There are certain days at the Academy when we feel like we're on a trivia show—except that we're not playing for money, we're playing for the privilege of not running the Tower.
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I wanted to save this until later (i.e. a hopefully-larger readership), but I looked over it this afternoon and simply couldn't help but post it. It's one of my favorite stories from my ER days. Enjoy!
looked up, slightly annoyed that the patient chart I was writing on now had
a mark in the wrong place. Ugh, what now? I thought as I slid the triage
like to leave my baby here."
dammit. It's going to be one of those days.
that wasn't really my first thought. Actually, that may be only one of a few
times that I simply… didn't have any thoughts at all. (Have you ever stood up
from under a desk and cracked the back of your head, and for a few seconds your
brain is empty?) I do, however, remember asking her to repeat her request two
can't even begin to imagine what my face looked like.
If you could just have a seat in the waiting room, someone will be out to speak
with you shortly…" I trailed off. I was already sliding from the chair,
my posterior leading the way towards the nearest person who knew what the
hell they were doing.
half-ran, half-stumbled over to the charge nurse, trying to look as composed as
an eighteen year-old could under the circumstances.
wasn't buying any of it. She, however, had been doing this job long enough that
her response actually was "Oh dammit. It's going to be one of those
and naive as I was, I had never heard of the Safe Haven law. For anyone in the
dark, the Safe Haven Law (or variants thereof) is the popular nickname for a
set of rules allowing new mothers to abandon their infants without fear of
criminal action. Offered as a better alternative to killing or discarding their
newborns, mothers are able to leave their children with police officers,
firefighters, paramedics, or hospital employees.
took a moment (thank God) to calm me down, seeing the bewildered look in my
I'll explain all this later, but she came to you first so you might as well do
it. We can take the kid, but we're only allowed to ask her three things: how
old the baby is, if there are any known medical problems, and if he or she has
a name. That's it."
nodded dumbly, wondering why on Earth I was earning my pay here instead of at
Subway or the campus mail room like most of my friends.
spun and walked out into the waiting room, seeing the woman appear directly in
front of me as the doors hissed open. She looked happy, which I thought was
strange at the time. She was smiling at her child, cooing and stroking the
baby's head with all the love a mother should have. I slid wordlessly into the
seat next to her, the cheap vinyl and wood creaking under my weight.
well… we can of course care for your baby here, and there's a few things that
we need to ask that you don't have to answer if you don't, uh, want to."
stuttering minutes later, I found out that the baby was a three day old female,
had no medical problems or complications during her pregnancy, and that she had
informed the mother that we were essentially done, and that she was free to
leave whenever she wished. I still can't believe she handed her baby to me, a
messy-haired kid in purple scrubs and a too-baggy Emergency Department t-shirt
who could barely grow anything resembling facial hair (isn't there some
maternal instinct that would scream "Don't ever hand your newborn over to
turned slowly, not wanting to wake the baby up. I felt a tap on my shoulder,
and the mother fished out a small envelope from her purse. There was nothing
written on the outside, but it was creased and worn like it had been carried in
a pocket for several months.
you make sure this goes with her? It's for her… for later." I
nodded—slowly, silently, I took the envelope and slid it into my pocket.
two of us went back into the Emergency Department, the mother's face following
us through the tiny wire-enforced glass window as the doors whooshed
Emergency Department, being located so close to a dedicated children's
hospital, does not usually handle neonatal or pediatric cases (most people in
the area know that sick children go to the other hospital). However, since the
woman had come to us, it was our job to check the baby out and then transfer
her to the children's facility.
not much of a stage performer, but that day I knew what it was like to have
everyone in a particular venue looking just at you. Unfortunately
for my burning ears and rapidly flushing cheeks, the room we use for the
occasional child or neonate is at the very back of the department—meaning I
would have to carry this warm wrapped bundle through the entire ward,
bypassing every room and staff member along the way. Even the patients craning
their necks from their beds knew that an infant was out of place here.
