Here are some excerpts from different chapters of Oh! So You're a Fireman!
You can refer to the Terminology List for terms that are new.
Chapter - 150, 70 and 350
When I first got-on, one of the old-timers told me that the only things that I needed to remember to be a good fireman were these three numbers—150, 70 and 350.
Starting engine pressure on the firetruck is 150 psi, keep the air-conditioning thermostats in the stations set at 70, and bake chicken at 350 degrees. It’s pretty funny, but there’s more truth to it than you might think at first.
I sort of put myself on auto-pilot when I was working at fire stations. It’s strange to think of it that way, but it seemed that once I became a fireman, got into the routine at the station and on calls, got used to the responsibilities and the stress, and got comfortable with taking orders, that’s what I did—I just put myself on auto-pilot. I was trained well and I used common sense. I also knew that I always had partners to depend on and back me up. Most of the time, I just glided through each shift.
Something that made the job especially enjoyable for me was that we met a lot of different people who were usually happy to see us. We got nice reactions from people wherever we went, whether it was on a call, at the supermarket, at the hospital, at a school presentation during career day, or when people came to the station. Their reactions toward us were just about always positive. Another good thing about this job is that we don’t have to worry about what to wear to work. It is nice to be in uniform, especially a fireman’s uniform.
When I went to work, I knew that I was going to be at the station for twenty-four hours straight, come hell or high water, so I just settled in and went with the flow. I tried hard not to get upset if I didn’t agree with what the other guys did, or if things started to get overwhelming. I tried to never get upset when we repeatedly got woken up at night. It didn’t do any good anyway to complain about anything. It was all part of the deal. It was funny that whenever one of us started to complain about something, inevitably, one of the other guys would say, “Don’t worry about it. We’re only here for twenty-four hours.” In other words, we just had to put in our time, do our job, and make the best of things knowing that at the end of the shift, we could go home and hopefully forget about everything.
After I was on for a while and got used to the job, everything pretty much came automatically. I just rode the wave and got into the flow of being a fireman. When all was said and done, I just had to remember—150, 70 and 350.
Chapter - Try, Before You Pry
There are many interesting and unplanned things that occur while fighting fires. They are not things that most firemen talk about voluntarily.
I once heard a story from an investigator who had been investigating the cause of a typical house fire. He got there while the firemen were still overhauling*. He was trying to determine if the back door, the entry point where the firemen first gained access to inside the house, had been locked or unlocked before the fire. He found the fireman who was the first to enter. The investigator asked him how he had gotten through the back door. The young, energetic fireman proudly told him that he used a crowbar and an axe to “open” the door. The investigator then asked the firemen if the door had been locked. The fireman thought for a minute and then had to admit that he didn't know. In other words, when he first got to the door, he hadn't tried to open it by turning the doorknob -- he had immediately started using his crowbar and axe to pry open the door. The investigator checked the broken door, the lock, and the door frame, and then talked with the owners of the house. He found that the door had been unlocked. The investigator was making a point to the young fireman when he told him that he had needlessly destroyed the door and the door frame, and that he should always, “Try, before you pry.”
Fred moved down to Miami and became a fireman for our department after he had retired from the New York Fire Department. Consequently, Fred was much older than the other rookies when he joined our department. I worked with him many years ago. He was a big guy with raw brute strength and a crew-cut. He was a bit slow-witted, but a heck of a nice guy.
On his first fire in Miami, Fred jumped off the truck with an axe in his hand. Before anyone even knew what he was doing, he proceeded to quickly run around the one-story office building that was “on fire” and break out every single window in the entire building. It turned out that there was only a small fire in a single office. It was quickly put out.
Fred was talked to by his captain and told that he shouldn’t have done what he did. It cost someone a lot of time and money to replace all the windows that he had broken.
Everyone thought the issue was settled with Fred. But on his next fire, a house fire, he did the same thing all over again. Yep, he took his axe and immediately broke out every window in the house. The story of Fred’s escapades spread fast and wide. He immediately and forever became known as the “Axeman.”
We all got word that Fred had been part of a ventilation crew in New York. Fire departments up there are structured differently than they are in Miami. In New York, they have whole companies, or crews, doing just one specific task, as laddering buildings, searches, evacuation, ventilation, supplying water, etc. Ventilation was Fred’s job for many years. It was what he knew, and what he believed to be the best way to fight fires. On big fires in New York, he would ventilate by either breaking out windows, putting holes in roofs, or breaching walls—whatever was determined to be the quickest and safest way to go. But this was Miami, with different buildings, different types of construction, and a different firefighting mentality.
After the second episode of the “Axeman” going into action, he was ordered to never pick up an axe again on a fire—never! So, on his next house fire, do you know what Fred did? He jumped off the truck, took a shovel out of one of the compartments, and used that to break out all the windows in the house.
