Paramedic Kevin Hook's vehicle speeds up Lombard Street, weaving through traffic. His 7 a.m. shift as acting lieutenant at Baltimore's John F. Steadman Fire Station has just begun and Hook is monitoring dozens of calls scrolling down a monitor mounted on the dashboard of his SUV.
There's an oil spill requiring a hazardous materials team to the east, a car crash to the west and a victim suffering from a stroke ahead on West Baltimore Street. Hook decides to respond to the stroke victim, radios in, turns on his siren and takes off. When he starts a shift, he never knows what kind of calls will come through — he's delivered babies twice, including a set of twins in Hampden — but he knows they won't stop.
"Once you start running, you probably won't be back at the station again that day," says Hook, 37, a 10-year veteran of the department.
This is just an average day at Baltimore's John F. Steadman station, located at the base of downtown's Bromo Seltzer Arts Tower and named the nation's busiest firehouse. For a paramedic, Steadman is nonstop action. An emergency medical worker could drive from fires to stabbings to elevator rescues all in the span of a few hours.
In 2010, Steadman's nine vehicles made 21,921 runs — 3,000 more calls than any other firehouse, according to Firehouse Magazine, a national trade publication that compiles data from fire departments. The station was also named the busiest in the country in 2008. Its three medical units, which perform most of the station's runs, each respond to about 6,000 calls annually. Last year, one of the station's vehicles rolled out an average of 60 times per day.
"That house has always been known in the city as basically an insane asylum," says Rick Hoffman, president of Baltimore's International Association of Firefighters, who served at Steadman for two decades. "It's a whirlwind of activity and fun and camaraderie and hard work.
"The amount of fun is only because the guys take the job so seriously. The other houses in the city, you're assigned to. When you come to Steadman house, you're committed."
Hook responds to the stroke call in the 2000 block of W. Baltimore St. and finds a elderly woman inside, bleeding from her head after a fall. She's lost strength in her hands and is drooling uncontrollably.
Other paramedics are already on the scene, trying to help the woman into a stretcher. At first, they plan to bring her out of the back of the rowhouse, but quickly decide that the back porch is too dilapidated to risk walking on. The woman begins to moan. She's speaking, but not making sense.
Paramedic Clarence Johnson leans down to pick her up.
"Give me a hug, sweetie," he says, placing her onto the stretcher. "Trust the big black man with the bald head."
Outside in the ambulance, the paramedics become increasingly concerned about the woman's high blood pressure. They need to get her to the hospital. Fast.
Johnson runs to the driver's seat, leaving his partner, Paramedic Chris Johnson, to tend to the woman's ailments.
Hook, who supervises paramedics in the area, hops out of the ambulance, gets back in his SUV and starts, once again, analyzing the screen.
Another call comes over the screen, and Hook is off again.
Fires: A barometer of society's health
Founded in 1973, Steadman station is named after a longtime deputy chief who died in 1940 after 27 years with the fire department.
Close to 20 firefighters and paramedics are stationed there at any time, as well as a rotating cast of fire department employees from throughout the city. Its nine vehicles include fire engines, emergency medical services units, a hazmat team and a rescue unit that saves people stuck in elevators or on the water. Some calls are more intense than others, but everyone wants to be part of a big call.
"There are calls medics will fight for," Hook says. "Shootings, stabbings, rescues and fires."