wisely decided to walk with me. She deflected the questioning stares and the
whispers of "what's he doing with a baby?" with a curt shake of her
head, a barely noticeable gesture that told all who saw it that now was not the
time to approach the three of us.
the time we reached room 25, we had amassed a small following. Some had a
purpose, like an attending physician and a social worker. Some didn't, like
those who were simply curious at this newfound oddity.
laid the baby on the worn sheets of the stretcher, I gave a paltry report
encompassing the three things that I knew. It was a brief moment of pride, that
I was the only one who could tell the doctor about the baby; it was dashed
against the rocks seconds later, when everyone in the room now knew as much as I did.
turns out the baby was perfectly okay, just as mom had said. The attending was
satisfied with the health of the child and made arrangements to have Jane Doe 4
(we already had a few as-yet nameless car and motorcycle crash victims come
through since 7am) brought to Children's by the staff.
was leaving, I had almost made it out of the room when a voice boomed inside my
head: the letter! I found the social worker, who was wearing the face of
a woman who has seen this happen too many times. She took the letter and my
explanation of what it was, and walked off to complete her paperwork.
still wonder what the letter said.
it like in the movies, where Mom writes a letter that Daughter finds when she's
X years old and has all but written her mom off, and now she breaks down and
realizes Mom loved her all along? Was it a letter saying "you don't know me,
but I'm your mother. And in a safety deposit box at a bank in Albuquerque under
the name Clementine Phillips, you'll find $10 million. It's for you. I love
you. Signed, Mom."
really makes me wonder is what words a mother could find to express these sort
of feelings to a daughter. Granted, I'm a guy and I don't possess a maternal
instinct of any sort. But simply hearing my mother talk about her children, and
how much she cares, and what she would do for them if asked… I can only speculate.
could one even find the words to write a letter like that? Does "I'm sorry
you'll never know me" even cut it?
wonder it looks like she carried it around with her for a while.
hey… the Emergency Department is better than a dumpster. And we deliver mail, too.
First and foremost, congratulations to everyone who donated to, participated in, or otherwise supported the members who did the Polar Bear Plunge this weekend! The Department raised almost $12,000 in total for the Maryland Special Olympics, and we had a blast doing it.
In honor of yesterday's historic moment, I figured I should post a few Inauguration photos that I took while downtown (yes, I was one of the crazy people who decided to test my mettle and brave the crowds).
I've decided that instead of retrofitting posts with photos (which would require a bunch of work on the readers' part, digging back through the blog to see them), I'll just present them sequentially in today's post. My friend Sean did something similar to recap 2008 in his blog.
Unfortunately, when the truck/engines are actually parked inside, this is about all the space we have to work with when the Sergeant calls a Box Alarm.
Our gear, laid out inside the bay. (No, not all the photos are meant to be practical. Be prepared for a few "artsy" ones.)
The junkyard, where we had our first taste of fire.
The "ugliest warped metal shithouse I’ve ever seen," if I recall the post correctly. I'm not sure how it happened, but the colors on this structure turned out very vivid (this thing definitely doesn't look this interesting in real life).
…with lots of time to revise photos and ponder future posts.
An open letter to the members of the Washington, D.C. Fire and EMS Department, as well as all readers/fans of RaisingLadders:
day, I’m damn proud to polish my boots and walk into the Academy with our patch
on my sleeve. Some don’t understand why it’s so important—all the lint-rolling,
the posture adjustments, and shoe-shining can become annoying, for sure—but
it’s necessary. It’s necessary because these actions are the outward
representations of my place within something so much larger than myself. This
fire department has garnered so much respect from those who have walked through
these halls before me, and will inevitably continue to do so for years after
I’ve been forgotten.
This is it,
friends. This is the show. It’s where we all strive to be; nay, it’s the very reason
we’ve trained and waited for countless years—and I’m here now. That’s a pretty
monumental achievement, and I think it would behoove every recruit (as well as
all potential recruits) to keep that in mind.
said, there are a few things I’d like to state for the record regarding RaisingLadders.