You may not believe this story, but if you ever met Fred, you wouldn’t have any doubts that it was true.
Chapter - Frequently Asked Questions
Do you slide down a pole at your station?
It’s one of the most common things I get asked, which is very strange to me. When people ask me this, I’m not always sure if they are putting me on, or if they are really interested or curious about firemen sliding down poles. I guess they see it so often on television that it catches their attention and they just assume every fire station has a pole.
Poles are commonplace in the two-story firehouses up north. But in the sixty or so Metro fire stations in Miami, only a few of them have second floors, thus a need for a pole. I’ve never worked for any extended period of time at a station that had a pole, but I have slid down them at a couple different stations. It is pretty neat—just like on TV.
Actually, the poles are a bit dangerous. Sometimes, guys end up sliding down on top of each other. Also, if we don’t slow ourselves down enough, it is a pretty rough jolt when we hit the floor even though it is padded. We can also get burns on our hands or arms if we aren’t careful.
Why do most firemen have moustaches?
These days, it is basically a tradition. I have heard that a long time ago, before firemen had Self Contained Breathing Apparatus, firemen would wet their long and bushy handlebar moustaches, and shove them into their mouths right before they went into a fire. The wet moustache would actually filter out some of the smoke and cool down the air a little, as the fireman breathed air in.
So they say.
(You can see my attempt to grow a handlebar moustache when I first got-on the fire department. See pictures in the Picture Gallery.)
Why do so many firemen have second jobs?
Most people who know a few firemen know it’s true that most of us do have second jobs on our off-duty days. The main reason we all have second jobs is that we have so many days off. Most firemen aren’t lazy, so it’s just natural for us to work and make extra money in our free time. Some guys work extra because they have wives who like to spend a lot of money. On the other hand, some guys work second jobs just so they can get away from their wives.
The varied skills of all the guys on our fire department are overwhelming. We have draftsmen, commercial helicopter pilots, accountants, general contractors, nurses, professional musicians, computer programmers, baggage handlers at the airport, letter opener manufacturers, priests, charter boat captains, drug dealers, baseball umpires, lawyers, custom agents, summons processors, movie stuntmen, commercial fruit growers, jewelers, and some roofers. The list goes on and on. We even have a guy who goes diving in lakes on golf courses to retrieve misguided golf balls.
I should add something about roofers. We used to have a lot more of them. But with all the raises we’ve gotten over the years, most of them have gotten away from roofing. They don’t need the money that badly anymore. Working on roofs in Miami can be brutal.
Do firemen ever get left behind when the firetruck leaves the station?
Actually, it does happen sometimes—not that often, but it does happen. It’s a rookie’s biggest fear. A lot of rookies don’t take naps and don’t sleep very well at night at the station because of this fear. Most of the times when guys miss getting on the firetruck it’s because they don’t hear the hotline or the claxon. It can be because they are either sleeping very soundly, or they are outside of the station working-out or working on their cars. When the truck is ready to pull out of the station, the guys are in such a big hurry getting bunkered-out and ready to leave that they don’t realize that they are a guy short. You may think that it’s not possible, but it is. On S-36, before we pull out of the station, our driver always calls out, “Is everybody on?” It’s a good idea. It reminds us to look around and make sure we are all there.
Do you have a dog at your station?
A lot of people ask me this question. Well, I know it’s a tradition and it’s a nice touch to have a dog around, but there aren’t any station dogs in our department. One of the reasons is that some dogs become over-protective of the truck and the equipment. Sometimes they interact adversely with the public, especially kids, when they approach the truck unexpectedly or without one of the firemen. Another reason is because of what happened at one of our stations about twenty-five years ago. It was at the station in Homestead that had just merged with the County. (I heard this story secondhand.) Our chief went to the station for the first time to check it out and meet the guys there. They had a station dog and it was nestled in its little bed. The chief, being the dog expert that he wasn’t, bent down and started to pet the dog while it was sleeping. The startled dog immediately snapped at the chief. A memo soon came out saying that there would be no dogs living or staying at any of the fire stations.
Do you really get cats out of trees?
Well, have you ever seen a skeleton of a cat in a tree?
Actually, my crew once got called to get a cat off of an apartment building roof. I went up on the roof to try to catch it, but in the process, the cat jumped off the roof—right into a tree.
Do people really swallow their tongues?
No, certainly not. What sometimes happens to an unconscious person is that their throat muscles relax and their tongue blocks off their airway. Consequently, they stop breathing. But it’s not possible for someone to swallow their tongue. I don’t know how that one got started, but it sounds good on TV, “Hurry up and do something—he’s swallowing his tongue.”
