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Richard Albright

(Image)It's 11:00 p.m. and Richard Albright and his coworkers are getting ready for bed—but they're still working. It's typical for them to get some shut-eye at the office, considering their shifts run 24 hours. But working for the Palo Alto Fire Department means they will make themselves ready and alert if duty calls.

Albright works at the SLAC firehouse three of every nine days, along with two other team members. The Palo Alto Fire Department safeguards SLAC and the surrounding community 24/7, 365 days a year. During shifts, the crew members live like family. They share cooking and cleaning responsibilities, a single bathroom and a rugged common room with mismatched furniture. "It's my home away from home," says Albright as he adjusts the bulky black radio secured at his hip. The radio keeps him in touch with his team no matter where they are on campus. As we chat in the oversized garage attached to the firehouse, he hops up into the bright red fire engine and settles into the driver's seat like it is second nature. Next to the massive truck, the crew has a small collection of workout machines, a bench press, and a punching bag. At night they settle into a dorm-style bedroom, though their rest may end quickly if a call comes in.

Albright works an average of 54 hours in a single week, but he regularly has time off in bulk. For his first 10 years with the Palo Alto Fire Department, he spent his free time surfing in San Francisco, Santa Cruz and even Indonesia. He talks about his trip to Indonesia like it's his first love: "It's a surfer's wonderland. The swells come from Antarctica and make the conditions consistently great for surfing. And there's the culture, the food, and the people. It's amazing."

Lately, Albright dedicates his off-work hours to his six-month-old daughter. He confesses that even a firefighter reaches exhaustion caring for a newborn. "I devote so much time and energy to her," he says. "It means I have to manage how I use my energy between work and home. But I miss seeing her everyday. Seventy-two hours is the most I've had to be away from her since she was born." Albright says the Palo Alto Fire Department members support each other by offering childcare when emergencies send them away for days at a time.

Sometimes the firefighters must work on holidays or during family events. "It's tough," says Albright. "We try to help each other out and trade shifts when someone has somewhere they want to be."

A firefighter's job can be unpredictable at best, but Albright says he enjoys the variety: "We never know exactly what will happen or when." The Palo Alto Fire Department responds primarily to medical emergencies and fires, but also to a patchwork of other situations including urban search and rescue, and hazardous material containment. This requires Albright to take classes and online training.

Overall, Albright appreciates the rewards that come with being a firefighter. "I've been on a few calls where we've really made a difference, where we've saved someone's life," he says. "I like knowing that I'm contributing to society—to the greater good. It's real. It's genuine."

—Calla Cofield
SLAC Today, August 13, 2008