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The Making of a Firefighter

Fire Department chiclet article type logo labelEMS Emergency Medical Services, badges article logo labelEMA Emergency Management chiclet article type logo label

The chill swept through the room, and I nestled myself deeper into my sleeping bag. The ill-fitting door allowed for light and the cold winter wind to push their way into the room. The voices outside the door were faint in the distance you could hear the clomping of heavy boots, and urgency in words. Though I was too young to understand those words, I knew that something was wrong. I lay there still, and holding my breath, waiting. I believe these are my earliest recollections of my life-to-be as a first responder.

As a child of a National Ski Patroller, this is what I lived during the winter months in Michigan. Many Fridays when we got home from school we headed north for an adventure. Skis and poles topped the car, and bags of clothing and food filled the trunk. It was much simpler back then; we stayed in a room with at least one other family, and the meals were home-cooked pots of spaghetti or chili. Family fun and skiing, while offering a service of first response to the injured on the ski slopes, was my dad’s idea of quality time together, and my mom was just happy we were all together.

Growing up in a small community had its advantages. We were able to ride our bikes without fear, and stay out past dark to hang out with friends as well as walk door to door to peddle our goods as Girl Scout Brownies. This was a magical time. As Girl Scouts we were invited to visit a fire station where my friend’s dad worked. What a joy, the adrenaline surfaced as we filed through the grand bay, the enormity of the shiny red trucks and engines towered overhead. The fancy things they used to save lives, oxygen and oral airways. I will never forget the Bermen airway, such an intriguing little piece of equipment. I never really grasped the meaning of it until I was about 31 and attending my first Emergency Medical Technician class. It was then that it all made sense.

I had experienced the loss of a child at an early age, and was forced to dig back to my 8th grade CPR training. It was a devastating change that left me broken and lost. I continued to work a job that kept me busy caring for others, and I climbed to the top of the ladder rather quickly, so after 12 years with the company I was in search of my next adventure. I worked my way through my class and volunteered at a local ambulance company. In doing so, I was able to meet people that had volunteered with my father before he retired, and the legacy began.

While volunteering and continuing my education on through the ranks of Emergency Technician-Specialist and then Paramedic, I was very fortunate to be able to work with an employer that was flexible enough to work around my schedule and the demands of the practical hours that were required. Practicals began, and I knew that I was in, the adrenaline flowed each time the tones went off and I was allowed to practice just one more skill. I kept volunteering more hours as an EMT, and spending less time at home. I wanted even less to be at my job, until I finally had to be fair, and walked away. That was the most difficult choice I have ever made. I was leaving the security I had known for 12 years, insurance, and a nice salary, one that I would not come close to for many years. The one thing that held me back from working in public safety was that Genesee County had Sheriff Deputies that were Paramedics. This was a tax-based service provided to the people, and at the time Advanced Life Support units were not necessary, as the Paramedic rode in with the basic unit. It was something that I obviously had not thought through, and it left me with issues that I had to work around. I was definitely not willing to strap on a gun and put my life in danger just to be able to work at a job that I loved, or I had to work out of county. The times I spent working on the ambulance gave me plenty of opportunity to work alongside firefighters, as they often arrived on scene before we did to render care to those in need. I never gave much thought to them, except that they had super skills and bravery. It wouldn't be until much later in my career that I would fully grasp their importance in the first response chain. They are the heart and soul, the ones that led the way for all the transport companies and for the rise in advanced licensure. The type of person now deciding on EMS as a career is different from what I remember; something has changed.

After making the jump and deciding to drive to another county to practice, I was faced with many challenges. There was not just one set of protocols, but 3 to learn. The people were kind, but the job was contracted, so I not only dealt with the company rules, but also the contract rules. The list was never-ending, and despite it all, I loved what I did. The adrenaline was flowing, and the rush was over the top. My life was grand, but I still found myself wanting more. After health issues, and a move out of area, I was forced to move on to a different type of health and human services job, but the glow of the beacons could not be shadowed within my heart, and I was searching again for next fix. It came easily when I was able to return to the road, and so the addiction continued. Things were good. I was working, going to college, and I decided to join a small volunteer fire department. I was in heaven. Each time the tones dropped I would race out the door and make my way to the station. Thank goodness there were only a few of us, because I was usually able to make a truck, and the thrill of the ride was enough to make anyone’s day.