Chapter - Instant Credibility
Our Miami-Dade County Fire Rescue uniform and what it stands for definitely gives us what I call, “instant credibility.” It comes from the years and years of good service that all of the past firemen and emergency workers here have given to the public. I’m grateful and proud to be a part of it.
Meeting people and seeing their reactions to us while we are on-duty, in uniform, is -- well, almost indescribable to me. Just wearing the uniform gives me such a great feeling that I actually think about it often. It is one of the things that I kept writing about all the years that I was making notes for these books. I definitely don’t take it for granted. It is a great feeling to experience the respect, trust, and yes, even the admiration that we get. Living up to it is one of the things that both help and keep firemen giving the great service and going that extra mile for which we are known.
Along this same topic, do you know what seems really strange to me? It’s the difference between how people trust me unconditionally when I'm on-duty, and how they perceive me when I'm off-duty in street clothes. It seems strange to me, because I am the same person both on and off the job. But the way people perceive me is definitely different.
There was one experience that really drove the point home to me. I was in Austria, traveling throughout Europe, on another one of my two-month vacations. (Thank goodness for swap-time.) I was in the center of Vienna just about to go into a grocery store when I saw a lady in a predicament. She had a dog and she couldn’t take it into the grocery store with her. I could tell that she didn’t want to tie her beautiful dog up to something outside for fear someone might take off with it. I offered to hold her Golden Retriever in safe keeping while she went inside. While she was looking me over, I could tell that she was debating whether or not she could, or should, trust me. She was standing there giving a lot of thought to it. Finally, she politely refused my offer and walked away. This lady didn't trust me with her dog for the five minutes that she would have been inside the store. I immediately thought of all the people who trust me 100% with their children, their family members, and their own lives. Everyone can trust a fireman. But that lady in Vienna didn’t trust me to watch her dog. Maybe I should have slipped on my spare uniform so the Austrian lady could have seen that I was a “feuerwehrmann.”
During a shift at 36, I was standing near the front of the grocery store waiting for our cook to finish his shopping. A kid around six years old was with his mother and sister at the check-out line. He spotted me, smiled, and half walked and half ran straight towards me with his arms outstretched to the side. Sure enough, he came right up to me and gave me a big, long hug around my waist. After holding on to me for what seemed to be about ten seconds, he let go, looked up at me, and said, “Goodbye.” As he was walking back to his family, he proudly pronounced, “I like policemen!”
Well ... close enough.
Chapter - Fire College
Believe it or not, there really is a place or a thing called Fire College. That’s what everybody calls it—Fire College. Among all firemen, it has a certain ring and a special connotation. We all have to go through it when we first get hired. I went through it with about forty-five other guys. It lasted three months and it was our first exposure to what it was like to be a fireman.
Fire College is a combination of classroom instruction, watching films and fire-related demonstrations, partaking in hands-on activities, physical training, and studying to be an EMT.
Fire College was definitely a new experience for all of us. We always had to remember what we were there for, and how to react to the different situations. We also had to get used to taking orders and instructions from others higher up on the pecking order.
I learned a big lesson one morning. We were in the classroom and one of the training lieutenants asked me to make the coffee for the day. I was right in the middle of studying for a test that we were going to have in five minutes, and I mistakenly tried to get out of making the damn coffee. I told the LT that I didn’t think that I should have to make it since I didn’t drink coffee. It was a BIG mistake. Guess who made the coffee every morning for the rest of Fire College?
Chapter - Rookies
Rookies are firemen who have been on the department for less than a year. When they finish Fire College and go in the field, they usually bounce from station to station. They are on probation and technically rookies for their first year. They are on their best behavior because they have been told that during their one year probation period, they can be terminated by the fire department for many different minor reasons. After a rookie finally makes it through his first year, he acquires permanent status.
Rookies take a lot of grief. They are usually so grateful to have finally gotten this job that they’ll put up with anything to keep from losing this opportunity to live the life of a fireman. Having a rookie at our station or riding on our unit is a mixed blessing. There are constant questions to answer and explanations to give. There are also doubts about how a rookie will react in a critical situation. But in general, it is nice having them around the station. They are very happy to do extra station maintenance, wash dishes, answer the phone, and take out the garbage. It’s really nice having them on grass fires, trash fires, and tire fires. They are more than happy to get in there and do the dirty work.
Just about all veteran firemen like to give words of wisdom to all the rookies. We all chip in and spend a lot of time teaching rookies things to do and not to do. It’s a good tradition of passing on experience and know-how. Learning to be a good fireman is basically on-the-job training, and we all start with the veterans showing us the ropes.
