REEDY CREEK IMPROVEMENT DISTRICT, Fla. — From responding to emergencies at the Bippity-Boppity-Boo Boutique, to rescuing a downed princess, the Reedy Creek Professional Firefighters isn’t your traditional fire service.
RCPF serves the Reedy Creek Improvement District, the exclusive government agency of Walt Disney World properties in Florida, providing all fire and emergency services for 38.5 square miles, which encompasses four theme parks, two water parks and more than 40,000 hotel rooms – a daunting task for any fire service.
Firefighter-paramedic Rick Spence vividly remembers the day he climbed 12 flights of stairs to the top of Expedition Everest, a roller coaster at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, to rescue a woman after the ride became stuck.
“The lady in the very top car had just had a knee replacement about six weeks earlier, and there was no way she could walk down 12 flights of stairs,” he said. “So, they called us, and we took a stair chair up there. Me and my partner helped her out of the car, threw her on, strapped her in and finally took her to the bottom.”
By the time they arrived back on solid ground, it was Spence’s knee that needed medical attention.
“My knee had blown up like a basketball, and I wound up having to have knee surgery six months later,” he recalls. “They’re going to redo the ride and they’re putting in an elevator … which, doesn’t help me any now.”
Unusual calls are the hallmark of the RCPF
From park guests stuck on rides, to dragons engulfed in flames, the calls the RCPF responds to are far from ordinary.
Spence recalls another time when he had to help Pluto, Goofy’s pet pooch, out of an emergency situation.
“He was on stage, and he got too close to the edge during the show and fell off,” he said. “It was about a five-foot drop … and he was actually hurt pretty severely.”
Spence did the only thing he could: he cut Pluto out.
“I don’t know how many thousands of dollars one of these outfits costs, but I got to cut it to shreds because you’ve got to expose his body to see if he’s got any internal injuries or bleeding,” Spence said.
Responding to medical emergencies at performances is par for the course, though.
“That’s happened several times,” Spence said. “We’ve had people in Cirque du Soleil that we’ve had to airlift out of there because they missed a jump or fell from a landing or trapeze.”
Fixing ‘ouchies’ is a daily occurrence
Nearly every call the RCPF receives is going to come with an audience and will often require mending boo-boos.
“If a kid falls down and skins his knee getting Goofy’s autograph, they’re gonna call us out there,” Spence said. “It’s not a difficult call; usually the report is longer than the call itself. You just get up there, make a joke or two, wipe the blood off his knee, put a Band-Aid on it and everybody’s happy.”
Of course, firefighters often have to pose for a commemorative photo, as well.
“Mom always wants a picture of the fire department or the firefighters with their son,” Spence said. “If we take somebody to the hospital, they want a picture in the back of the truck.”
Which is fine with Spence, who notes it comes at a price. “You’ve got to live with my face in the picture,” he laughed. “The only problem there, is it was made to be on radio.”
Medical calls dominate
According to Spence, most calls to fire departments across the U.S. are 85 to 90 percent medical, whereas the volume at RCPF is up to 95 to 97 percent. And, he surmises, that’s because of the Disney magic.
“I guess because Disney advertises itself as the most magical place on earth, [people] don’t think anything bad is ever going to happen out there,” he said. “We’ve got asthmatics [who] won’t bring their inhalers, diabetics who don’t bring their insulin. I tell people, ‘If you’re asthmatic in Colorado, you’re an asthmatic in Florida.’”
In fact, helping tourists adapt to the Florida heat is an everyday occurrence.
“You can’t tell people how hot it is here,” he said. “I’ve lived here my whole life, and I don’t get out and get my mail in the summertime until it gets dark, because it’s miserable here. If I had a dollar for every time I ran a call on a teenage girl who overheated and hyperventilated … I’d be a gazillionaire.”
Fifty years providing service to Disney
RCID celebrated its 50th anniversary last year. In an area that attracts millions of visitors each year, the goal of the RCID fire service is to minimize damage, but also to minimize downtime.
“The livelihood of so many people in this area is dependent on Disney, so we try to do everything we can to make sure that they stay in business,” Spence said.
From food establishments, to hotels, to souvenir shops and entertainment venues, the RCPF is responsible for the protection of millions of tourism dollars.
“The whole of the central Florida economy is all tied to how Disney goes, and we try to minimize their interruptions and issues there,” Spence said.
Training and prevention set RCPF apart from other departments
One of the largest factors in minimizing interruptions is enhanced training and prevention practices implemented by the RCID. Extensive fire prevention plans are put into place at every establishment built by Disney.
“You’re probably safer there than just about any place in the world when it comes to fire prevention or fire protection,” Spence said.
Due to the combination of unique architecture, constant crowds, population turnover and potential financial losses of any closure or structure damage, fire prevention and advanced training is crucial to the success of the RCPF.
Spence noted the Reedy Creek firefighters are exceptionally well trained. “Our department has become a destination department. For the last five years, we’ve got people who are officers from other departments coming here to ride backwards as firefighters and run calls as frontline paramedics.”
The true heroes of the Disney universe
If you ask Spence, he will tell you that you will never find a group of more-qualified firefighters.
“I have seen our guys over the years, and just how they act and carry themselves, I’m proud of where I work,” he said. “I love my job and I would not trade it for anything. That’s one of the best decisions I’ve made in my whole life.”
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