Call it a disclaimer if you wish, but I feel that it’s time to clarify a few
items before they become larger issues.
was created out of a desire to chronicle my adventures through the D.C. Fire
Department. Being accepted into the Training Academy was one of the most
pivotal moments of my life thus far, and it will forever affect me regardless
of where I end up. I had always planned to write about my time with DCFD (as I
greatly enjoy writing whether I have a readership or not), but it wasn’t until
about a month before I started that I began toying with the idea of publishing
Perhaps it was
set in motion because I wanted to let my friends/family know why I was getting
up at 4 a.m. every day; perhaps I just wanted a way to write stories and not
have an editor breathing down my neck (“…besides,
who would really read it anyways?”).
emails from people all over the country who have asked me about my experiences
as a recruit. Most are DCFD applicants themselves; others have asked if I
wanted to be featured as a guest writer in their own blogs. I’ve shared with
them as much as I know, with no opinions or negative influences. Again, I’m
extremely proud to be a part of D.C.’s bravest, and I expressed as such to
I do not write
this blog with any slanderous motives; nor do I write with an intention to
“blow this whole thing wide open”—RL is by
no means a journalistic expose.
writing about some of the best years of my life, spent performing one of the
most exciting jobs in the world. I love to write, and I love my career—the two
couldn’t be paired more perfectly.
I write to
share the new emotions I experience, as well as to discuss my excitement at
becoming a firefighter (something I’ve wanted to do since I was fifteen years
old). I write to share what I’ve learned each day, in the hopes that maybe
someone else will be inspired to do the same. At the very least, I hope a few
armchair adventurers out there can live vicariously through me.
person(s) involved with DCFD (which includes, but is not limited to: IAFF 36,
administrative members, firefighters, instructors, recruits) has any problems
or questions regarding my writings, I
invite you to contact me directly (email@example.com) and/or leave
comments on the blog. I welcome your ideas, and would love to know what you
I will continue
to uphold my anonymity, despite the fact that it’s really not that hard to figure out who I am; I feel that I should
respect those around me by keeping their personal information private (I, on
the other hand, have pretty much passed the point of plausible deniability).
I will do my
best to properly present the Department in an honest light; so far, it has been
an exceptional experience and I simply cannot wait to see what the next day
I thank all of
you for taking the time to read RaisingLadders.com; I pen it with sheer pride,
and I can only hope you have as much fun reading it as I do writing it.
P.S. – In case
anyone was wondering, the name “Raising Ladders” came to me in a bolt of
inspiration one day. Yes, I know that if I’m assigned to an engine, it won’t
make much sense (seeing as the truck companies are the ones throwing ladders);
however, it struck me as a very apropos phrase. Ostensibly, it refers to
firefighting operations; but I found it well-suited to describe the many steps
I’ll have to take in order to become a working member of the D.C. Fire
Where I am now
in life is like climbing a ladder; I take it one day at a time, and I try and
learn something every step of the way.
good-news/bad-news time. Good news? I brought the camera along today, and
snapped some great photos. I’ll be retro-fitting blog posts with relevant
pictures of the academy or our apparatus, as needed. I also have some nice
atmosphere shots that provide a frame of reference for the complex that we
recruits spend so much damn time in.
Bad news? I’m
so bogged down with digging through JPGs that it’s certainly not going to
happen tonight. PhotoMechanic (the digital media organizational software used
by some photojournalists) is definitely my friend, though.
We’ll see if I
have some keeper shots in here!
did more of the same work today. Checking out the engines, re-fitting tools,
etc. The only welcome interruption was right after morning lineup, when the
remaining recruits (only a handful) were allowed to PT if we so desired. Myself
and two other recruits devised a sickening Tower routine that had all three of
us heaving for air and clutching our sides.
First, run a
5-4-3-2-1 (as in, run to the fifth floor, run back down, then run around the
tower; then go to the fourth floor, down, around the tower… continue in this fashion
until you’ve done every floor from the top down).
Then, run a
going to run the half-mile course around the complex, with a hose rack (remember those big,
heavy, duct-taped hose bundles you pile on your shoulder for training?) and in your full firefighting gear.