Over the years, I’ve heard a lot of stories of tricks and pranks that have been played on rookies by veteran firemen. It’s an initiation that we all have gone through. It’s also our way of letting the rookies know that they are now part of the group. Rookies are usually so nervous and so gullible that it’s like taking candy from a baby. I’ve heard that it’s the same on all fire departments around the country. Rookies are rookies.
One of the guys told me that when he was a rookie passing through Station 19, the guys there had discreetly put a metal, folding chair under his mattress. He said that when he went to sleep that night he thought the bed was a little lumpy and a little noisy, but he was too scared to say anything about bad beds at a fire station. Rookies go through a lot without saying anything. He told me that he tried not to move around too much that night so the bed wouldn’t squeak and disturb the other guys.
One afternoon, while a rookie was in the dormitory at one of the stations studying his Red Books, the other guys screwed shut the only door leading out of the dorm. Then they called the alarm office for a recall check. All the claxons in the station went off, and the rookie, thinking they had a call, jumped up and went running to get on the truck. But he ran right into the screwed-shut door. All the guys were on the other side of the door trying to hold back their laughter. As a rookie, he didn’t imagine that it could be a joke. All he could think of was that the door was stuck for some reason, and the firetruck was about to leave without him. Finally, he tore out a screen and went out a window. He ran around the station to the firetruck and found a bunch of laughing firemen.
Chapter - Bouncing
Bouncing is how we describe working at a different station each shift. It’s like working as a substitute. We bounce from one station one shift, to a different station the next shift. Sometimes we even work at two or more different stations during a single 24-hour shift. There is always a need to fill in for firemen who are either sick, on vacation, on special assignment, on light-duty, in training, pregnant, etc.
Rookies and guys with relatively little time on the department have to bounce, and sometimes for a very long period of time, even years. It lasts until they get enough seniority to work at a station regularly. It’s not only rookies who bounce, but also newly promoted lieutenants, captains, and chiefs. That is one of the reasons why I didn’t want to become an officer.
Here’s a “welcome to Station 20” experience. It was my first time bouncing through that station in North Miami. The station was once a designated bomb shelter, so it was built very solidly with heavy lead-lined doors, and without any windows. The engine dormitory was just such a room. At night, it was pitch-black in there. There wasn’t even a small, single ray of light coming in from anywhere. The regulars at that station always made the guys who were bouncing sleep in the bed directly under the claxon. None of the regulars would sleep there, for obvious reasons.
I vividly remember my first night in that bed. I had been asleep for a couple of hours when I heard a horribly loud noise. It shook my entire body. It had to be the loudest claxon in the County, and it was only about three feet from my head. I bolted upright in my bed, and automatically covered my ears, but to no avail. It was an extraordinarily loud, piercing noise that lasted at least five seconds. I had no idea what that heart-stopping noise was, where I was, or even who I was. I was trying to look around to figure out what was going on, but it was pitch black. I remembered hearing some rustling and noises coming from others, but it took me another five seconds after the noise had stopped, before I realized that I was at a fire station, and not in the middle of total devastation.
Chapter - Are You In or Out?
I never really thought about it much while I was working, but firehouse dinners are sort of a nice tradition for firemen. When I think about it now, I realize that when they show firehouses on television, they usually show firemen cooking dinner or sitting around a table eating. I also know that nowadays, you can find a lot of firehouse recipes in cookbooks written by firemen. A lot of people associate firemen with being good cooks. Well—I think that’s debatable.
Dinner at a firehouse is definitely a special part of the day. It’s nice for all of us to sit down together and hopefully enjoy a meal. At almost every fire station, everyone eats together. There is no written rule that says we have to eat with the others, but we all do. Even when I started eating strictly vegetarian and then vegan food, I would time it so I would sit down and eat with everyone else, even though I had prepared my own meal. It was my way of partaking in this firehouse tradition.
There are two unwritten rules when a fireman cooks dinner for everyone at the station. One is that he doesn’t undercook things, especially chicken, and the second rule is that he makes enough. It is a cardinal sin to not make enough food for everybody, and for seconds for those who want extra. When it comes to cooking dinner at a fire station, it’s basically quantity not quality that is most important. That’s why there are always a lot of leftovers in the refrigerators at fire stations.
I never saw him do it, but there are a lot of stories about a certain cook who used to work at Station 29 in Sweetwater. He was sort of “touchy” about things, especially about his cooking. You could say that he didn’t take criticism very well. If anyone said anything negative about the meal, either while he was cooking or before everyone started eating, out it went, as in, “out the back door.” Yeah, really—he’d open the back door in the kitchen and toss the dinner right over the fence into a wooded lot. If one of the guys said to him, “We’re having spaghetti again?”— out it went. If someone asked him to make the sauce a little less spicy, he’d ask, “You want to cook?”—and out it went. You don’t think that some of the guys would egg him on a little just to see him throw out dinner, would you?
