Thursday, March 22, 2012

Firefighting is like the Hunger Game, we eat our own.

I was a professional Firefighter for more than 30 years and it almost killed me. Fire almost killed me, guns almost killed me, people almost killed me, vehicles almost killed me, and the biggest threat to my life in the end was me. I almost killed me.
I tried to kill me; I was drunk again sitting outside of my house on a pleasant July 1st evening. The air was warm and I was sagged into a metal patio chair. My wife at the time, a fellow firefighter was inside with our three year old son and two month old daughter.
She was still home on maternity leave and had a few days left before returning to duty. A return to duty would mean leaving her children in my care for twenty-four hours at a time. My ex has many faults but abandoning her babies to an alcoholic wasn’t one of them.
Unbeknownst to me she had already made arrangements to leave me, to take her children and go to her mother’s home. She hadn’t told me this but somewhere deep in my alcohol soaked synapses’ there was a knowing, surrender had taken place in my mind.
I had surrendered to alcohol, surrendered to pain, and surrendered to death. Death was okay with me, in fact it made sense. It was the only thing that made sense in that moment. How could I release myself and those around me from the pain?
I had had a particularly bad run at work, seen more than I wanted to see. As a firefighter/paramedic you don’t get to look away, we don’t get to call a time-out; we don’t get the opportunity to say no thanks I don’t want to go in there.
We don’t get to hand “IT” off, whatever it is. As a paramedic you are the top of the medical food chain out on the streets. All your co-workers are EMTs and have been trained in basic life saving skills, and many are very good at it, they have skills.
But as the paramedic you are the eyes and ears of an emergency room doctor, you are their sock puppet. Medics go through months of advanced training, countless hours in emergency rooms, ORs, and class rooms. Then we spend hours and hours riding around in the back of an ambulance with a specially trained medic that mentors and evaluates our skills.
And then one day you get blessed, your physician advisor signs off on your qualifications to do the job and you go to your duty post and you are The paramedic. No fallback position for you anymore, no supervising paramedic watching over your shoulder and making suggestions, asking you if you have thought about this or that.
It’s just you, by now you have shoved hundreds of IV needles into arms, hands, feet, necks, anywhere you can get them. You have pushed plastic tubes down countless throats and injected gallons of medications into those IVs.
And you have watched countless lives depart this world, and not all of them peacefully. You have seen what a gun of pretty much any caliber can do to a body, you have seen what a person looks like after a train, semi-truck, car, or bus has squished, crushed, and mangled them. You know how easily skin comes off in your hands when a person gets burned up. You know the look in a person’s eyes right before they die, as they stare at you with those pleading eyes, save me, do something I don’t want to go.
You know the kind of grip a parent has when their child is hurt, you know they squeeze your hand so hard it hurts and you know the sound of anguish and hurt so well that it wakes you at night in a sweat.
And like Bob Marley’s ghost these things visit you.
So I had picked up the bad habit of pouring booze on those things and for a long time it helped. I thought I was getting rest when I was passed out when in fact all I was getting was quiet for a few brief hours, and they would rush back in like the waters of a broken dam.
They won’t leave you alone and that hurts. I can’t explain to you the utter sensation of total powerlessness that I felt in those situations. Maybe I was too caring, maybe I was too sensitive. I saw others unaffected by similar events, why and how could they walk away with ease, when I couldn’t.
We have little sayings to try and make us feel better, we say things like, we didn’t cause what happened we were just there afterwards trying to make it better. We did everything we could it was just their time, God’s will.
So I tried suicide as an escape, and was snatched away from that effort by the hand of God. I was thrust into a system designed to help what I consider normal people. Normal alky’s and addicts.
I am most decidedly an alcoholic, but I’m special, I’m a firefighter alcoholic. Now all drunks like to think they are special and are in their own ways, I’m not discounting the disease of others, I am saying that emergency workers (and soldiers I’m sure) suffer from the same condition, but to a much greater degree.
The support systems for treatment and rehab are designed for the average addict/alcoholic, not for us. This must sound arrogant but I am dead serious. Think of it this way maybe.
Let us say you own a very expensive, powerful, exotic, and specialized automobile, and something is wrong with it mechanically. You have a lot of money invested in this vehicle, a lot of time in it, and it isn’t easy to replace or repair.
But the cheapest and easiest way to repair it is to take it to some small local one car garage. Is that where you take it? Or would you look for someone trained and specialized in repairing that kind of car?
Well governments and other kinds of employers pick their health care providers based on their cost and their ability to treat the majority of normal people, not on their ability to treat special cases. I don’t claim to be an expensive sports car; I do claim to be a different kind of alcoholic. I’m a firefighter alcoholic.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Is Firefighting different today?

