I have been in public safety for 10 years now and can remember almost every event that has taken place in that time. As often as I’d like to forget some of those events, I don’t get that option. I have heard and seen the good, the bad and the ugly. I have been a firefighter/EMT for 10 years now and a dispatcher for 2, as well as a daughter to a law enforcement officer for my whole life.
Events that we remember are comprised of three key factors: the memory itself, the emotions involved, and the reaction you have to the event. Not always does an event affect someone in a negative or positive way, some have the ability to not feel anything and move on with their day. But the thing is, all of us love the jobs that we do, or else we wouldn’t sacrifice everything to give back to strangers.
When I started this profession at 17, I had visions of the structure fires and the traffic collisions. How mangled cars could get and seeing a column of smoke from the other end of town was what got my adrenaline going. I was the person that the second the pager went off, I was up, dressed and out the door before the staffed units went responding. I craved the adventure and unknown about what I was in route to each time the bells sounded. I spent all of my free time hanging out at the station and training to be prepared and ready for the calls that were going to come. I just wish I was more prepared mentally for some of the calls that I had experienced.
Some of the things I have experienced in my life are not easy even for me to accept, but I would never take a single event for granted. When I was a baby EMT, I worked part time with Ukiah Fire Department for a year and there was a two month period that if we didn’t have a code, we were shocked. In those two months we had 10 codes that we worked; sadly our efforts were not successful on any of them. At 22 years old, I wasn’t prepared to absorb and comprehend death like that. I learned over time that it is life and with my training, we did all that we could. A few years later, I worked a code on a family friend, watched him excel and return home to his family, and then attended his funeral a couple years later. I am most thankful for this experience because we helped to give him more time with his family, for him to start his dream business, and a second chance. Even though I wish it was more time, it was more than he had originally.
The hardest events that I have had to overcome were the fires that originally hooked me into becoming a firefighter. I was in the first engine on scene to an apartment complex fire that consumed 8 apartments and lasted 10+ hours. I went through the entire event being amped up and excited that we got such an amazing fire, until I watched a 4 year old boy grab his soot stained teddy bear from the mess. I had forgotten all about the people that lost everything and who were now homeless. That is the stuff that hits harder than the fire or the event itself. My husband, who is also a fireman, and I drove down the night of the Redwood Valley Complex in 2017 and did everything we could to get people out of their houses. We had propane tanks blowing up in our face and fell on burning fences trying to do whatever we could do. This night haunted me for months because I wish there was so much more that we could have done. We were so limited on resources, as well as completely overwhelmed that this was happening to our community. I don’t think I actually slept for a week. In my free time I was out on the fire ground to help in any way that I could. I could go on for hours about this fire, but for today, I choose not to relive it.
I didn’t realize that I really had Post-Traumatic Stress until the River/Ranch fires that happened this last year. I came in on my 12 hours off from dispatch to help with the fire. I was assigned as engineer on the third engine with my husband as my captain and one other firefighter. We fought to contain the fire at the head of it and eventually lost control of the fire due to winds and our egress road caught fire. We had to retreat back into the black (the already burned area of the grass) until the fire calmed down and it was safe for us to leave. This was a whole new experience for me. We train over and over again to be prepared for incidents like this, but it’s a whole different ball game when it is put in front of you. It challenged me mentally, more than physically. I watched this fire burn outside my window for weeks and relived just that one moment over and over again.
Understanding and living with events like this has changed my life around. I want to help provide resources and a helpful hand to others, like me, who give anything to give to their community. Too often do we go without treatment and care because of the stigma that first responders are supposed to have. We don’t choose to “work the system,” it chooses us. Some don’t understand the struggles because they either haven’t accepted the issues they have, or they are able to cope better than others. This isn’t the case for everyone. Next time you go on a critical event, check on your crew. Let them know that someone is there to listen and provide them resources to help them through the tough calls. Most of us are too proud to admit that we need a little help every now and again, but sometimes all it takes is a flyer being posted on the wall of numbers and resources for them to call, so on their own time they can make the call.
- Hailey Stone, Author