LOS ANGELES — It’s only about an hour into their shift, but a group of firefighter-paramedics of Los Angeles Fire Department's Fire Station 9 are already busy responding to one of nearly two dozen medical calls they will get on this day.
This call, is one of their most frequent — a possible overdose on Skid Row.
One of the paramedics injects the patient with Narcan, the widely-used overdose antidote, then the team transfers the man's frail body onto a stretcher that's placed into the ambulance.
Inside, they work quickly to give the patient fluids, but he is so malnourished and his veins are so damaged, the paramedics have to use a bone drill to deliver the IV.
The firefighter-paramedics here are young but experienced, methodical, and tireless. They are proud to work for the busiest fire station in the nation.
“These guys have the strongest amount of fortitude that I’ve seen at any other station. They’re running their 30-plus calls and they have the same smile and attitude throughout," said Captain Rico Gross.
Captain Gross says Fire Station 9 services a 1.2 square mile radius, predominantly made up of L.A.'s Skid Row.
They see their fair share of structure fires and car crashes, but Gross says more than 80 percent of 9's calls are medical-related.
Most of those calls are tending to the homeless.
“Overdoses, chest pain, psychological emergencies. Everything you can imagine, we go on," said Mike Villata, who drives one of the apparatuses.
Villata has been a firefighter for eight years in downtown L.A. and joined Station 9's crew eight months ago.
He's one of several team members at 9 who are second, third or fourth generation firefighters.
"I grew up in fire service and I’ve always believed that doing the greatest good for the greatest number of people is what I want to do," Villata said.
Here, the greatest number of people adds up to thousands each month.
“The reason we became EMTs, firefighters, paramedics, is because we want to take care of the citizens," said Captain Gross.
Many of the streets surrounding Station 9 are covered in tents, trash, and bodily fluids.
If you ask why any of the firefighters here wanted to join this station, they all give the same answers.
There’s the experience part: nothing prepares you for dealing with any type of situation like this particular part of L.A.
But they also come here for the personal fulfillment: to feel like they’re making a difference and for the family they get to join.
“It makes me feel proud," Villata said. "Working with the men and women assigned here, it’s a privilege."
During Spectrum News 1's ride along with Fire Station 9, we got a rare glimpse of their very few and far between breaks: a meal together for sometimes only a few minutes before the next call comes.
It was hard to even finish an interview without being interrupted by the 911 operator blaring a call on a loud speaker.
The job here comes with many challenges.
Fire Station 9 responded to more than 35,000 calls in 2018, according to Firehouse Magazine.
But in addition to their high run volume, the crews here also have to be extremely careful with personal safety given the territory they cover.
Some of their patients, suffering from substance abuse or mental illness become combative. Some have been armed.
“A month ago someone pulled a knife on one of our captains and was threatening to stab him," Villata recounted. “There’s times you can be exposed to needles, human waste, trash.”
Yet nothing seems to get them down. They’ve just gotten very good at keeping their heads on swivels and looking out for each other.
“Most of us that are here asked to come here so we knew what were were getting ourselves into," said Mason Patrick, a firefighter-paramedic who joined Station 9 more than a year and a half ago.
Twelve hours into their shift, the team's energy hasn't burned out.
And they still have 12 hours to go. For some, including Patrick, it's even longer.
“Most of us don’t just work 24 hours. We are here for 48 and 72, some even longer, that’s why we hardly sleep.”
Even when the overnight runs extinguish any chance for them to rest, they say no one is fazed.
In fact, the crews seem to thrive on the constant hustle and on getting to work together.
“I love being with my crew," Patrick said. "This is my second family."
A family of heroes measured not just by their number of calls, but by the commitment to their calling.