If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen, so Harry S. Truman once advised.
Yoko Sorenson resigned his kitchen, but for a different reason … it wasn’t hot enough.
Sorensen, Cary Fire Department captain and 2010 Town of Cary Employee of the Year, was head chef at an upscale local restaurant when, about a dozen years ago, he decided it was time for a change.
“I was looking for something worth dying for,” he said. Not that, at age “36 or 37,” he has any intention of soon heading to that station in the sky.
With his standard response of “Copy that,” Sorensen is gracious and affable, with a quick wit, boundless energy and a look-you-in-the-eye approach that reveals his passion for this work on behalf of Cary’s citizens.
The son of a volunteer fire investigator, he earned a degree in zoology at N.C. State University and was headed into medicine before choosing a culinary career. Then, he wanted more.
He trained in the Cary Fire Department’s Recruit Academy, earning fire, rescue and EMS certifications. The department’s willingness to hire outside the usual military and fire service ranks makes it heterogeneous, he says, broadening opportunities.
Sorensen specializes in high angle, swift water, trench collapse and confined space rescues, among others. Now, in a prized opportunity to further expand his skills as an emergency services provider, he’s assigned to Cary Fire Department Station 2. (The newest station, the $3.5 million, green-build project Station 8, is now in design phase.)
Hanging in Station 2 is a bright blue banner that reads “Home Safe, Every Day”; working alongside him here is a dedicated crew determined to make that a reality.
“These people are their own unique society,” Sorensen said. “It’s phenomenal to be surrounded by people who are unknowingly beneficent, who do nothing but explore how to do their jobs better. It affects what you’re willing to give. I’m truly humbled, every day.”
Praised by colleagues as a selfless man who helps them meet their personal and professional goals, he demurs: Helping friends flourish, he says, is what makes his days rewarding.
Sorensen leads training programs in-house, at the Wake County Fire Academy, and even out-of-state. He volunteers for pre-incident, accreditation and rescue work teams, which has even led to work on an Abu Dhabi emergency response risk assessment and a lecturer spot at last year’s National Hurricane Conference.
“I’m amazed they pay us to do this job — you just show up and the opportunities are there,” he said. “You don’t count hours; you don’t count money. I’m never disappointed with my days.”
Overall, the Cary Fire Department answers 7,000 calls each year, 60 percent of them for EMS services. The 200-plus members of the department each undertake a minimum of 264 hours of fire and EMS training annually to meet national, state and county directives, and spend time interacting with the community in education and safety forums.
The department also performs biannual pre-incident surveys of all commercial structures in Cary, familiarizing themselves with gas line placement, roof structures and more to ensure best emergency response.
Wi-Fi and Internet systems installed in fire trucks provide mobile information en route, from road access to hazardous materials, all to improve service delivery, speed and consistency.
Sorensen also volunteers with the North Carolina Helicopter & Aquatic Rescue Team, a partnership of civilian and military personnel who perform rescues using the UH-60 Black Hawk.
He’s worked with Urban Search & Rescue for nine years, and prepares moulage, or mock injuries, participating in emergency drills.
Emergency service providers live by the motto Semper Gumby, Sorensen jokes — a play on the Latin phrase semper flexibilis, meaning “always flexible.”
“We have to be forward thinkers. I love to get involved as much as I can, and want an active role in my life,” he said. “Doing things that make you uncomfortable, that’s learning.”
A day off duty for Sorensen, who lives in Cary with his wife, Rachael, can mean developing lesson plans for training, building furniture and practicing his arborist skills.
He likes to run; swim; spend time with their German shorthair pointer, Cona; read Tolstoy, Steinbeck and Vonnegut; and watch C-SPAN.
“There is no bad time except wasted time,” he said with a smile.
Firefighters’ families make the difference, he says, in dealing with the job’s unique stresses.
“Our families help us come here with a clear, conscientious focus. When my wife bolsters me, I’m bulletproof, and that lets me come give guidance to my guys,” he said.
“The job is demanding; we see bad stuff. I never leave home without a kiss and an ‘I love you.’”
Then, when the sirens wail, he and the crew have just six minutes to respond to an emergency: 60 seconds to gear up and 5 minutes drive time, from the time the call for help is placed.
Is he a hero? Absolutely not, Sorensen says, when so many others serve beside him.
“My goal is just to be amazing at this job, to be excellent at what I do,” he said. “Life is precious. I’m so appreciative to be alive; I’m not going to waste this opportunity.”