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story.lead_photo.caption Little Rock firefighter Keith Lovell (right) and Capt. Jackie Rankin carve turkeys before Thanksgiving dinner Thursday at Fire Station 1. - Photo by Thomas Metthe

On Thanksgiving Day, nine firefighters are on call at Central Fire Station in downtown Little Rock.

The staff is smaller -- there are usually 14 at any given time at the station at Seventh and Chester streets -- and it's a laid-back crisp afternoon this holiday, but the duties are the same as any other Thursday, plus a few more.

In the garage, the firefighters' gear hangs on the engines so firefighters can make for a quick transition should they be dispatched to a fire.

On this particular day, although an alarm could wail and send them out to fight a blaze at any moment, all attention inside the firehouse is on a different operation -- a seasoned turkey being slowly lowered into a Butterball electric fryer filled with bubbling peanut oil.

That's firefighter Jeff Fryar's job, though several others have gathered in the small, steel-walled kitchen to make sure the task is done right.

What if the firehouse feast goes up in flames? Fryar says there's no plan for that, and there's never been a need for one.

Capt. Jason Weaver said Wednesday that the Fire Department usually sees a slight uptick in calls during the cold-weather holidays, partly because of inattentive cooking and problems with heating systems, such as space heaters.

According to statistics from the U.S. Fire Administration, Thanksgiving fire calls are more than double the average daily number at residential buildings nationally.

Weaver said he isn't sure those numbers bear out in Little Rock.

This Thanksgiving afternoon at Central Fire Station the pace is slow and the focus is on the food. Central Fire Station, which holds two engines and one ladder truck, answers roughly 7,000 calls each year. Citywide, firefighters respond to about 35,000 calls each year, Capt. Jacob Lear-Sadowsky said.

About 1 p.m. Thursday, the alarm blares, interrupting the food prep work. The crew members of Engine No. 1 leave a bowl of freshly peeled potatoes and chopped garlic on the counter, rushing out to their gear to make sure they'll be ready to provide medical assistance if needed once police secure the scene of an assault several blocks south on Chester Street.

While they wait in the engine, Fryar and fellow firefighters Daniel Standridge and Andrew Decker discuss memorable fires from days past. A downtown church went up in flames one Easter. A home in west Little Rock was damaged when someone tried to put out a kitchen grease fire by pouring water on it, causing the oil to splash and spread the flames. In east Little Rock, a man once lit his home on fire when he tried to burn the leaves on his roof, they remembered.

Help from the crew on Engine No. 1 (nicknamed Brenda) isn't needed after all, so the firefighters drive back to the station and back to the kitchen. There are two more turkeys to fry to feed the station's crew and their family members, who begin to trickle in as grits and gravy bubble on the stove. A spirited debate about whether putting corn in macaroni and cheese is appropriate -- Decker's dish -- is underway.

Cooking is important to firefighters. They spend 24-hour shifts together and usually share two meals during that time.

"You'll pretty much get shamed if you can't cook," firefighter Matt Kings says.

Keith Lovell, an engineer and a nearly 20-year veteran of the station, is sometimes called "Chef Ramsay," after the tough-talking TV personality. He's known as a kitchen expert who can be harsh on the others about improving their cooking, but they're thankful for it. He once made egg rolls from scratch, a staffer recalls.

"I made lasagna," one firefighter pipes in.

"Stouffer's," another shoots back, and others in the kitchen laugh.

Lear-Sadowsky's wife, Gina, and two children arrive. Luke, 14, and Olivia, 9, have been visiting the station since they were small. On this holiday, Olivia says seeing her dad is her favorite part, though both children are looking forward to the food.

Other firefighters, including Fryar, will see their loved ones later in the week. Fryar's wife and three children are in Texarkana visiting extended family members. Fryar misses them, but he says he doesn't mind missing Black Friday shopping.

Shortly after 2:30 p.m., the firefighters begin to lay out the spread, which includes turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, green bean casserole, stuffing and pies.

Lear-Sadowsky gets on the building's public-address system.

"Everyone to the kitchen. Everyone to the kitchen."

As spouses and children get in line, the alarm sounds. Engine No. 1 is called out again.

It's a quick medical call for an elderly man who's fallen near Wolfe Street, where Decker, Standridge and Fryar provide care until an ambulance arrives.

Then it's back to the station to fill up their plates.

Metro on 11/23/2018

Print Headline: Holiday feast at Little Rock fire station fits and starts

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