“There is only one way one can endure man’s inhumanity to man and that is to try, in one’s own life, to exemplify man’s humanity to man.”
Alan Paton, Cry, the Beloved Country
Firefighting is so unpredictable. While frustrating at times, this is one of the qualities that makes it so magnificent. It is not like sports in the way that there is a championship game at a set time in the future that firefighters can train and prepare for. There are no instant replays, no weather delays, no do overs, no time outs. All there is is the moment and what we do in it can never be changed or taken back. A firefighter’s big moment can come at any second of any day. Stepping into the shower: fire call. Out to dinner with the family: fire call. While drifting off to sleep at 11 p.m., while sound asleep at 3 a.m.: fire call. In 90-degree heat with 90 percent humidity, in 10-degree blizzard conditions while you have a cold: fire call. Despite its unpredictability, each call demands that firefighters give all of themselves, and hold nothing back. The one thing that firefighters can be sure of is that their one call will come, the one that will define the rest of their days.
On a January night, my fire company was dispatched to a vehicle accident with rollover and ejection. Put into simpler terms, a car had rolled over and one of the passengers had been ejected out of it. I was watching television and had let my mind drift into another world when the tones sounded. I leapt up from where I was sitting. My mom heard the tones from the other room and yelled after me to be careful.
Nothing in the past few seconds mattered, my mind began to prepare myself to respond to this call. Adrenaline began pumping through me because I knew this call had the makings of being something big. From the moment I arrived at the station, I felt like something was different about this call. The feeling was electric. People came into the truck bay from different directions, looking disheveled. I got dressed faster than I ever remembered doing before: boots, pants, coat, helmet, turn, run.
The fire truck driver pressed the gas pedal to the floor and we braced ourselves against each other to stay upright. Hands reached for the boxes of rubber gloves, for the flashlights that charged above our heads. I suddenly became afraid of what I was about to witness. I did not want to observe another death. I didn’t feel ready. I would learn that no one is ever ready to witness death and just because you have done it once doesn’t make it easier the next time. I focused on pulling my rubber gloves on and making sure they were secured tightly into my coat sleeves. I briefly noticed that my coat didn’t seem to make my body disappear anymore. Somehow, I had found my place.
As we pulled up to the scene, I saw the hulking frame of a dark SUV laying on its right side off the roadway. Will and I sat across from each other in the rescue, our hands gripped our knees. We glanced at each other, collectively gathering our courage. The air brakes hissed to a halt. I jumped out of the rescue first with Will right behind me and we both hit the ground running. I took in as much of the accident scene as I could. There was a crowd of people kneeling around someone lying on the ground to the right of the SUV. It didn’t seem like anyone else was hurt. Police cars were scattered across the two-lane road, their blue lights reflected in the broken glass that shone across the highway. I grabbed a new blanket out of the rescue and began pulling it out of the plastic as I walked over to the crowd. I knelt down next to a teenage girl and braced myself for the extent of whatever shocking injuries she might have. People had been trying to keep the girl warm in the January night air, so we quickly pulled off all of the sweatshirts and blankets that covered her. I almost looked away, afraid of what I might see, but I saw no broken bones or blood. I laid the blanket over this poor girl who was lying in the dirt and tried to tuck it around her petite frame.
Her hands came out from under the blanket and curled into tight fists. They started waving back and forth and she was shaking out of fear and shock. I looked at her desperately, wondering what I could possibly do to help her. How could I fix this? Firefighters were treating all of the girl’s possible injuries, such as a broken neck, concussion, or internal injuries. I don’t know what made me do it, but I reached out and grabbed this girl’s shaking hand. She squeezed it immediately with a strength born out of fear, the way someone would grab onto a life raft if they were drowning. She held my hand so tightly it probably should have hurt. I began to do for this girl what she could not do for herself.
My eyes rested on a diamond stud in her nose. I suddenly remembered a petite girl with striking blue eyes running around on a soccer field with my sister. This girl’s eyes were darting around at the big men that were kneeling and standing around us. I saw those eyes again and a name entered my mind.
“You’re Kelly, aren’t you?”
Kelly’s eyes quickly moved to look at me. “Yeah.” Her teeth chattered in between her words, her breath was unsteady. She shook uncontrollably. “Who are you?”
“I’m Ali…Warren. You played soccer with my sister, Julia, in high school. My dad and your dad are in that business group together.”
She spoke as if she had just finished running a marathon. “Oh…yeah…I know you. Hi…can you…I have something in my eye.”
“Okay, let me see.” There were at least a dozen men standing and kneeling around us, but I don’t remember them being there. I just remember her.
