So last year, I turned 51. That's generally a pretty nondescript year…having had time to settle into the reality that one is now more than a half-century old and likely am (un)comfortably into the back stretch of earthly life.
Some guys in that situation buy a Harley…run off with their secretary…sometimes even drive off with their secretary on their new Harley.
Don't have a secretary...or a Harley.
So I joined the fire department instead.
Age was one factor; 51 felt like a 'put up or shut up' age for me. I've been on a non-specific plan the last few years to try certain things that probably couldn't wait much longer. I've taken my first hot air balloon ride, gone hang-gliding - things I had to concede I was unlikely to give a first try if I waited much longer.
The other main factor was availability. I'd toyed with the concept of joining a local volunteer department over the years, but my work schedule was always a ready excuse to put it off to a 'some day' which never seemed to arrive. But a couple of years ago, I dropped out of the rat race in favor of a home-based freelance business, so suddenly, that old work excuse was up in flames…though, in retrospect, it never really was a truly valid excuse to begin with.
Throw in some wonderful folk in my circle of friends who have served, in one capacity or another, in emergency medicine and as first responders and…well, it all came together one impulsive day into an email to our local volunteer fire company, inquiring as to whether they would even consider a 51-year-old rookie. After all, generally only the AARP and handbell choirs have 51-year-old rookies.
Strangely enough, they wanted me. And thus began a learning process which continues to this day. First off, no one is guaranteed admittance into this unique fraternity; every would-be member is voted on by the rank-and-file. Thankfully, I apparently hadn't sufficiently annoyed enough people in town over 20+ years to be rejected, though I don't know the margin of the vote and it's probably better if it stays that way. Then the department sends you a membership packet and off you go for a basic physical.
Preliminaries taken care off, one day - afternoon of June 4th, it was - I met one of the chiefs in his office to be duly sworn into service - a surprisingly quick and undramatic two-man event - and was shortly thereafter issued the requisite tools of the trade: turnout gear (helmet, coat, pants, gloves & boots), radio, pager…and lastly, in a nod to modern life, had my cell phone number entered into their emergency call texting system.
And with that, I was told, much to my surprise, to immediately begin responding to calls. I guess I shouldn't have been so surprised by that; While there are a lot of things you can be trained on in a classroom, it is pretty much a hands-on type of job. Learn by watching…learn by doing.
And so I am. Oddly, I don't really recall my first call, save for feeling rather awkward as I jogged nervously into Station 2 to be greeted by stares that said 'Who the ^%$# is this guy?" First day of school, all over again.
Slowly, but surely, I started to learn my way around. And as is often the case, the more I learn, the more that I realize I don't know. I suspect I may always feel that way to some extent, but my goal isn't to know it all…rather, just to be competent and useful…and to never stop learning.
And that learning has taken place on many different levels. Just adapting to life as a first responder has been a class in and of itself.
Take my pager - please! Amazing how having a fire department radio and pager on your hip can transform your life. Before, I might've spent most of my morning in jammies, but now, I tend to get dressed pretty quick… just in case. When it snows, I keep clearing the driveway and my van…just in case. If I'm on the fence as to whether to have a beer or not, I more often don't…just in case. Fair to say it means different things to different folks, but to me, perhaps the biggest change has been a positive one: A reminder that my life and time isn't really about me. I suppose it's similar to what a doctor or other on-call professional faces, with this one big caveat: They HAVE to respond. A volunteer has to make a conscious decision to answer that bell (except when it's 2:30am and you're not particularly conscious…) It's an interesting dilemma which I'm sure every volunteer approaches in a little differently. For me, the general rule is that if i CAN go, I do go. General exceptions are if one of our kids has a commitment to be somewhere, and me responding to a call will impact that, they I may put my kid's commitment first, though it doesn't always work out that way. Case in point: My son missed his scheduled drum lesson recently because of what turned out to be a lengthy MA for an MVA (That's a mutual aid call for a motor vehicle accident. First responders' worlds revolve around acronyms.)
Truth is, you rarely know for sure how a call is going to pan out. What comes over the radio as a possibly intoxicated person might actually be a diabetic suffering from hypoglycemia. Just don't know until you know, you know?
Another thing you slowly get to know, as in any organization, are the people. I suspect our department is typical in this regard; a diverse and somewhat motley crew of men and women — gung-ho twenty-somethings, folks who seem to have been around longer than fire itself and a bunch of us somewhere in the middle. As many personalities as there are people, tied together by a loose, but unbreakable common thread. Ask any one of us why we joined and do what we do, and no two answers would be quite the same.
But beneath the bravado, feigned callousness and all other firehouse rhetoric, the bottom line is: We care. And that's a great feeling…even at 2:30 in the morning.
Part 2: EMT CLASS.