People ask we is firefighting today really any different than it was in the past? After all fire hasn’t changed much since a lightning bolt first slammed into a tree and set it on fire and some lucky Neanderthal stumbled upon it. Has firefighting changed much since that same Neanderthal set his furry apparel on fire after getting too close to the same fire?

Well yes and no. Our primary tool in fire suppression is still water; put the wet stuff on the red stuff and all will be well. So that equation has remained relatively unchanged. Our Neanderthal probably became the very first firefighter by accident when his new found treasure was snuffed by the rains of the thunder storm that accompanied the lightning.

With a little training and grooming (very little grooming) that Neanderthal can still be found today in fire stations across the world. Because firefighting at its root has not changed much over all this time. It still requires men and women that will get in there and do it, do the job.

People that understand the risks, accept the risks, and then disregard that risk. As safe as we try to make firefighting it is still a very high risk endeavor.

From the U.S. Fire Administration web site

Statistics below are compiled for the period January 1 - February 29, 2012.

Number of On-Duty Firefighter Fatalities: 15

My respect and regards to these firefighters and their families. Now all these brave souls didn’t die in fire, some were run over while trying to rescue people trapped in a vehicle, some died in car accidents while responding to and from calls, all died doing the job.

Fire maybe the same but the things that burn are not. I my brief life time and career the contents of a structure fire have changed radically. At the outset of my adventure in fire suppression the average American home was still made out of organic materials, read, wood, bricks, concrete and normal stuff.

The stuff that burned made smoke that was for the most part…smoke. Today homes and structures are made with plastics, composites, and all kinds of manmade space age stuff.

When I went to my first fires if you put on an airpack you got laughed at, pussies wore airpacks, real firefighters “took” the smoke. Your ability to “take smoke” was even on your probationary evaluation paperwork, in the form of check off boxes.

I will always remember crawling along in a huge industrial fire on my hands and knees, masked up and doing a search. It was hot and smoky and then I ran into a pair of black cowboy boots. They were crossed one over the other in a very casual way.

The boots were standing; my eyes followed the boots, to the pants, to a nylon jacket, and then up to the face of Chief Rip. There he stood, leaned back against the wall, his little white chief’s hat tipped back on his forehead and a cigarette clinched tightly in his teeth.

He looked down at me grinned and said “Good job kid, you keep doing what you are doing.” and he popped off the wall and disappeared into the fire. I loved that guy, man did he know how to fight fire, if said I could put hell out I would have believed him and happily followed him there.

He lost his first lung shortly after retiring and died of lung cancer a while after that. They don’t make chiefs like that anymore. I’m sure the anti-smoking zealots out there will blame his tobacco use for his death and I’m sure it contributed to his demise.

The point of that story is twofold, first to honor one of the biggest bad ass firefighters I ever had the pleasure to work with, and second to illustrate that at that point in time he could stand up in a fire, breath the smoke and still go home the next day.

If you did that today you would be a statistic added to the list above. The crap that burns in a simple house fire today produces some of the most toxic gasses and compounds known to man. I mean the stuff Saddam Hussein was trying to make just appears in this environment. Call me a pussy all day long and on weekends, but I wasn’t going in any burning building without an air supply.

Another aspect of modern construction methods are compound wood materials. Things used to be made out of boards now they are made out of wood chips glued together and squeezed into shapes that look like boards. Funny thing is a real board while burning tends to hold its strength as a supporting member longer than laminated toothpicks do.

So if you have that knowledge, that is to say, what a structure is made out of you have a better sense of timing in how long it is before the building falls on your head. Timing is critical when deciding how to attack a fire, if you think you have ten minutes before it collapses then that is a good amount of time to go inside, search and extinguish.

If you think you have two minutes before it falls down then you stay outside. Good officers know this in their bones, they can look at a fire and read the smoke, they have a rough idea of when the place was built, and most important, they have been to a few dozen fires in the same kind of home.

They have seen how that kind of fire behaves and can access a mental database that provides knowledge you can’t find in a book. It takes time to master that skill.

So yeah firefighting is the same as always, and vastly different as well.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Some Chiefs remember what it's like to be a Firefighter

My experience with Billy-Bob left me even more apprehensive about my up-coming meeting with the “Big”. The Big Chief was an outsider, he hadn’t come up through the ranks of my department, he had been imported from of all places California.