After each episode of “tossing out dinner,” the guys would have to order-in pizza or go to a sub shop.
Typical Day Chapter - My New Lieutenant
On the way back to the station, we were driving through an intersection when something hit the rescue truck’s windshield. It seemed to put a very small chip in it. Keith and Jim started feeding on each other and before I knew it, they had decided that someone had shot some kind of a gun at us from an open field, behind a wall, across the street. They also decided to report it to the police.
I could see that it was going to turn into a big deal. I told them from the start that I didn't see or hear anything. I didn’t want to get involved. I didn’t want to write letters and memos, or have to deal with the ensuing nonsense that was sure to follow. The fact of the matter was, there was road construction at that intersection, and there were pebbles, rocks, and sand everywhere. I'm sure what they heard was a small rock hitting our windshield that had been thrown back from the car in front of us.
Anyway, Keith pulled over, stopped, and put all the truck’s flashing emergency lights on. Jim put us "out of service" and had the alarm office call the police to meet us. I couldn’t believe they were making a police report about a pebble. When the police came, Keith said to the cop, “The shot came from the grassy knoll over there to the right.”
He actually said, “from the grassy knoll.”
I had to turn away when I broke out laughing. When the policeman asked me if I had seen anything, I told him, “I was sitting in my seat in the back, facing backwards, with my ear protectors and seat belt on. I didn’t see or hear a thing.”
We spent well over an hour at the intersection, completing all the paperwork and police reports. I figured that Keith and Jim were sorry that they'd made such a big deal about it -- or maybe not.
We finally got back to the station and to the smell of another one of Earl’s starch-laden dinners. He was making baked chicken with mashed potatoes, corn, and biscuits.
Keith and I restocked the truck with supplies and washed our hands for the umpteenth time. Jim was stuck finishing up the reports and entering everything into the log book. Keith made some phone calls and I went to my cubicle to write some notes about the previous call and the “gunshot that came from the grassy knoll.”
Dinner was ready. While the others filled their plates with Earl’s mush, I assembled the leftovers that I had brought in from home. I had been preparing my own dinners for quite a while. All eight of us were eating dinner and watching women’s tennis on TV when Rich said, “Those are the two ugliest tennis players in the world.”
Dave said, “Compared to what you go out with, they’re gorgeous.”
Dave was right. Rich goes out with some real scoundrels.
We were able to finish our dinner without being interrupted. We all chipped in washing the dishes and cleaning up the dining room and kitchen. After we made some calls and did some personal things, most of us reassembled around the dinner table and were watching a little more TV. I helped Jim with some of the reports. He had a lot of paperwork piled up after a busy day.
Typical Day Chapter - Swap-Time at 29
I walked into Station 29 a little before seven in the morning and got a funny feeling. The station had that busy-station look and feel to it. I was working swap-time for Pete. I hadn’t worked on R-29 very often over the years but I knew what I was in for. Station 29 is in a part of Miami called Sweetwater, and is one of the busiest stations in the County. I was working on the rescue with Larry, a very experienced rescue lieutenant, and Rocky, a non-paramedic.
I had worked on busy rescues before, but in the immediate past, I had been working on relatively slow rescues. I knew it was going to be strange working a 24-hour shift on R-29. Adding to my apprehension was the fact that my partner, Rocky, wasn’t a paramedic. It meant that I would be responsible for most of the advanced medical techniques and that I wouldn’t be able to rely on him to look over my shoulder to make sure of things.
As always, we changed shifts at 7:00 a.m. Ten guys were leaving and thinking about their two days off, and ten guys were coming on, thinking about having to spend the next twenty-four hours at the station. At 29, there are four guys on the engine, three on the rescue, two on the air-truck*, and a battalion chief.
We took the off-going crew’s bunker gear and personal things off of the rescue truck. At busy stations, it’s a courtesy to let the off-going guys stay in bed and sleep past 0700 if they want. We put our gear and personal things on the truck, and then started checking out all the rescue equipment. We checked out the airway-box, the medical-box, and the trauma-box to make sure everything was in working condition, the drugs weren’t expired, and they were stocked properly. We started up the Jaws of Life, ran the thumper*, checked the life-pack*, and changed its batteries. Then we restocked the shelves and drawers in the back of the rescue with lots of supplies that got used the day before. It was all part of the morning ritual on the rescue that we do every shift, or at least we should do every shift.
