Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A harbinger of times to come

This blog started out with a long list of things I wanted to write about, thoughts I wanted to share.

I discovered not too long after I started that the most interesting things to write about, and to read, are the more personal ones, and that the more personal things are often too much to share. A dilemma.

That said...

I meet a lot of people in this tiny town. Often, when they are having a difficult time of some kind. Sometimes, I RE-meet them on those stressful days. People I've known for years, but not well, suddenly thrown in together as they face a difficult event, and I do my best to help ameliorate it.

Sometimes it's great. We reconnect, and I walk away feeling like I was able to be some help to them.

But sometimes, it's a harbinger of times to come, when things will not end well.

A while back we had a call for an older man who had fallen. He wasn't hurt. Just needed a hand up.
This was a patient I had seen before. The last time, at his house when his wife was ill.

I had not heard at the time, but she passed away shortly after that.

So this time, at his house, she was not there.
It was heart wrenching to see how much he has changed in so short a time. His caregiver said simply "He is dying of a broken heart."

It will likely not be long before we are no longer called to that address.

That is the reality of this job.
We do the best we can to help, and then comes a time when we can do no more.

When I was younger, I had very little contact, very little realization of death. My grandparents died when I was fairly young, but I did not know them well, so it didn't have much effect on me. I knew one or two people in my first three decades who died in accidents. I was, I guess, fortunate in this.

Now, I am closer to Death. My own, as I grow older, and other people's as my calling brings me to their doors. It is nearly every day that I recognize a name in the obituaries. A patient. The mother of a friend. Someone I went to high school with. The woman down the road.

It is an interesting thing, this specter called "Death."
Everyone's final act, if rarely their goal.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Big One

I wear a pager on my hip. Much of the time, I leave my pager "open," that is to say, so I can hear calls for other fire departments in the county, not just my own. I do this partly because I'm as curious as the next person, but also because I know a lot of people in the fire service now, and whenever there is a call, it is likely friends of mine who are putting themselves in danger.

Whenever there is an emergency that requires either firefighters or emergency medical services, the information that tells them where they are needed is preceded by tones on the pager. Listen to these tones often enough and you begin to recognize them before the dispatcher says anything. There is a department near here that has a tone that is distinctive, and is used when they need to alert off-duty personnel that they may be needed. My family calls this the "shit hitting the fan tone."

Whenever we hear that tone, we stop and pay attention. Likewise, whenever any area department is called to a structure fire. Often, when it is a real emergency, or even when it's clearly not, someone will suggest that it's "the big one."

It's sort of an emergency services in-joke. Most of the "big ones" out here in the middle of nowhere aren't really big. Big for us, or for our neighbor departments, maybe. But not much compared to a lot of other places. Some departments, a cat in a tree might be their "big one." And that's not a complaint, at all.

The thing is, whenever anyone says that, there is an underlying suggestion that it COULD actually be "The Big One." Anything can happen. Anywhere. You just never know.

I can't help but think about what must have gone through the heads of all the FDNY responders on 9/11.

It's the big one.

The REALLY Big One, no joke.

That thing, that specter in the back of everyone's minds, this is really it.

And yet, as big as it was, each individual firefighter, each EMT, each person, what they needed to do, their job, was quite simple. One thing at a time. The same as always. Set up water supply. Pull hoses. Make entry. Search and rescue. Triage. Patient care.

And that's what they did. In impossible circumstances, a situation so beyond the ordinary that there is no way to train for it. They went to work, did their jobs, and were there to help people they had never met.

Only the world came down around them.

I will never forget the moment I saw the first tower begin to fall. Slow motion. Looking exactly like one of those planned demolitions of the old casinos in Las Vegas that there are documentaries about.



My mind froze the moment I realized.

There are people in there.

People who had simply gone to work as usual that morning.
People who could not possibly escape, and who likely had time to realize that.
People with families. Husbands. Wives. Sons and daughters.

And heartbreakingly, sadder than sad, those who had gone to rescue them.

People often say that a firefighter is "willing to die for others." That they "rush into burning buildings."

Like hell.

No sane person is "willing to die."
No sane person rushes in without considering the circumstances, the risk/benefit ratio.

They may choose to take a calculated risk.
And they may underestimate the risk, for whatever reason.

No one knew what the risks were that day.
No one could imagine them.

They can, now.

Since that day, I have met people who were there. People who have stories to tell, about how they were able to survive when others didn't make it. Stories they don't often tell. It isn't about them.

It's about those who can no longer tell their stories.

We lost a lot of good people that day.

Let their sacrifice inspire you to make a difference in the world. We're left with a lot of catching up to do, to do all the good they might have.

Do something in their memory today.

EVERY day.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Three years

As of today, there have been 1040 residential fire fatalities this year, compiled by the US Fire Administration's Quick Response Program. This list is compiled from the media, meaning that there are undoubtedly fatalities that aren't on the list because they didn't make the newspaper. You can see the list here.

Three years ago today, our house burned.
Last year, I posted a description of the events of the day.

Today, we still have not gone through all the boxes of stuff that was packed up by the cleaning company, but we have gone through a lot of them. We have donated, given away, and thrown away a lot of it. While not down to the level we hope to eventually reach, we have far less "stuff" in our house now, and that's a good thing.

As of last month, when my daughter joined, we now have three of the four of us in the fire service. While I had been interested in the fire service for most of my life, and my oldest had some interest before our fire, there is no escaping that the fire was quite... motivational.

It is the beginning of the school year, of the academic semester at local colleges, and this means that a lot of people are going to spend their days in large buildings with crowded conditions, and a lot are going to be living in dorms, also often crowded, or at least, high occupancy.

Take fire safety seriously.
While the most common causes of residential fires may be unattended cooking or that all-too-famous "carelessly discarded cigarette," causes that might be avoidable, they do not all begin that way. Sometimes, there is no warning.

What happens is this: an emergency, by its nature, happens suddenly. You don't have time to think, to decide, to make rational choices. You may be in an unfamiliar building. You may be asleep. There is no way to know.

Make your plans NOW, before things go wrong. Practice them.
You may want to make changes in your house. More smoke detectors. Fire extinguishers. Escape ladders. Furniture arranged so that windows are accessible. Less clutter. Care with the placement and loading of outlets or extension cords. Appliances unplugged when not in use.

If it feels like you are so prepared that no matter what happens, escape will be easy, so you don't need to worry about it- that would be great!

I guarantee you that you do not want to suddenly find yourself inside a burning building, with no protective gear, holding an empty fire extinguisher, facing a fire that is growing exponentially, hoping that your children and pets are already outside. You do not want to hear the fire destroy everything it reaches, or see your house full of smoke down almost to the floor. You don't want to stand in your yard, waiting for help to arrive, wondering if you will have anything left, or where you will go, what you will do. You don't want to hear the firefighters with a chainsaw on your roof.

Trust me on that.