One of my earliest memories is of my father opening a garage door for me at our house when I was maybe 2 years old. It was dark in the garage and I was waiting for him to open the door. As soon as the light came in and he pulled the door up, I went racing out on my big wheel making the most realistic siren noise I could. In my mind I was pulling out of the busiest fire station in the biggest fire truck. I turned up the street and rode to the end of the block and stopped.
I remember wondering what I should do now that I was out. It wasn’t until about 10 years later that I discovered what it was firemen do after they pull out of the garage, siren blaring. But for the moment I was happy taking my nap in the back room with my boots placed neatly next to the bed, waiting for my mother to wake me. When she did, I would race down the hall into the garage and be off in the other direction.
I wish it were as simple as it seemed then. I had no idea there was more involved than simply driving away.
Many years later I find myself concerned that it may not be enough to be an educated and dedicated fireman. Since my humble beginnings as a Big Wheel Fireman I have striven to not only do well, but try to learn where the service would be in the time it took me to reach my goals. Would Paramedics rise and control a good portion of the rank structure or would private ambulances corner the market making Fire based Paramedics obsolete? Should I specialize in airport, rescue, scuba, collapse rescue:There seemed so many options, too many options and maybe the simplest solution was the best: Just a fireman. A simple fireman. Smoke Eater:etc. Why would I need to specialize when I could get an assignment anywhere as a fireman.
It seemed like a great idea and was all I had on my mind when I joined the local Fire Explorers out of Station 31.
My favorite part of being an explorer was when we had our turnouts on and participated in a drill. It really makes you feel like a real fireman when the boots, pants, jacket and helmet match the on duty firemen. We would meet once a week, on Wednesdays, and start each meeting with physical exercise, followed by a uniform inspection and a drill. I remember there were a variety of drills from ladders to extinguishers to medical assessments. There were other scouts that spoke of working for a local ambulance company or studying to get on a wildland crew. Sounded like a good idea, but I was only 16 years old.
Bunker drills were often and I prided myself on being the fastest in my group to dress in full turnouts each week. My gloves were always clean and my coat neatly folded when not in use, a habit I learned from my father. “Take care of your equipment and it will take care of you.â€ Explorers, after completing every drill in a cycle, were permitted to sit for a test to become ride-a-long certified, which would allow me to go on calls and assist when appropriate.
Uniform neatly pressed and safety equipment checked, I reported for my first day at Station 31. The Captain was a friend of my father’s, and explained the day’s activities to me as well as what was expected of me. I kept hearing what I thought was the alarm and got very excited. I vividly remember the first call we went on, a traffic accident. The alarm went off, we all ran to the engine and away we went. Door up, siren blaring. My Heart was leaping out of my chest, red lights were flashing and reflecting off of the cars that pulled over to let us by. We were racing to someone in need. We arrived to find a minor accident with no injuries. No injuries, no fire, no emergency. It reminds me now of when I was at the corner on my big wheel, wondering what to do next. The Captain informed me later in the day that I shouldn’t be discouraged, but thankful that I only had one call and that it turned out to be nothing. He told me one day I’ll hope all the calls are false alarms.
My next ride at Station 31 solidified my resolve to become a paramedic. During our morning exercise the alarm sounded for a medical aid call. Again the door was up, siren roaring and we headed to the scene. Walking in the door carrying our standard medical equipment, I expected an old woman sick or maybe a man with stomach pain. What I didn’t expect was the Captain, who entered ahead of us, emerging from the rear bedroom carrying a lifeless body. Our patient, an elderly man, was in full cardiac arrest. The Fireman and Engineer calmly entered the room, moved the coffee table and the Captain placed the man on the living room floor. His skin was a shade of gray/blue that I have only seen since on persons who are dead. We cut open the man’s shirt and began CPR. I had only received my CPR card a few weeks prior and was scared I would do it wrong. The AED was applied and before I knew it, Medic 22 was at the scene.
Like I’d seen on TV as a child. They had the tools to save lives. Everything seemed urgent in my mind from starting the IV to transporting to the hospital. Part of out training included preparing the IV bag, so I spiked it. Hands shaking, I could barely insert the drip chamber into the saline bag. The Paramedics from Medic 22 seemed relaxed, almost bored. They discussed treatment options I didn’t understand and administered drugs I had never heard of. When the ambulance arrived, the driver was a member of my explorer post and we made a quiet nod of recognition. the Firefighter would be needed to drive the Medic unit to the hospital as both Paramedics tended to the patient.
The engine followed the ambulance and the medic van to the hospital. By the time we arrived he had been “pronounced” dead. I know now he was dead the whole time, but that kid wanted to believe what we did worked.
I was permitted to see the man one last time to “say goodbye” and that was the first time I saw an actually dead body. All the training, all the drugs, equipment, sirens, flashing lights…all of it made no difference whatsoever. He was dead.
Not long after that day, while practicing knot tying behind the station, one of the Captains counseled me in what it would take to be a firefighter and paramedic in the coming years. “Jump through every hoop they put in front of you.â€
I still agree with that and feel like I’m still jumping even today. Only I’m the one lifting the hoops higher and higher.