After about forty-five minutes of checking things out, we went inside and helped in the clean-up of the station. Some of the engine guys had already started vacuuming, sweeping, mopping, emptying trash-cans, cleaning bathrooms, etc. Nobody had to tell me what to do -- I just pitched in with whatever needed to be done. Even though morning duty responsibilities vary at different stations, it seems at the busier stations there aren’t as many rules, regulations, or lists -- everyone just pitches in and does what needs to be done. Two guys were working on breakfast. They were excused from any morning station duties. Even after just an hour at 29, the difference between working at a busy station versus a slow station was definitely obvious to me.
At 0945, we went shopping at the grocery store. The engine was there at the same time. We all finished our shopping, and Joe, the driver of the engine, started walking out of the supermarket with a gimp leg, and I mean really gimp. He had the routine and precision of lifting his leg and placing it down gimply (if there is such a word) down pat. He walked like that for about one-hundred feet -- all the way from the front door of the supermarket to the firetruck. I couldn’t believe it. I thought that only a person with a real gimp leg could possibly walk like that.
Imagine all the people walking in and out of the store looking at him and wondering how he could be a fireman with a leg like that. I was shocked. When he climbed up into the firetruck, I heard him ask the overtime lieutenant, not apologetically, but rather matter-of-factly, “Did I embarrass you?”
Welcome to the antics at Station 29.
Please Mister, Don’t Let My Daddy Die!
A young lady in a wedding gown was tugging at my shirt sleeve and pleading with me as soon as I got out of the rescue truck, “Please Mister, don’t let my daddy die.”
She didn’t know what else to do or what else to say.
When the three of us, carrying all our boxes and equipment, made our way inside a big reception hall at the country club, everything came into focus. It was the tearful lady’s wedding night, and her father had collapsed and stopped breathing in the middle of the dance floor. A couple of family friends, dressed in their suits and ties, were doing CPR.
We immediately called for the engine for assistance, and then we started our unconscious person protocol. After we checked and confirmed that the man wasn't breathing and didn't have a pulse, we continued with the CPR, then defibrillated, intubated, and after many attempts, we got an IV started in our patient’s arm. According to our protocols, we then administered the appropriate cardiac drugs. Because a group of about 150 stunned people were encircling us, things were more hectic and pressure-packed than usual. We had to do “our thing” right there among them, while they were watching our every move.
The engine arrived. They brought in the thumper and started setting it up. In their haste to get everything done, one of the guys on the engine tripped, and with his foot, he accidentally pulled the IV out of the man’s arm. It had been very hard to start the IV originally, so we decided not to try again right then, but rather to just get the father-of-the-bride going, i.e., going to the hospital as soon as possible.
We put the heavy-set man on a backboard, hooked him up to the thumper, lifted him and the thumper onto our stretcher, and wheeled him out of the hall. It was a lot of work wheeling him down steps, over a soft patch of grass, and then up into the rescue truck. But we used all our strength and experience, and the extra manpower to get it done. Once inside the rescue truck, we restarted the IV and continued with our drug therapy and protocols. In those thirty minutes, we became an integral part of an emotional, personal, and tragic event. I’m sad to say that I couldn’t fulfill the bride’s plea. Despite our best efforts, her daddy did die on her wedding day.
There is a certain feeling that I have often experienced after we work on a critical patient who doesn’t improve under our care. I believe it is a form of stress. It begins when we finally hand the patient over to the doctors and nurses in the ER. There should be a feeling of relief knowing our job is over, but I often get a feeling that we didn't do enough, especially if the patient ends up dying.
I have never been able to put a stop to this “guilty feeling” that often overwhelms me. Even though we have given it our all, up until we exhaustedly hand over the patient to the emergency room personnel, I often feel that we didn't do everything as quickly and efficiently as we should have. For me, it becomes a helpless and doubting feeling. I sometimes wonder if I should even be a paramedic, or if I deserve the trust and responsibility that I have. It is hard for me to explain this feeling exactly, but I know I don’t like it. I wonder if the other guys get this same guilty feeling. I never asked them because I didn't think they would understand exactly what I meant, and I wasn't sure that I could believe their answers anyway. This feeling, although it may be irrational, is a big part of the reason why I never became a lieutenant. I didn’t want the added pressure of knowing that I was ultimately the one responsible. I just didn't want the stress of knowing that I had the final say in life and death situations, especially when things turned out badly.
There is another type of stress that I experience. Quite often, I feel helpless when we first arrive on the scene and I see the results of what just happened. I immediately wish that I could have been there before the catastrophe happened. Then, I could have tried to prevent it or warned the person, “Don’t use the chain-saw in that dangerous way. Don’t try to pick something up from the passenger-side floor while you are driving. Keep a better watch on your child. Don’t run that generator in the garage. Don’t forget about the frying pan on the stove.”