When we came
back around, one recruit dropped his rack and walked off. Another started
running up the Tower in a burst of inspired strength, but stopped at the third
floor and came down to recover. And the third sucked it up and dragged his ass
all the way to the top in full gear, shouting floor numbers at each landing.
couldn’t very well let Bill show me up, now could I?)
(N.B. – Friday's post is one below, and it's a good one. I know, I know… it was a busy weekend. Cut me a break, would ya? It's worth the wait.)
Over the weeks,
you find that every so often DCFD gives you a gift. It has no price, nor any
substance; but it’s one of the most beautiful things in the world to the
battered body of a fire recruit.
no PT today.”
were assigned to work details for things that needed to be done before the
Inauguration on the 20th. Some recruits went to the Special
Operations Division, some went to Engine 2’s house to help assemble and deliver
cots (certain firehouses will have more units stationed there, and thus more
sleepy personnel), and others stayed at the Academy to bring our training
apparatus up to minimum standards.
Sure, we have one ladder truck and two engines at
our disposal; however, they’re pretty much useless at an actual incident.
truck is worse off, by far; on first inspection, we found: one 50’ roll of 3”
hose, one pipe wrench, and one out-of-service extension ladder.
Yep, we’re on
top of it.
Now, this is
because all we do with the vehicles right now is drive them out of the bay in
the morning, and re-park them in the afternoon. Once we get into firefighting,
we’ll be checking and using damn near every item on each piece of apparatus.
I feel like now
is a good time to clear up any confusion regarding the vehicles used by the
fire department. There are two main kinds of apparatus: engines and ladder
trucks (or just “trucks”).
Engines are the
shorter ones with all the hoses and tanks of water, whose staff actually
extinguish the fire by “putting the wet stuff on the red stuff” (this particular
cheesy maxim annoys me, but some instructor decades ago uttered it to a hapless
class of wannabe firemen—and the department just will not let go of this boneheaded phrase. It’s sort of like
Trucks are the
longer ones you see on the street, with the big extendable ladder on top and
the guy driving in the bubble in the back (the “tillerman” steers the rear
wheels so that the oversized red monstrosity can turn down normal-sized
streets). I’ve heard them referred to as big rolling toolboxes; they carry
saws, axes, hammers, prybars, ladders, and any other item you might require to
a) break into a building, b) cut a hole in a building, or c) get victims out of
a building. Essentially, the primary responsibilities of a “truckie” are
forcible entry (to give the engine guys access to the seat of the fire),
ventilation (which allows hot gases to escape and cool the structure down) and
search-and-rescue (locating and extracting ordinary citizens from places they
So as it turned
out, there were actually two huge metal boxes in the garage next door that had
all the items required of a truck company. We wheeled them in, inventoried
them, and then labeled the hell out of them (tools go missing all the time. All
firefighters, as they say, love to “acquire” things.)
We were hauling
saws, drilling mounting brackets for axes, and cleaning and stocking
compartments. We coiled and packed rope, fueled generators, and tested vent
fans and floodlights. It was, I’m told, the same checks that every truck
company does at the start of their shift.
enough. Pack your shit; let’s go home.”
caught me in the middle of mounting a pick-head axe in a convenient location
within the passenger compartment. I stood and stretched, welcoming the end of
the day with a large sigh.
Our backs hurt
from hauling boxes of gear. Our hands were dirty from machine oil and old metal
tools. Nevertheless, we could clearly see the results of our handiwork, and we
were damn proud that this old reserve truck would be used for some good on
Inauguration Day—we only wished we could be working on it to experience it.
and happy at the end of a day’s work. Isn’t that what everyone wants out of a
God, I love
getting paid for this.
“Ah, fuck this
classroom shit. Let’s go light something on fire.”
…and thus our
revealed to us that there really was no agenda for this particular Friday, as
everyone had already passed their EMT tests and it was too early to start
firefighting bookwork. He quickly grew tired of telling stories and bullshitting, and
that’s when he uttered the music to everyone’s ears that you see above.
