Firefighting is rife with hard and fast rules. And even though, at any given episode unpredictability can fast become the norm, these rules remain in place – guiding stars, if you will. Wisdom of our fathers and all that.
But the really cool thing I’ve discovered about the rules is that they cross over. Into motherhood, into friendships, into other careers. In fact, with very little manipulation, the golden rules of firefighting can become the golden rules of life.
I think it looks something like this:
1.) Prevention. Smoke alarms, CO2 detectors, an escape plan.
Mothers, can we apply this to our children? Feed the dog before you do your homework, so he isn’t tempted to eat your math paper. Tidy your bedroom daily so that it never arrives at Tornado Alley status. As for teenagers and prevention . . . well, you know the drill.
2.) “Two In and Two Out” is a perfect life lesson. In the fire service, it applies to the way we enter a burning building – which is to say, never alone and never without back-up on the outside. It’s hot in there, you can get hurt.
Don’t enter life alone, either. Be social able, make friends. Because it’s lonely out there, and you can get hurt. Hug and hold hands and love each other – we all need somebody, and that is as it should be.
3.) Bring all you’ve got. If the worst happens and the fire is up and running and bigger than anything you’ve ever seen, throw everything at it. All the water, all the manpower and all the equipment. Be strong and be smart and keep working. And don’t be afraid to ask for help. Every department near and far. They want to come, they’re dying to lend a hand.
So it is in life. In the midst of complete catastrophe, you can’t curl up and die. Stand up and throw everything you’ve got at the problem. All of your brains, your skills, your time and talent. And it’s okay - it’s good in fact - to ask for help. Call friends and cousins, coworkers, Mom and Father Barron. We’re all here to help each other.
4.) Remember accountability. When you go into that fire, you’re not only responsible for you, but also for your brother. Be safe, be responsible. Remember that you are valued and very much needed, and always loved.
5.) Oh, and don’t forget your bunker gear. No sense scraping your knees if you happen to stumble. That Superman costume, real or imagined, can be a total life saver.
Lately it occurs to me that twenty years in fire/EMS might be enough. Because . . . well, because here she is.
Ninety two years old, a simple ground level fall at the local assisted living facility. Possible broken hip. We’ve got her on a backboard with the injury site padded and suddenly she is vomiting. It happens – pain, fear, any number of reasons. My partner pulls over and dashes back to help me turn the board, and the patient just keeps bringing up lunch for what seems like a very long time.
But that’s not the story, either, not really. Here is what I want to say about her – tiny little thing all alone, her husband gone, children AWOL. In pain. Sick. When she’s not vomiting, she tries a smile out on me, and asks how I am today, do I like my job, am I from the area?
This just hurts my heart; really, it does.
Since Nine-Eleven, we in the emergency medical field have gotten a lot of hero dust sprinkled on us, but I think most of us would agree with this assessment – usually the hero is the one lying on the cot. And this lady, today, is one of them.
How am I today?
That’s where the twenty-year part figures in. Because I used to walk away from the lol (little old lady) falls and forget about them even before the run sheet had printed. Anymore, it feels like I leave a piece of myself on every call. The patient has taken on a level of . . . well, humanness, that leaves me smaller than I like to be and drenched in an empathy that frightens me. At some point it all became real, and the enthusiasm and, yes, even jubilation, with which I used to answer the tones has fallen by the wayside, along with the nine digit emergency number and the headlong ride on the back step of the pumper.
Laying the call aside when it is over has become a larger task than the call itself, and there are sleepless nights when I think about the twenty years gone with something less than satisfaction or even plain old contentment. The early mornings and late nights. The family events where I was empty place at the table. Again. The meetings. The trainings. The hours spent in ER after a body fluids exposure. The shuttling the kids to the babysitter and cancelling plans with the spouse. Twenty years chucked, for what?
Ah, but then it happens. I mold the SAM splint around a teensy broken arm, and the child quits crying. I give the glucagon shot and the patient wakes up. I respond to a house fire and join in the beauty of all of us working together like a well-oiled machine. We not only save the house, we rescue the family cat – and the smile of the little girl holding her singed-but-squalling kitty is, you see, the answer to the question.
Maybe twenty years isn’t quite enough yet.
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