Most guys on the department probably don’t realize or even think about this inherent part of the job—we always get there after the fact. We get there after the accident, after the fire started, and after the drowning. By then, it’s too late for us to do anything except try to pick up the pieces. This phenomenon definitely has its way of affecting me.
I try hard and actually battle not to let the stressful incidents get to me. Maybe that’s why I write my thoughts down, and maybe that’s why I am writing these books. Maybe, just maybe, re-counting and looking at all these situations analytically, and trying to write them down in a story-like fashion to share with others, is my way of dealing with the surreal situations that we have to face day-in and day-out.
Chapter - All in a Day's Work
(Various calls I've responded to)
The lady was just plain sick—esta enferma. She said that her heart
was beating fast. It was beating at a rate of eighty per minute (not
very fast). The whole time we were there, the lady was coughing
like a fiend. Even though she spoke some English, I told her in
Spanish to cover her mouth when she coughed. She nodded OK
and then coughed again without covering up.
Joe Bara asked her, “What did you call us for—to cough on us?”
Joe and I, in particular, don’t like it when people cough on
us. We are exposed to enough—we don’t need to be coughed on
as well. I took some toilet paper from a roll the lady had near her
bed and handed it to her. I motioned for her to put it over her
mouth when she coughed. That seemed to work, for a few coughs
anyway. We checked her heart and found nothing abnormal. We
figured her chest muscles were sore from all her coughing. We said
Child in respiratory arrest
When we got there, the child was sitting quietly in the front seat of
a van. The little girl wasn’t having any problems when we got there,
but no one had bothered to call 911 back to tell us that the little girl
was actually fine. I started to get mad. I had been driving really fast
to get there because we thought a child wasn’t breathing.
But as soon as I got a good look at this little girl, I wasn’t mad
anymore. This ten-year-old had Downs Syndrome. She looked
about five, and boy was she a cutie! Her mom told us that her
daughter had pulmonary hypertension, and it was very serious. I
didn’t know what it was, but I promised myself to find out. The
mother explained that it had already caused respiratory arrest a
couple of times.
This lovely little girl sure liked men. She took my hand in her
two little hands and smiled at me. Then she rubbed her cheek
against the back of my hand and kissed it, just like a man kisses
the back of a woman’s hand. What a cutie!
We talked and played with the little girl for a while. Then we
said our goodbyes and left. As soon as I got back to the station, I
looked up pulmonary hypertension. I found out that it is a type
of high blood pressure caused when arteries in the lungs become
blocked or are destroyed. Eventually, blood can’t flow through
them properly. The disease can cause blood pressure to build up,
usually during physical exertion. It can cause shortness of breath,
dizziness, and fatigue.
Fainting at K-Mart
Keith called it. He said, “Let me guess. She got caught shoplifting
and then she fainted.”
When we got there, PSD was already on the scene. A forty-four
year old Cuban lady had stuffed a hundred and forty-three dollars
worth of clothes into her Gucci bag, got caught, and then did a
It was the real thing, complete with incense, decorations, chanting,
and the animals in the back yard, unknowingly waiting to be sacrificed.
It was a Santeria cult gathering. I guess our patient had had
a little too much of the situation and started, as she put it, “hearing
voices in my head.”
Mike said, “Well—just tell them to shut up.”
We didn’t stick around too long. It was sort of spooky in the
house, even for us. None of us wanted to attract any curses, or
voices, or anything.
Twenty-four year old stepped on rat poison
Sure enough, that’s what happened. A guy without shoes, but
with thick white socks on, stepped on some rat poison pellets in
his garage. He said that shortly after that, he started feeling light
headed, got palpitations, and got a funny taste in his mouth.
He looked fine to us.
We originally found him at his neighbor’s house. He said he
went there because he lived alone and was scared that he was
going to keel over just like a dead rat, and that nobody would ever
find him at his house. I think he was serious. We all kept straight
faces and told him that he should drive himself to the hospital. He
said that he didn’t think that he should drive in his condition. We
finally talked one of his neighbors into driving him to the ER.
Twenty-three year old male, snake bite
It was 9:40 p.m. The guy’s friends had called us. They said that he
got bit by a snake at 4:00 p.m.
They waited five and a half hours to call us for a snake bite.
They said the snake was black with yellow dots.
To us, the puncture on the guy’s leg sure looked a lot like a
knife wound. He wasn’t in any distress, so we told him to go to the
hospital. We thought about calling the police, but then we figured
the cops wouldn’t appreciate it very much.
Numbness in arm
At 9:00 in the morning, our male patient let us into his apartment and
told us that his arm was numb. My partner, Martha, asked him,
“Did you sleep on your arm?”
The guy looked at her and said, “No, I slept on the couch.”
Is this a great job or what?