“Get your gear
on, and be outside in the junkyard in ten minutes.”
later, thirty-six eager recruits stood at the ready, next to cut-up cars and big
piles of scrap wood. Most (those of us who had not been firefighters anywhere
before DCFD) moved with the energy of someone who was out of their element, yet
excited to be there; nervous laughs and occasional deep breaths punctuated the
cold air as we hopped from foot to foot.
The more experienced
of 994, at the direction of Sgt. Paulson, began loading wooden pallets stuffed
with hay into what used to be a sedan, a pickup truck, and a white delivery
van. 1¾” hose lines (a standard for interior firefighting) were pulled off the
Academy’s two engines, and began snaking over the sooty ground. Unbelievably
large-diameter hose (6”, I think—I could fit my arm inside it easily) was run
from a fire hydrant to the front of the engine, rapidly becoming rigid as
mysterious pressure from underground coursed into it with the twist of a
three “stations,” if you will, set up over the drill yard. I followed what seemed to be a logical progression, starting with an instruction on
how to handle a pressurized (or “charged”) hose.
As we stood in
line to take our turn at the nozzle, someone whispered towards me “…you really
gotta lean into it. I mean, like, really
lean. If you’re about to open it up, and you think you’re all set?—lean a
little more. Then you should be alright.”
lying. Imagine you’re standing with your arms stretched out in front of you,
and they’re placed on the shoulders of a linebacker. Have him start falling
towards you, and try to hold him up.
And this is the smallest line we use, sir?
Step 1: Clamp
the hose up inside your armpit, with that hand supporting the nozzle from the
Step 2: Pull
open the bale (the handle-doohicky on top) with your other hand.
Step 3: Direct
the nozzle where you want the water to go: in controlled, clockwise-directed
circles, as rapidly as possible.
The first time
you use it, only the first two items happen correctly. Water roars out the
front of the nozzle, and it goes wherever it damn well pleases. A second later,
though, you can recover and send it in the general direction of forward. As
for the neat circular sweeps… yeah, we’ll get it eventually.
a hose is an entirely different story. Combine all the new stuff you just
learned in the last minute, and keep it straight in your head while you walk
forward against the aforementioned linebacker.
Fresh from our
tutorial, we advanced to the next area, where an instructor was piling pallet
after pallet into what I can only describe as the ugliest warped metal
shithouse I’ve ever seen. It’s about eight feet tall and four feet wide, with
two windows and a front door cut out of the ¼” steel plates it was constructed
with. The metal is blackened and twisted with years of burning, and it was
currently cooking so hot that the water around
the structure was steaming off.
Approach with a hose line, crouch down “just when you feel the heat,” and give
a one-second blast into the top of the doorway. The goal was to see how well
steam actually puts out a fire; when directed towards the interior roof of the
structure, the water turns to steam so rapidly and explosively that it banks
down the roaring flames just long enough for the next recruit to move up in
Even from about
six feet back, it was pretty toasty. Wood, car cushions, plastic running
boards, tires—anything that would burn was tossed in to show us how different
materials burn. For example: foam couch cushions burn fast and smoky, and don’t
really contribute to the perceived temperature of the fire. Wood, on the other
hand, burns slower but jacks the heat up immensely (it’s better fuel).
Excited at our
first taste of smoke, the heavy-breathing cadre of inexperienced recruits
proceeded to the final area: a roaring, groaning, tire-popping pile of metal
and rubber that sort of looked like a pickup truck.
For this, we
had received a half-hour instruction on Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) usage earlier in the day, and so
we donned our air cylinders and waited for our partners to do the same. The
instructor would wait for the fire to grow to a reasonable size, tell us where
he wanted us to attack, and follow beside us as we did so with the hose.
Being so close
to fire (whether one found it mesmerizing or terrifying) made one forget
everything we had learned not hours ago; we constantly heard order barked at
us, which sounded tinny through the respirator but lacked none of the intensity
of Sgt. Paulson’s usual voice.
