for firefighters isn’t fire or even cancer—it’s heart disease, which has much more to do with forks than fires.
Box 264 is a short documentary about heart disease in the fire service.
Directed by Dave Baker
“He went in the wrong building, thinking that's where the fire was,” Da’Von tells me. “He had to run up to the ninth floor of that building, run back down the steps, go in the correct building, run all the way up to the ninth floor of that building, give commands over the radio…” Da’Von trails off. “He assisted putting the fire out. They did good on that. I think there were like two, three rescues that day. When he came back outside, he just collapsed right in front of the building. He just collapsed, and that was the end of that.”
“Heart attacks, for us, are an epidemic,” says Lieutenant Jan Sipes of Engine Company 10, located at 10th and Florida NE. This firehouse been known for more than a century as ‘The House of Pain’ in recognition of the fact that for most of its history it has been one of the busiest in the nation. Lieutenant Sipes is the health and safety co-chair of DC Firefighters Association (IAFF Local 36) and has been actively involved in issues of health and wellness in the fire service for the past sixteen years.
“Kevin's death really hit the department to the core,” he says. “I think there's a lot of soul-searching a lot of guys have done: ‘Can I do something to prevent that? Was his preventable? Is it preventable for me? Do I have anything going on that I can do better? Maybe I should pay more attention to my cholesterol levels, or my blood screens, or my body weight or exercising.’”
After his father’s death Da’Von entered the cadet program—a paid, training track for DC public schools graduates to join the fire service—to become a firefighter/EMT. Da’Von is stationed at The Big House, as his father was. He learned very quickly why health and wellness is both a top priority and consistent challenge for firefighters. “It's like night and day basically—you could be asleep and then waking up to work a fire and you’ve got to be ready to operate. Your heart has got to be able to sustain all of that,” he says.
And with that the call lights flash, sirens whine, and the dispatcher announces over the intercom, “Engine 6, respond for the call. North Capitol Street and New York Avenue West. Medical local L-S response. Engine 6, respond for the call...”
In a flash, Da’Von is down the pole and in the truck.
The Heart of the Matter
“Health is probably the number one issue within the fire service,” says Da’Von. “You don't want your family weeping over the casket because you decided to eat wrong in this profession knowing how much physical labor it requires to be a fireman.”
And this is the heart of the matter for Jonathan Tate, another DC firefighter who followed his father (a DC fire chief) into the fire service. “In nine years of retirement, my dad had three heart attacks and cancer. He never really got to enjoy his retirement after 32 years on the job,” says Jonathan. “I saw the strongest man I knew go to the weakest man that I knew. He couldn't help himself off the toilet or get from the bedroom to the bathroom without being out of breath. Between him and Lt. McRae, it really drove me to try to make an impact in health and wellness in the fire service because it's definitely needed.”
In the fall of 2018, firefighter Tate launched an initiative with a peculiar name, Food on the Stove, which is the reason for the majority of calls received by the department and also a call to pay more attention to the food on the stove of the firehouses.
“Most people think that firefighters die from fighting fire or getting burnt up in fires,” admits EMS Captain Melonie Barnes, an eleven-year veteran of the firehouse and spouse to a lieutenant. “In all actuality, they die from cardiac arrest, overexertion with fighting the fire, not necessarily the fire itself. And their heart disease is purely preventable by living a healthier lifestyle and making better food choices.”
Sitting down for lunch with the crew at Engine 6, the menu today is homemade ham and bean soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. I ask what the favorites of the house are and “Meatloaf!” is the first answer, followed by, “Pancakes! Shrimp and grits. Chicken and waffles. BBQ ribs…” Big, hearty meals for long days with an untold number of crises calling.
“Most fire departments are known for having great cooks,” adds Captain Barnes. “We cook a lot of food, a lot of good food, a lot of soul food, a lot of hearty food to sustain the firefighters throughout the day, however, it's not always a healthy choice.”