It was 12:45 a.m., as in, early in the morning. A sixty-five year old
woman said she had been feeling sick all day. After we checked her
out and didn’t find anything wrong with her physically, besides possibly
having the flu, I asked her, “Do you want to go to the hospital?”
“Do you want to go with your husband?” who was standing
She made a face and said, “With him? No way. He makes me
I looked at him and asked, “You want to take her?”
He asked, “In my car?”
“Yes, in your car.”
He said, “No. I’m low on gas.”
It was a little too late at night to laugh at what was going on.
Chapter - Repeat Customers
Who qualifies as a repeat customer?
Well, I think on our second visit to the same person, even for a different problem, they are technically a repeat customer, one of our frequent fliers. We have many of them.
Sometimes, we get a second call on the same person but they have moved to a different apartment or they are in a location other than at home. It doesn’t matter. They are still repeat customers in our book.
On Rescue 36, our best repeat customer was an old Polish man who lived in a corner apartment at El Conquistador Apartments on N Kendall Drive. I say our best, because although he called us quite frequently, he didn’t have any medical problems to speak of and it was never a serious situation when we went there. Actually, it got to be rather amusing. It wouldn’t have been very amusing though, if the calls had been after midnight instead of always being during the day.
He would regularly call 911 and say that he had stomach pain. When we would get there, he’d tell us in his broken English, that he had pain in his stomach.
We’d ask, “What’s the pain from?”
He’d say, “I don’t know.”
We’d ask, “What did you eat?”
He’d say, “Donuts.”
We’d ask, “How many did you eat?”
He’d say, “I don’t know, about six or ten or fifteen.”
Every time we went there, it was exactly the same scenario. But you know what? I never actually saw any empty donut boxes lying around—and I looked.
He would always call during the day while he was home alone. He would tell us that he wanted to go to the hospital. Each time, we would call his daughter who worked at a local bank. We would get her on the phone with him, and she would talk him out of wanting to go to the hospital. It was the same each time.
The daughter lived there with him, we think, but we actually never saw her—we only talked to her on the phone. The old man would never call 911 while she was there. We guessed that he didn’t get lonely as long as his daughter was around.
Repeat customers are a big part of our clientele. Responding to some of them can be fun, but some of them have very serious conditions. For me, it’s usually nice to see the same patient a second or third time. It lends a little continuity to our job of responding and treating people who we usually never see again. Repeat customers can also make good material to write about.
Chapter - Miscellaneous, Miscellaneous
I was once thinking—what, if any, is the common thread among firemen?
In professional sports, all the great athletes have a common desire to compete, excel, and win. Most teachers, more than anything, want to teach and help others to learn. Most artists are very creative and passionate. But what is common among firemen? Well, as I thought about it, besides some of us maybe having a craving to get in there and fight fires, there isn’t anything I could come up with except that most firemen are somewhat of risk takers and are willing to help others, even at their own expense.
But do you know what?
After I really thought about it, I realized that that unselfish compassion to help others is actually acquired after we become firemen. Not many of us start out that way. When we first get-on, we see others around us with that altruistic outlook of helping virtual strangers and that throw-caution-to-the-wind attitude. We quickly find out that it is just part of the job. If we want to succeed at this profession just like all the firemen before us, and if we want to get along with all the guys we work with, we have to become considerate of others. We also have to learn to put the public’s safety ahead of our own. After being on this job for a while, it just becomes our nature. It is part of the tradition of being a fireman.
I worked overtime one day at one of the new stations in the most northern part of Miami. I was partnered with Wayne and Wilbur, two black guys. It made me think about the uniqueness of this job, and how well we work together with people from different backgrounds, cultures, philosophies, etc. To us, our differences just don’t matter. Most of us rarely, if ever, even think about it. We all just pitch in with a single goal—helping the general public in their times of need. We all do our jobs, and we all get along fine. Partnering-up and working in so many intense situations with so many different types of people is one of the parts of this job that I like the most. Besides this job being both challenging and interesting, it’s a great life experience in working with others.
I had a great day working with Wayne and Wilbur. Despite the fact that we were very busy, it was a fun day just hanging out with those guys and working with them in different situations. I haven’t
worked with any guys before then or since who were so genuinely nice to the public. It was great to be part of their team, especially since I am from a background totally different than theirs. I learned
a lot from Wayne and Wilbur that day, and I became a much better paramedic.
I don’t often talk about politics or government interference, but while reflecting on the day that I spent working with Wayne and Wilbur, some things struck me really hard. If it took government-mandated integration, quotas, and minority hiring to force people of different backgrounds and colors to go to school together and to work together, then I think it was a great thing. It ultimately allowed a lot of us to learn about people from different backgrounds and cultures. And in doing so, it allowed people to eventually accept each other, learn from each other, and to like each other.