“Closer! Get closer! Crouch down now!”
“Tight circles, tight circles! Whip that
“I said clockwise, goddamnit! Clockwise!”
We didn’t care
that we were doing it wrong. We didn’t care that the experienced guys were
probably sitting on the bumper of the engine laughing at our newly-acquired
awkward movements. We sure as shit
didn’t care that we actually knew nothing about putting the conflagration out.
But we were
fighting fire—and that’s what we all came here to do.
Recruit Class 994 was dismissed that day dirtier, sweatier, and only a tiny bit more knowledgeable
about our careers than when we had arrived that morning. However, it was a
common feeling from the very moment that masks were lifted from faces, and the
first cold breaths of un-bottled winter air were sucked in: everyone was beaming, eagerly looking
forward to a weekend of telling somebody (anybody!)
about how we just might be firefighters someday.
EDIT: A commentor has brought it to my attention that DCFD doesn't use 1 3/4" lines like I mistakenly stated in this post. Whoops! I guess I should include a disclaimer that any firefighting details given may be incorrect due to my current naivete of the DC Fire Department. I stand corrected… thanks, fmbill4!
starts on January 26th.
that’s what we’re told will happen to the rest of 994. As for the medics? Yes,
that’s right—nobody knows!
As of today, the
orders came down to start the fire suppression section of the academy early,
and then send the EMTs out for “mentoring” with either ambulances or engine
companies after it’s been completed. I don’t know the logic behind it, but
hopefully they’ll have something for us to do in the meantime.
It’d be neat to
start firefighting this month… but damn, is that textbook big and heavy.
More good news:
they’ve given the recruits the 19th and 20th off, so we
won’t be working ridiculous shifts during Inauguration Day! Either way, the
entire city is going to be a madhouse from Saturday to Thursday, so it doesn’t
really matter. I’ll probably stay in my apartment anyway, as far from the
masses as possible.
small group of our recruit class will be assisting with (read: shoveling debris
out of) Fairfax County’s second round of flashover training. Unexpectedly, Sgt.
Paulson came up to me in the hallway and asked if I had any fire experience.
we’re going to mix it up a bit. You’ll be in the can tomorrow.”
“Uh… yes, sir.”
I had no idea
why he had done that; during the last round of training, only those with prior
fire experience (particularly knowledge of the Self-Contained Breathing
Apparatus that we’d be using) were allowed to help out in “the can,” as the
flashover simulator was known.
Ah, screw it.
It’ll make for some good stories tomorrow, I’m sure.
Lest we begin
to feel comfortable in our academic setting, DCFD is always sure to remind us
that we can at any time be used for cheap labor.
is coming back on Friday to use the flashover box again, and a handful of
recruits (myself included) were tasked with cutting and loading all the particle
board needed for the walls.
Little did we
know that it was more an exercise in leadership and decision-making than it was
grunt work. Sure, we had fun with the saws and got all sorts of dirty outside,
but Sgt. Paulson had a nice recap with us after we had tried 994’s patented “too
many cooks in the kitchen” theory without success.
this ostensibly simple operation went from recruit Holden at the beginning, to
me about halfway through. Holden was being too indecisive about things, and Sgt.
Paulson decided that it was time for someone else to give it a shot.
I’m always the
first to admit that I don’t know anything
about fighting fire. But I’ll be damned if I can’t have grunts move firewood.
methods may not have been the most efficient. Okay, I can see why the class
leader might have tried to step on my toes and start giving some orders of his
own. And yes, I understand why there were some grumbles when I told everyone
where to stack each different size of particle board after we cut it. I think
most of them were probably just miffed that they weren’t in charge, since a
large part of this class is know-it-all loudmouths who are always telling other
people how to act (there was a great moment today that wiped a self-satisfied
grin right off one of those recruit’s faces; we all had a great laugh over it,
especially after his “yeah, of course
I know how to use this saw!”)
point of the exercise was twofold:
One, whoever is
in command is in command. Don’t
question it; you might not like it, or you might do it differently, but you’re
not in charge right now. Shut up and follow orders.