Across town at Engine 8, Sergeant Thomas Williams gives me the typical day’s menu: “A normal breakfast any morning could be eggs, bacon, sausage. It could be pancakes or french toast or cinnamon rolls or something like that. Then for lunch it’s anywhere from burgers to hot dogs, or if they want to be a little bit fancy, they may have tacos to change it up a bit. Then dinner can be steak, pork chops, burgers—nine times out of ten, it's big meals and fatty foods that we shouldn't be eating at all, but we're eating a lot of it three times a day.”
Firefighters are professional athletes providing an essential service to our communities, but the culture of the fire service hasn’t historically prioritized the idea that food is fuel and the cleaner the better. And there are practicalities of cost to consider as well. One common misconception is that food is provided by the fire stations, but it's not.
(LEFT) Firefighters from Truck 6 pick up a few items needed to prepare a meal for dinner. (RIGHT) Groceries for the day's dinner rest on a seat in the fire truck after a last minute grocery run.
Firefighting is the only occupation that requires employees to cook all three meals while at work. Firefighters buy their own groceries, cook their own meals, buy their own toilet tissue, paper towels, sauces and spices. They even bring their own bedsheets, which explains the long lines of bare, blue mattresses in the sleeping quarters. And since they’re cooking for a large group three times a day, firefighters often prioritize cost over quality - they shop on a budget.
With Jonathan’s advocacy and leadership, however, a few local grocers and businesses like Yes! Organic Market, Harvey’s Butcher Shop, and the District Fishwife have partnered with Food on the Stove to offer high-quality meat and produce to the firehouses at a discount.
"It's such a great cause, and eating healthily is important for all of us, but especially for those of us who are constantly putting their lives in danger," says Fiona Lewis, owner of District Fishwife.
Though firefighters buy their own food, as a culture, they struggle to connect the heart attack epidemic to nutrition and fitness in a meaningful way.
“I think it has not been top priority because our priority has always been helping others,” says Captain Barnes. “For a long time, the providers weren't the priority—we put ourselves last. But Food on the Stove is bringing to light our health and wellness and nutrition, and how we should really be taking care of ourselves first, so we can be healthy to take care of others.”
Fire in the Belly
“I believe that firefighters deserve the best of everything. All these guys are working hard, they chip in to prepare the meal,” says firefighter Tate, “that's where Food on the Stove steps in. We try to supplement the cost of meals in the firehouse. We partner with other companies to make those healthier options more affordable for firefighters because we realize that it does cost to eat healthy.”
On his days off firefighter Tate arranges his team to cook a meal at a firehouse. That house is chosen by the previous house—so each house pays it forward. Tonight, at Engine 10, Tate has bought groceries for Chef Brazil Murphy to work his magic on some chicken, shrimp, asparagus, and salad. Printouts are placed neatly at each seat around the table, and nutritionist James Tate (Jonathan’s brother) explains the topic of the evening—reading a food label.
"Most people only look at the front label, but never look at the back label,” says James. “Look at a bottle of salad dressing, for instance. They’ll say, ‘Oh this is only 120 calories, but that's 120 calories per serving. A serving size of salad dressing may be a tablespoon. Nobody uses a tablespoon of salad dressing—you just pour it all over your salad, maybe using four or five tablespoons. If you do that, if you use five tablespoons, you're at 600 calories just in salad dressing. Then you add chicken, and cheese, or whatever else you put on your salads. Now, you thought you were eating healthy, but you're not.”
(LEFT) Chef Brazil Murphy plates shrimp salads as part of the Local Food for Local Heroes dinner. (RIGHT) Nutritionist James Tate teaches firefighters about food labels.
The lesson continues: “Then there’s the sodium intake. The sodium may be 11% of your daily value, but if you have five serving sizes that’s 55%. So, most of us are eating 200% of our daily value in sodium and over-eating in calories, but wondering why we can't lose weight, why we're still on medication, even though we're eating salads every day,” says James. All heads are nodding in agreement at this point.