Even though he had been on my job for at least ten years at this point, he was still an outsider, which had the possibility of being an advantage or disadvantage. He had formed his opinion of me all by himself based on personal experience or you could call it close encounters of the TimO kind.

He had tried to get me help early after his arrival and had been subverted. He had given me a last chance contract six years earlier following my suicide attempt, and here I was washed up on his beach again. I’m sure his first instinct was to get a big stick and roll me back into the sea like a beached whale.

I waited outside his office not a conference room like I had imagined. His office manager was the sweetest lady and she chatted me up. By her actions I could have been there for an award or a promotion, it was a bit disturbing her jovial demeanor.

“Want some coffee Tim? She never called me TimO.

“Yeah please, I’m a bit dry throated.” I was dry on the inside and pouring sweat on the outside. As she got coffee she continued the chat.

“How are the kids? Those girls of yours are just beautiful, they look just like…” She almost said it and caught herself, and in that moment gave away her own nervousness about what was happening.

“Little angels.” Nice recovery. She handed me the coffee and touched my hand at the same time.

“Just relax Tim. You know he does like you.” She would know.

The Chief called from his office.

“Tim come in and close the door.” Wow it was just him and me.

“Take a seat.” As I looked at his face it hit me. What a shit job he must have. He really looked utterly fatigued. Now I’m not going take all the credit here for his outward appearance, he was after all the Chief of a huge department and a politician in many regards.

I might have been one of the rocks in his backpack, but I’m sure I wasn’t the largest. I wondered if now was the time he would put me down and stop carrying me around.

He didn’t speak for a few seconds; he was busy flipping through pages of a document on his desk. Then he looked up.

“Know what this is?” He indicated the paperwork.

“I can guess.”

“It’s another last chance contract and I haven’t signed it yet.” He flipped it closed.

“Tell me what happened TimO.” He crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back in his chair. God he looked so disappointed, so exhausted, the size of my rock grew.

I had a quick choice, tell the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth, or in my mind be fired on the spot. I didn’t know the limits of his mercy at that point.

“I did it all boss, I got drunk again, stayed out too late and went to work hung over, hung over bad and got caught.”

“Why TimO? Why would you do that?”

“I can make excuses Chief, I could tell you about my supposed reasons, but to be honest boss, I haven’t a clue. I was in pain, not physical pain, just lonely and hurting. I went for a drink and ended up drunk again.”

He considered me and that statement for seven more heartbeats, that is how I was measuring time at that point, by heartbeats.

“I’ve never worked with you TimO, not out there, not in the shit and I wish I had. Because it seems the only way I know you is by this route, by my office as chief.” He leaned forward now.

“So I did some research, I talked to the men and women that do know you out there, and you know what they said?”

“I can imagine.”

“I don’t think you can TimO. You know what they say about you?”

“No sir I don’t.”

“They all say the same thing, from chief to plugman. They tell me if they could only pick one firefighter to go in a basement fire with, it would be you, and they tell me that if someone in their life, their mothers for example were hurt or sick, you’d be the paramedic they’d want to run the call.” He stood up now and grabbed the paperwork.

“You are damn good at what you do. You should be proud of that. But Tim you are a mess, you are a liability to me and I have thought long and hard about this, so I’m going to give you another last chance and be clear here. It is your very last chance. There have been voices saying it’s time to cut you loose, cut our losses.” He handed me the contract.

“So since I can’t seem to get your attention on this I’m going to make it hurt. You will pay for this out of your own pocket, I mean the rehab, the doctor’s visits, the co-pays, whatever it costs you pay it not me or my department, and I’m giving you ten shifts without pay. You step out of line one time and you are gone. You understand this, you got any questions for me?”

The sadness in his face was gone, he was pissed, and I knew who the voices were calling for my firing. He had taken beating on my behalf to do this for me. I couldn’t let him down.

“No sir I don’t and thank you.” I stood up.

“Don’t thank me TimO, get your shit together. You are probably one of the brightest guys I got working for me. But I won’t stand in the way of your fall-out again.” He shook my hand and then lead me to the dreaded conference room.

That is where all the white shirts and gold badges were. He had done me one more favor and said what he needed to say in private.