Two, if you are
in command: whether it’s a good decision or a bad decision, make a decision. Sgt. Paulson had a very
good explanation regarding why making no decision is the worst one of all. Know
your situation, know your resources, and give informed orders that will achieve
the ultimate goal.
Sounds like common
sense, right? Well, you’ve obviously never seen nine male recruits take twenty
minutes to move ten pieces of particle board, because everyone is doing something
lack of communication between classmates during simple tasks is mindblowing. I
sure hope we lock this up before fire suppression starts, otherwise we’re all
in for a very long Spring.
Note to self: I
have to stop backdating posts. (Perhaps a useful New Year’s resolution?)
Interested parties will find Monday’s post below this one.
The roll of
tape went up into the air, pausing a second before coming back down. It landed
neatly into the hand of Wolanski, who returned it back towards the fluorescent
lights with a fluid, repetitive motion.
He was quietly whispering to himself the specifics of each hospital in the city, and looked for all the world like Steve McQueen throwing the baseball against the wall in The Great Escape.
Today was a
mental double-header: not only would the recruits have a final chance at
passing the protocol test (and thus, keeping their jobs), and the remaining eight recruits who had not yet attained their
EMT-Basic National Registry would find out the results of yesterday’s test.
results were posted at approximately 8am this morning. Coming from the room
next door, 358 heard several whoops, some creative expletives, and a few quiet
moments after tentative keystrokes.
how’d you do? You pass your Registry?”
“Man, does it
look like I got a happy face on? Shit.”
unfortunately, coincided with the recruits who were leaving the Last Chance
Protocol Saloon, with similarly long faces. The room was filled with a morose
mood, and pockets of conversation all over the apparatus bay exhibited hushed
tones and worried glances.
I suppose only during
a bad day on Wall Street would one see this much tension before 9 a.m.
It didn’t help,
of course, that PT today was a true body-beater. We were bear-crawling,
army-crawling, crab-walking, and any variation thereof that involved several
circuits of throwing yourself on the bay floor and getting from point A to
point B. Everyone went to the showers bruised and sore, wondering what in the hell is that muscle I’ve never felt
before that hurts so damn much.
fortunately, decided to remove some of the mental anguish by calling box alarms
all afternoon long. Each and every partition used within the recruit class was
an excuse for another box alarm.
“Morning flag detail…”
starting with A through M…”
rounds of this, there was no recruit who wasn’t starting to grow weary and
slow. Each subsequent round would reveal a larger and larger group of recruits
who had to perform some punishment for not having all of their gear on after
performed one Tower run (couldn’t get my gloves on in time), thirty pushups (my
Nomex hood wasn’t properly placed under my chin), and then another run to the
third story of the Tower (I missed a buckle on my turnout coat).
We were sweaty
and tired, but no amount of punishment could dampen the news that everyone had
passed the protocol exam. Instructor Daley came in and informed us personally
that there would be no dismissals at this time.
Well, we were
disappointed. Or relieved, depending on how comfortable you are with having a
very short man screaming in your face all day. Apparently four people aren’t
worth the effort of strapping on a drill instructor’s hat and trying to scare
the shit out of them, so our morning routine lacked any sort of excitement.
It was a day
like any other, except for the textbook-worn attitude of most of the recruits
and haggard thoughts of tomorrow. This past weekend, draught lists were
replaced by protocol manuals; tequila shots lost the fight to flashcards. We
reviewed the poorly-scored tests, skipped PT, and proceeded to spend the rest
of the day studying. Those of us who had passed on the first go-around,
however, twiddled our thumbs and begged for the day to be over.
day wasn’t completely without interruption; around 0800, one more recruit
showed up. The DC Fire Department now had one more confused, poorly-informed
paramedic with which to toy.