While firefighter Tate does the dishes, Chef Brazil tests the chicken and explains his approach to the menu: “We're trying to show them how to prepare a meal with local food, the least-processed stuff we can get. So, everything is locally grown, locally sourced. No processed anything, and we just prepare a great meal for them.”
Beyond the Local Food for Local Heroes dinners, Tate is continually building new partnerships with quality food vendors throughout the city to help make the best choices a bit more affordable for the life of the firehouse.
“Nobody ever wants to be in that position where you're on a plaque, or you're on a t-shirt, or you're remembered down at the training academy,” says Lt. Sipes. “Even if we change one mindset, we change one individual, hopefully, we have that ripple effect where that one guy now has changed the whole crew, and then the crew is a battalion…it makes a big difference.”
The walls surrounding the dining area at Engine 10 are decorated with artifacts that articulate the “House of Pain” name. The city, historically, has always been busy. “Before I got here,” says Lt. Sipes, “they were turning the wheel probably 30 or 40 times a day, going out the door. The House of Pain is a well-earned name, because they don't really sleep, ever.”
(LEFT) Jonathan Tate checks his radio as his truck company responds to a fire call. (RIGHT) Firefighters from multiple engine and truck companies help load hoses on the back of an engine after extinguishing a fire.
Last year, the district fire department responded to about 220,000 calls. “We're the only department that protects the Executive branch, the Legislative branch, and the Judicial branch of government,” says Fire Chief Gregory Dean. “This is a city that has a tremendous number of first amendment marches and rallies, we also have to be prepared for that, yet we must also continue to provide the same level of service to all our residents throughout the district.”
But Chief Dean also acknowledges we have a long way to go when it comes to prioritizing health and wellness within the fire service: “We need to be better at teaching our members how to take care of themselves, how to eat right, and how to fuel their bodies so that they can be productive athletes.”
Sergeant Williams echoes this and adds his spin: “We get the word out about the potential toxins that we are taking into our bodies on the calls that we're running, like the fires and the smoke that we are inhaling. I think that same thing should go with changing our tactics in the things that we're eating and what it's doing to us—treat them the same way.”
Working It Out
The gym at Engine 6 is large by DC firehouse standards—many firehouses don’t have a fitness space at all—but prior to the recent renovation it felt more like a storage unit for old exercise equipment than a place of motivation. In the basement of the House of Pain, a lone bench sits on a treadmill and an old punching bag lays dead amidst miscellaneous dumbbells.
Firefighters can’t control sleep deprivation, hazardous environments, or the stress of their job; but they can control diet and exercise.
Jonathan Tate, Firefighter and EMT, Founder, Food on the Stove
This is another dimension of the contribution Food on the Stove is making: Gym renovations. Starting with Engine 6 to honor Lt. McRae and remember him, but also to install reminders to all firefighters that health needs to be a priority. Jonathan hopes these revamped gyms set a new standard for the fire service.
“A lot of it has to do with budget,” says Jonathan. “We have a lot of other things that take priority, but that's where Food on the Stove comes in. We want to make sure that fire fighters get the best of everything.”
In addition to gym renovations, in 2021 Food on the Stove started a meal delivery service called Farm to Firehouse with the goal of putting healthier meals on firehouse tables. The program was a huge success and fed over 5,000 firefighters. The program will soon be scaled to include multiple departments (looking at you, MD and VA) via a custom app.
"Our programming has grown rapidly to meet the needs of thousands of firefighters with the support of large philanthropic partners, local entrepreneurs, neighbors, and even firefighters. I’ve never been more optimistic about making our vision—ending heart disease in the fire service—a reality," says Jonathan.
Soon Food on the Stove will finalize the purchase of a decommissioned firehouse (likely in NW DC) and begin to scale its programs and expand its ability to meet the unending needs of the firehouses. The crises are unending, but citizens can proactively participate in a safer, more sustainable future by caring for front-line providers in creative ways like through Food on the Stove. Such a critical kindness.
"And in the process," says Jonathan, "we'll show the world what love looks like."