With controlled steadiness, I reached up and wiped her eyes, rubbing away Kelly’s smudged mascara with my rubber-gloved finger. I noticed the dirt and gravel throughout Kelly’s light brown hair that must have come from her tumbling across the road. Her other hand was also shaking uncontrollably. Hunching over her, I grabbed it and we became locked together, two as one.
I became a human shock absorber. The tighter Kelly squeezed, the stronger I became to compensate. It was effortless. Kelly’s fear became less as it flowed into me and I just let it go. The commotion around us grew as more firefighters arrived on the scene. Kelly’s breathing slowed to normal, her eyes locked on mine. I got my face down close to Kelly’s, like I was going to tell her a secret. Strands of our hair mixed together and blew around our faces. All Kelly could see was me so she could ignore the commotion of the men around us.
“Good. Good.” I said, just loud enough for Kelly to hear. “Just look at me. Just breathe.” I was reminding myself to do that too. I knew they needed to fit the backboard underneath Kelly to prepare for the arrival of the ambulance, and as I told her this, Kelly began to cry. Uncontainable tears spilled down her face faster than I could wipe them away. There were no words I could say. I knew we needed to roll her onto her side quickly. The frigid air tossed stray strands of hair into our faces and threatened to steal our breath away. Wearing pounds of extra clothing I was freezing; I couldn’t imagine how cold Kelly was. With my body I tried to protect her from the wind and the intrusive lights shining all around us.
With our hands fastened together like they were glued, Kelly’s eyes struggled to focus on mine as she was fighting the pain. I looked up and saw the other firefighters’ faces. They knew as well as I did that if Kelly couldn’t calm down she could make whatever injuries she might have worse. I needed to get her attention so I spoke quickly, but clearly.
“Hey. Hey! Listen to me. Just listen to me, that’s all you have to do, just listen to me and we will do the rest. We have to roll you right now, to get you onto the backboard.”
One of the firefighters nodded to me and I positioned myself next to Kelly while still holding on. Kelly was rolled toward me, and in one fluid motion the backboard was slid on the ground underneath as her body was held steadily. Her face instantly crunched up in pain and she screamed out, but I confidently yelled to her that it was going to be over soon. The firefighters rolled her onto her back as Kelly gritted her teeth together to keep from screaming. On the count of three, she was lifted into the air and we made our way over the guard rail to the waiting ambulance. I was still holding on tightly and did not plan to let go before she was ready. More people appeared and straps moved around us, tightening Kelly to the stretcher. As Kelly was secured to the stretcher, it released her from me and I didn’t feel like I had to protect her anymore.
After they loaded her in, the paramedics stood outside the ambulance to talk to the police officers. I climbed in beside her. Kelly spoke quietly to me, as if she were drifting off to sleep. Her voice wavered as she slid into shock.
“Ali, thank you. Thank you. I don’t know how this happened. I thought I was going to…”
I put my hand on her arm. “You’re not. You’re not. I know that this seems impossible right now, but it’s…it’s just going to be a good story to tell when it’s all over. You are okay now.”
As she cried quietly, I held one of her hands in both of mine. A tall paramedic with a shaved head climbed in next to us. Touching two fingers to Kelly’s wrist he looked at his watch and counted her pulse.
“Alright girls, we have to go. The ER is expecting us. Firefighter…”
“Firefighter Warren. Your rescue is taking up.”
This meant that the rescue truck I rode to the scene in was getting ready to return to the station. “Okay. Thanks. Kelly…”
Kelly squinted her eyes against the bright fluorescent lights of the ambulance. She spoke quietly as the medic covered her with another blanket. “Ali, thank you.”
I felt emotion collect in my throat. Tears formed at the corners of my eyes. I glanced at the paramedic, who was looking back at me. Smiling at him, I squeezed Kelly’s hands and jumped out of the ambulance. I stood there in the middle of the closed roadway feeling like a part of me was driving away. The ambulance left then, its white box body disappeared into the dip in the road. In that exact moment, as the flashing lights grew dim, I discovered something. I realized, with sudden permanence, that I would give away any part of myself if it would make someone else whole.
Firefighters never know what they’re going to find when they step out of a fire truck. We do, however, undoubtedly know that we will find some way to deal with whatever it is. We dig down deep into ourselves and find strength we didn’t know we had. If that means hardening our heart for a few moments so it doesn’t break while we witness something, we do it. If that means tightly clenching our stomach so we don’t throw up, we do it. If that means giving every ounce of strength we possess to someone else, we do it. Our strength doesn’t diminish when at a victim’s side. We get an intimate look into the person and try to find something for them to connect to that will make them believe they are strong. We do it all. And it doesn’t matter what effect it has on us. When we get into that gear, we begin living for a purpose that’s greater than ourselves. In those moments that’s all that matters. That’s it.