“The names I
just read off were the only ones who passed the protocol test. Now, to anyone
who failed it: you have one more shot, or you’re going to be dismissed. Not
recycled to the next recruit class, not put on hold… dismissed.”
shudder went through the approximately half of 994 who had not passed the
protocol test we took not an hour before. It had been a good day, filled with
lots of cooking and joking around. Now, a large group of recruits could feel
their weekends slipping away as they imagined cramming endless medical
algorithms and protocols into their brains instead of relaxing and partying.
We had done a
breakfast for the entire class and all the instructors, and the smoke-filled
kitchen was rivaled only by the smoke-filled train car that Fairfax County was
using outside. They had shown up as part of a morning training exercise
utilizing the “flashover box,” a big metal crate that you can heat up until
everything in the room suddenly combusts in an instant. Anything that can burn,
will burn—and the purpose of putting
firefighters into it is to teach them the signs of when a room is about to go
off (you’ll have about two steps to dive out a window before you’re toast). The smell of a house fire hung heavily in the apparatus bay and the drill yard for the entire day. For some, it was a familiar smell; for others, it simply offered a strange olfactory foreshadowing of the academy.
paramedics were told that anywhere from five to eight new medic recruits would
be showing up Monday; as far as we could tell, that’s the start of Recruit
members of 994 speculated that this would be the week we’d meet Sgt. Alvarez,
who was explained to as a former-drill-sergeant-turned-firefighter who showed
up in Week 1 to scare the shit out of new recruits. My three comrades and I already have
uniforms and knowledge of marching, so we’ll be light-years ahead of the “new”
new guys—but nevertheless, my boots are polished extra-shiny and my shirt is
pressed sharply. No sense in having him call me “lower than whale shit” any
more than he has to.
recruit. What’d you shine those shoes with, a brick?”
“Uh… no sir?”
was all he could eke out.
shook his head theatrically and moved onto the next recruit. Every so often
when he dropped a good one-liner that elicited some laughs, we would see the
beginnings of a smile peek out from under his moustache.
Today was not
one of those days, and he was letting us know it. Nobody was off the hook (my
sweatshirt was a bit rumpled near the waistband), and we stood at attention in
the apparatus bay for the better part of an hour while Lang scrutinized each
and every recruit in 994.
Just before he
dismissed us for PT, he offered us a few bits of advice that would be unwise to
ignore. As I’m sure anyone who is in the military can tell you, it’s a sobering
experience to have an entire group shouting in response to a single voice.
am I understood?”
He walked out,
and the only sound that followed him was the hum of the apparatus bay heater.
Seeing as the
majority of 994 had only just recently attained their EMT-Basic certifications,
DCFD’s medical director decided to pay the class a visit.
and Medical Director Dr. Augustine was one of those people who simply oozed
confidence and good humor. He spoke with the affable demeanor of a man who was
not only extremely competent at his job, but also loved every one of the
twenty-three years he had been doing it.
Growing up and
becoming a firefighter in Ohio, Dr. Augustine was involved in some of the
largest and most complicated incidents that happened in the US in the 1980s.
Speaking about the Miamisburg Train Incident in 1986, he described the large-scale
evacuations required of the Dayton Fire Department after a train containing
white phosphorus derailed and caught fire.
absolutely nothing like having someone come up to you and say ‘Hey, you appear
to be in charge. I need you to evacuate the city. Can you do it?’”
Up until this
point, the logistics required for evacuating 50,000+ people within several
hours had never been explored. The difficulties of sealing up hospitals, moving
nursing home patients, and dealing with the public’s demands were all crafted
on the fly. 117 paramedics from six surrounding counties were called in to
help, but it was still a command scenario modeled after a nightmare.
problem came two days afterwards, when the not-yet-extinguished train car
exploded again. It sent another cloud of white phosphorus reeling towards the
city, and the evacuation had to be repeated a
train wasn’t the most fascinating part, however. Dr. Augustine had such a
soothing, colorful voice that he made incident command sound like a bedtime
story (complete with gruff voices for the bad guys and gentle high pitches for
the little old ladies). The entirety of 994 listened with rapt attention; we
were too engrossed to even shift in our seats, for fear of losing a detail in a