December 24, 2011

The Essence of Being a Firefighter

Below is my response to a LinkedIn question posed by a young EMT who asked:

Have you ever Saved a life?

The response is the evolution of nearly 20 years responding to various emergencies of many different types and levels coupled with a growth of spiritual perspective that only experience could bring.  Of course I realized that in this one simple response I went from being a fire service “young buck” to an “old timer” or, more honestly, perhaps this response has shown me what my brothers and sisters in the service have seen for years!  

I know there will be some “young ins” who will roll their eyes at my response and the idea itself makes me laugh.  I laugh because I have certainly exercised my ocular muscles over the years when given some worldly advice, and the irony that the exchange of roles (pun intended) provides certainly isn’t lost on me.  Here I am, a 44 year old man who can still hang with the youngsters on any job (well, sorta) acting like a long-retired chief-turned-engineer with awesome pearls of wisdom only he can appreciate.  Still, this answer needs to be shared if, for no other reason, than it is pure simplicity.

“I” don’t have any saves…”we” have plenty.

What I mean by that is to suggest that I have never saved a life except as part of a team determined to achieve that goal. I can think of countless separate incidents where the team I have been a part of has saved lives over the last 20 years or so of my service. Through the numerous MVC’s with entrapment, cardiac arrests, allergic reactions, drug overdoses, etc. the team I have been a part of did its job to the utmost and yes, lives were saved.

I have never had to do CPR on my own, but rather been part of a team doing CPR. I’ve never treated someone going into anaphylaxis as a one-man show. I’ve never done a dashboard roll, or a lift, or a fire attack on my own (although I did do a door pop on a Volvo once by myself in the mid-1990’s…the result of a daytime response in a vollie service. No injuries were life threatening though.)

I’ve never gotten on a rig by myself, and I’ve never returned to the house by myself. In fact, I have never done a thing by myself since the first day I walked into a firehouse and said “I want to join.” From that moment on I’ve been part of a Brotherhood (unisex term) that means I never have to go it alone, and you won’t either.

When we enter a working fire, I am not there just to put the fire out. I am there to protect you, and you me. When we do a primary search, I am not just looking for civilians who may need me, I am looking out for you…my brother…and you me. When we venture onto a roof to ventilate, it is an expression of love for those who are operating inside the structure that says “I am here, you are safe.” And while it may not always work out that way, we do our best to make sure it does.

I pray none sharing my service take offense to this response. It’s just that it took me quite a while to understand that “we” are what matters in the Service. Not “I”, or “me”, but WE. Firefighters are not buried alone, we do not die alone, and we do not serve alone.  When one of us dies, he takes a piece of those left behind with him.  When one is hurt, we all hurt.  We can see our own families in the eyes of his family.  We are, after all, one big extended family who may not always like each other, but who always love each other.

We share laughs, we share tears, we share victories and we share defeats.  We hug, we fight, we curse and we bust each others’ chops mercilessly.  We break bread together, we care for each other and we can see each other not in the macho light we cast on ourselves, but as the best part of humanity that comes to the surface when the shit hits the fan.  That’s who we are, man at his essence and man at his best contrasting self.

Be well, and I wish you all the best for a safe, healthy and remarkably sensational New Year!

See, I used to be a one-man tank who could do it all.  Now, I am part of a crew that can.  I don’t try to stay in some semblance of fitness for me, but for the brothers who need count on me.  It’s a beautiful evolution of spirit, mind, and body all working toward one goal: to express the love I have for humanity in one dynamic experience.

When I get on the truck I am figuratively saying “I am.”  When I get off the truck on a scene I am saying “I am here.”  When I am actually working I am saying “I am Love.”  No bias, no prejudice, no judgement, just Love.  We may be breaking windows as that expression (that gets some of the heat and smoke out).  We may be tearing a car apart, or cutting a hole in a roof.  We may be rappelling down a wall, or laddering a window, or banging on your door telling you to get the “F@%* out of here.”  While most of us would never admit this dark and rather un-macho truth, what what we are really saying is “we love you and are here to help.”

Finally, a short story.  When I was younger there was this firefighter I could not stand (and the feeling was most likely very mutual).  He was a macho, mean and a bigger blowhard could not be found on the planet.  He reminds me now of me back then, and although I would have never seen it the truth now makes me laugh out loud.  He was a tough guy, always tooting his own horn and jumping first into the fray.  That, of course, ticked me off because we’d often collide mid-air jumping.  Imagine two big guys trying to get through the front door of a house fire at the same time and you can imagine the two of us on a job.  Yeah, I hated that guy.

Once we had a small kitchen fire at a nursing home and were ordered to evacuate the wing where the fire was located.  As I went around checking rooms to ensure they were clear, I saw this firefighter carrying an elderly woman down a hallway.  He had her small O2 tank under his armpit and was being so gentle with her it stopped me in my tracks for a moment.  I loved this man from that moment on, and although he still ticked me off and got in my way, I couldn’t be truly angry with him for very long.  Here he was, the biggest ass I had ever known (that has changed since then for sure) who proved to me that we all share something inside of us that is often unseen until it has no choice but to show itself or, more importantly, we are actually willing to look for it in each other.

He was the first person I directed this saying to.  It’s a saying that I still use to this day, and one that I live my fire service life by and one that has deeply moved my entire life:

“I may hate him, but I love him more.”

Truly, is there any other way?

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