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Firefighter immersed in lives of people facing loss, homelessness, death

By Michael Neary

Lance Jacobson’s work as a firefighter immerses him in lives of residents and issues they face each day: loss from fires, homeless people on the streets in the cold and a person needing consolation as she faces imminent death.

Lance Jacobson
Lieutenant Lance Jacobson serves same firehouse his father served.

Firefighting simmered in Lance Jacobson’s imagination for a long time.  His father, George Jacobson, spent his career working as a Spokane firefighter at the same station, Engine Company Seven, where his son now works.

Lance recalls the admiration he had for his dad’s work, fused with an infatuation with the trappings of a firefighter’s life.

“I always thought, like most children, that the fire trucks and station were pretty neat,” he said.

So, when he was pondering a career choice some three decades ago, his father’s profession presented a likely place to turn.

Once he began working in the field, it quickly became his own. As Lance, 55, talked about his work recently, he described the excitement of going out on a call—along with the relief of helping someone discover that everything was going to be all right.

“They give you a hug and say, ‘Thank you, thank you,’” said Lance, a fire lieutenant who has worked for the Spokane Fire Department for 32 years.

Engine Company Seven covers Southeast Spokane.  One of his responsibilities involves helping people who are homeless, a phenomenon he’s seen swell since rough economic times hit a few years ago. He said the homeless have been hit particularly hard by funding cuts.

Firefighters can connect people who are intoxicated and on the street with detoxification services, but only when the van that takes people to the city’s detox center is running. The hours are limited.

Lance said Brian Schaeffer, assistant chief of the fire department, has reported that the fire and police departments don’t have the staffing to provide transportation to the city’s detox center.

“We don’t have time that we can take out of service to transport people to the detox center,” he said.  “Often when we’re on a call, there’s another call waiting.”

That poses a tough problem for a firefighter who’s trying to help someone who’s on the street in the winter and who’s inebriated.

“He may not be having a medical situation that warrants sending him to the hospital, but I worry that he’ll wander off, staggering, and pass out again,” he said. “I worry he’s going to freeze to death, and there’s a good likelihood he could.”

Lance said firefighters from Engine Company Seven discover about two people each month in this sort of situation.

“I worry that with the lack of funding, this will become more prevalent,” he said. Sometimes the solution is to improvise.

He recalls finding a man on the street and drunk at a time no transportation services were running. In this case, he and other firefighters found identification and learned the man was not homeless.  He lived only a few blocks away.

“We actually snuck him on the fire truck and took him home,” Lance said. “I wasn’t going to come back the next morning and find him dead.”

In other instances, he explained, he’s walked people home who were drunk and on the streets.

Lance said he encounters other problems that make life rough for homeless people, especially during the winter.

The city’s warming centers open up only when it’s below 15 degrees Fahrenheit, creating limited options during cold weather that doesn’t quite reach that threshold.

“If it’s 20 degrees and they’re not open, a person can freeze pretty fast,” he said. 

A frequent problem, too, Lance said, is access to medical care.

“They don’t have transportation,” he said, “and they have not been able to get to regular appointments.”

Lance, who is a member of St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, said his faith can bolster his ability to continue working in the face of the obstacles he encounters.

“Maybe God is my counselor in some ways,” he said.

He passes that counseling spirit along to others.

Lance remembers answering a call where a woman’s health was declining quickly, and he felt a kind of spiritual connection as he comforted her.

“While everyone was talking, I just reached my hand out and held her hand,” he said. “I felt it was a God thing. It just seemed to give her so much reassurance.”

For information, call 328-0822.



Copyright © February 2013 - The Fig Tree


Published by The Fig Tree, 1323 S. Perry St., Spokane, WA 99202
509-535-4112 / 509-535-1813

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