This was short lived, when an auto accident on a late winter evening put not only put a-one-and-a-half year halt on my life, but quite possibly an end to my beloved career. I was devastated, and the fear was overwhelming; it left me at times in rotten and hateful mood. With the help of some tremendous physicians and caring therapists, I was able to return to work with some limitations in the beginning, but with time became the paramedic I had always been and more. I was never so happy in my life. It seemed that the EMS gods had been shining down on me. I was very content and was able to also take on work with an event EMS company during this time. This position allowed me to work alongside many firefighters, not only on scene, but as my partners. I grew to trust them and to become their confidants. I was able to see inside their lives, as well as what made them who they were. As time passed I began to realize how much we really had in common.

It wasn't until I met my husband that I truly believed that I could be a firefighter. He had been in the fire service since he was 15, as an explorer, and moved up the ranks to an officer. When I moved to his state, it was natural that I hang out with him, and Thursdays became a ritual. I still love them, though I am only guaranteed one every three weeks. When asked to join, I couldn't refuse. I was giddy when I got my first set of turnouts. This was better than any prom dress, EVER! The first formal training I attended was through the Alabama Fire College and was a Basic Propane Emergencies class during their fire college weekend that they hold a couple times a year. I was so geeked. It was amazing to be in such a controlled setting and to be walking into such a potentially dangerous setting. It was incredible— the classroom information they gave you was so insightful, and they start off with safety, and end with safety. It was mind blowing. I couldn't wait until they had a Volunteer Firefighter class. I was ready to learn. I was hooked. Once I took the class, I couldn't wait to take more It was then SCBA classes, where I learned that I was deathly afraid of confined spaces. I couldn't even make my way into the maze, and crawling through the smoke-filled burn building would have to wait ’til another day. I had never encountered such fear, but I knew if I were going to be a firefighter I would have to learn to conquer these and move forward. I did not want to be a burden to my brothers, I did not want to be carried out of a building by them. It was approximately another year before an appropriate class opened up in the area for the volunteer firefighter, and I signed up along with several others in my area and from my station. It was an awesome 4 months, very eye opening and exciting.

I learned more about myself than I ever would have imagined. Ever since then I have taken an active interest in the fire department, both as a paramedic and firefighter. I love training both in book work and hands-on. I always look forward to the free and discounted classes. It’s amazing what you can find that offers certification: so far I have taken Basic Fire Investigator, Clandestine Labs, Thermal Imaging Interpretation, EMS Safety, Mobile Fire Suppression, Wildland Fire Operations & Origin Scene Protection, many FEMA courses, as well as maintaining dual licensure in two states as a NREMT-P so I can work for an event company in Michigan and also in my home state of Alabama. I have both physical and mental strength, which can carry me further in life than anyone I have ever counted on in years past. I have done things that most women have never dreamed, and often have done it without my makeup. It does not make me better or more, it just is me. I don't think that if I would have remained stationary in life that I would have ever attempted to be a firefighter, or if I had not married my husband Craig. Is he the reason I did it? No, but did he give me the motivation and positive feedback when I doubted myself, absolutely along with all his buddies, and my family.

As I sat down to write this, I was stumbling for the words and ideas. How would I approach such a simple statement? Is a firefighter really made? Maybe that's the difference I am noticing in people, the idea that you can make triple-digit incomes, that you can work two firefighter jobs and still function as a family man on the third day, and that it is easy. Actually, if you love it and it’s in your heart it can be, but for the most part it can tear you apart, and wear you down, and be hard on your body. If you love it, you stay until you can't stay any longer, but simply training does not make a firefighter; it only makes a wiser and safer firefighter. Firefighters are born and bred with a lifetime of service and sacrifice.

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