I still talk to this man today he no longer works for my department and is a Big again out in California, and if I could I’d work for Manny again, but he’s smarter than that. Thanks Chief.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Firefighters and Oficers are two different animals

So the day came to meet the “Big” Chief. I figured this would be much like all the other meetings with all the other chiefs. In a conference room with a big table and at least half a dozen white shirts and gold badges. Meetings with me were always a team sport, TimO on one team and then a real team.

I don’t think the other team was assembled because they feared it would get violent or crazy in some way. I think they all knew I was a clever drunk, as most alcoholics are and none of them trusted taking me on one on one. I don’t say this to brag, it just means that an organization, a bureaucracy like the fire department can grow quickly in this day and age.

So the best and most qualified person isn’t always in an important position. Many key administrative jobs are back filled with the guy that needs to be “parked”. That guy that has been injured, the guy in “job jail”, or as was the case with our HR director the guy who just couldn’t do the “job” anymore.

He was obese and got winded waddling from the vending machines to the snack table in the lounge. I’m not sure if he was educated beyond the one room school house he attended somewhere in the Deep South, but I did know I could run circles around the guy.

I know I sound bitter here and that is because I am when it comes to this bumbling troll. So I’ll give an example before I move on. Many times it is customary for an alcoholic in trouble to be required to attend 90 AA meetings in 90 days, and that is the language used.

“You will attend 90 meetings in 90 days TimO.” I hated when he called me TimO, said Billy-Bob our HR director. I attended 90 meetings in like 45 days and then took a few days off here and there when I felt like it.

He had issued me no kind of official form for record keeping as I had seen in countless meetings. No he just said 90 in 90. I knew if I felt like it I could have pushed that fact but didn’t, so I kept a little note pad for attendance purposes.

When I turned it in to him, he counted the days up with a number two pencil, out loud. I watched in amazement as he lost track and started over not once, but three times. When he was done he tossed my note pad across the table at me.

“We seem to have a problem here TimO.” His face reeked of arrogance and superiority as he pushed his bulk back from the table to regain the breath that the conference table had taken from him.

“You got a couple of days here where you didn’t go to a meeting.” He looked like an out of work clean shaven Santa checking his naughty or nice list and had stumbled across his first naughty.

“Yeah.” I said.

“Well the agreement states you will attend 90 meetings in 90 days, and at that you have failed.” He was attempting to use his “legal” vocabulary.

No I didn’t, I went to 90 meetings in my first 45 days and went to over a hundred meetings Billy.” I didn’t call him captain on purpose.

“That’s Captain Smith not Billy, and you missed a few days where you didn’t go to any meetings. That is a problem TimO and puts your job in my hands.”

The irony of correcting me on calling him Billy and he calling me TimO was wasted on this dolt and I let it pass.

“Cap there is nothing that says one meeting per day for 90 consecutive days. All you said was 90 in 90. I did that. I did more than that.” His smile faded as he considered what I said.

“It was implied that you would go to a meeting every day, and you didn’t.”

“I fulfilled the requirement Cap, 90 in 90 I did that, there is nothing written down anywhere on this. You didn’t even give me a form or some sort of document to even keep a record; I keep that record for my own protection and I would like it back, I’ll give you a copy of it.”

“Well you make me that copy and you can go now, I’ll get back to you with my decision on this.”

I was informed a few days later by my lieutenant as he handed me an official record keeping document (newly created complete with misspelled words) that I was going to have to go to 90 more meetings one per day for 90 days consecutively, and that I could go while on duty.

Freddy was and is still a great lieutenant; he pulled me into his office to go over the form and the requirements.

“TimO you know I love you man and I know what you are going through here, I’ve sat in more meetings with Billy-Bob than I ever wanted to because of this. So listen to me here okay?”

“Yeah sure boss.” Freddy turned serious a rare occurrence. It spooked me.

“Billy is mad, you made him look bad with the chief and he wants your ass now more than ever. Don’t mess around here. I can’t and more importantly I won’t cover your ass on this. Do it, and do it right. Am I clear?” His face was a mix of pain and pity, I had gone as far as I could here, and the last thing I wanted to do was be an even bigger problem for this man I respected so much.

“You got it Lou.”

“Get out of my office.” He spun toward his computer.

We alcoholics can push the ones that love us to the edge with ease. I was fond of the idea that I wasn’t hurting anybody else with my drinking. We alcoholics like that saying; it helps us drink without worry. But it is the biggest lie we tell ourselves.

Sorry again, it does say rants and raves at the top of the page and this was a rant I didn’t see coming. Better talk to my sponsor about it. I’ll tell you about the Big Chief tomorrow.