Today another fine California Highway Patrol officer perished, this time at the hands of a drunk/impaired driver.
We have friends who are family with this outstanding young man. Only one year and four months on the job, gone in the blink of an eye due to the selfishness of another’s actions.
In my city we (the fire department) work hand in hand with our CHP officers. We hold great respect for these men and women and working together we create a safer place when juggling the very dangerous world of our Interstate system. Although our jobs are different yet in some cases strangely the same.
I cannot tell you how many times I have been terrified while working on the freeway. How many times we have almost been hit or had drivers veer our way. I personally have had an individual swerve purposefully at me with the intent to strike me with his vehicle.
Two weeks ago a CDF Fire Engineer was killed while working the Thomas fire. Although no real details have been released, I did read he perished from burns and smoke inhalation. Another fine young firefighter gone to soon.
We (the fire service) give up so much in our jobs and we are proud to be given the chance to perform the tasks for which we work so hard to perfect. But one firefighter killed, just as having one officer killed is one to many.
I wrote this post two weeks ago and it is all I can think about at 1 am this day after Christmas. A Christmas neither one of these fine young men were able to spend with their wives, their children, their parents or their friends.
Rest in Peace Officer Andrew Camilleri, thank you for your service.
Rest in Peace Fire Engineer Cory Iverson, thank you for your service.
It is only 10 days
They say it is only 10 days and what a cushy job we must have; while everyone else is working we must be relaxing, doing what we want while leading a life of luxury with such a grandiose forgiving schedule. Ten whole days, ten easy, lazy days a month?
Man I need a cushy gig like that! Yeah that’s what they say.
It sounds simple enough, the life of a firefighter. I personally have been one since 1995. When you say it out loud 10 days a month really does come across as a dream job of employment, and to some degree it can be. Yet the reality is, 10 days a month can lead to 50 years (30 working + hopefully 20 retired) of heartache, injury and despair.
Our schedule is a nifty one and it has changed a few times over the years. From days Mon-Fri 0800-1700, to a Kelly schedule format which consists of one day on (24 hours) and one day off (24 hours) for three shifts then four days off (96 hours), to the current scheduling of 48 hours on and 96 hours off that most departments (at least on the west coast) use today.
When I became a full time firefighter it felt as though my world had screeched to a complete halt. You see my previous work schedule consisted of 6 days a week and anywhere from 12-14 hours a day. My job was laborious and I was paid by percentage for materials moved so although I could have worked 5 days a week at 8 hours a day I was in fact a hustler. If you even hinted there was more money to be earned I would hustle for it, it was who I was and I enjoyed it every time I opened my paycheck to reap the benefit. Being a hustler is a part of me the fire service completely stifled as I never found a direction within the wide array of specialties we provide that kept the hustler feeling alive.
That was me, and it was a long time ago, yet I fully understand it is the same schedule of many hardworking Americans today. But the reality is most means of employment consist of an 8-10 hour a day schedule or a 40+ hour work week. A person is paid for the hours put in on the job and provided overtime for anything over those 40 hours. Hopefully being paid accordingly for the effort.
So why does it bug me when someone gives me shit for supposedly “only” working 10 days a month?
Why do my hackles stand up the minute I detect that smart-alecky you have it so lucky, you must work several jobs because you have life so easy type attitude?
You know I do work ten days a month, 10/24 hour shifts which never by the way work out to those cakey 10 days a month. You see we firefighters are always working extra, which I don’t mind, in fact one of the requirements for being a firefighter is you possess that type A personality which consists of always being a problem solver while continually taking the lead in any situation.
Example: We don’t just put the fire out, we stay behind no matter how long it takes to ensure the building is safe, you are safe, you have what you need, your neighbors are ok, hell we have even taken the family pets back to the firehouse and cared for them until arrangements are made! It is just is who we are! Helpers!! But let’s make sure we have our facts straight before running our mouths and tripping over our tongues shall we? There is really nothing easy about anything we do, we do it well, we do it right, and it doesn’t matter how long it takes, as long as it done with heart, conviction and compassion. Also let me clarify when I say working extra. Working extra comes in all shapes and sizes, from mandatory hold overs, shift trades, extended incidents, sick leave/vacation coverage, mandatory training, or recalls for large incidents. Plus we are consistently understaffed so you can see how quickly 10 days grows to 12, 14, or 16 days away from home serving the citizens we swore to protect! That’s half a month away from our families. Half a month away from watching our children participate in life, half a month during which time our significant others become single parents.
As I previously stated ten days a month is our base, this equates to a 56 hour work week on average. Sometimes it is much more, other times it is a few hours less. So right out of the gate we are already above the 40 hour work week. Now let me say right here, no complaints on our part at all, it is what we signed up for and trust me when I say there is a LONG line of qualified individuals waiting to step into any vacated position!
But whenever someone whines to me about how cushy my job is with this luxurious 10 day a month work schedule it bears truth to remind them of the pleasantries a 40 hour work week affords them personally. That’s right pal you get up in the morning after sleeping alongside that super special someone every night, grab some coffee, kiss the kids, pet the dog and head off to work. Then after putting in 8-10 hours at the old job, you can go home, or to the bar, or an adult league softball game, or bowling or to your kids school play or, or, or, or this could go on indefinite. Every night upon arriving home if you so choose its dinner with the family, spending time with other loved ones, working on that project in the garage, watching late night television and then going to sleep again next to that super special someone to do it all over. Wash, rinse, repeat. Pretty sweet right?
Here is my work week or 2.5 days that I work.
I get up in the morning, kiss my wife/kids goodbye and pray I see them in two days. I know this sounds overly dramatic but it is without a shadow of a doubt a truth you can only understand after dealing with the public and emergency responses over any period of time. There are so many things/close calls that have happened to me personally over the years I will never tell my wife about because if I did, even though she knows the job and understands, she would never let me walk out the door again. EVER!!!!
Arriving at work, I get a cup of coffee and go over the morning shift exchange between ongoing and off going members. This is followed by a shift meeting covering our agenda or expectations for the next two days. PT time is observed and then it is straight into morning chores which consist of station and equipment maintenance. The afternoon usually has training either in classroom, outside or online along with specialty projects and of course reports generated from emergency responses. Reports document the entire sum of all responses for city, and county wide statistics, insurance and homeowner or patient investigations. This sometimes goes into the early hours of the night depending on call volume or deadlines needing to be met. We have dinner as a group and head off into our own directions. Some take a little personal time as in read or study for the next phase in their career, while others may workout some more or as in my case write. Many take a deep breath and head nose deep back into station related work projects. Heading off to bed, hopefully to sleep (I know right? How awesome I get to freaking sleep on the job!), we wake up the next morning and do it all over again. After the required shift exchange we go home where the first day is usually kept open for clearing our heads while catching up on lost sleep. The second thru fourth day is trying our hardest to spend time with family and then in a blink it is back to work we go.
It all sounds easy right? Pretty darn cushy. Except for one thing. We handle emergency calls through it all. When the bell goes off we respond and we need to do so in under 2 minutes, no matter the time, day or night. That bell, that loud clanging bell knows no time limit or has a lick of sympathy because it is merely sounding an alarm to another’s tragedy. Tragedies also hold no time limit. They happen day or night, rain or shine, wind or calm. When it sounds we know no matter what kind of day we are having and regardless of how tired or worn down we may be it is our duty to respond to someone else’s worst day of their lives! Not only respond but always, and I mean always be on our A game! Plus we get the distinct and amazing pleasure of retaining every single horrible thing we have ever seen or done while performing that job! We carry it around like a suitcase full of horrors and that suitcase is always banging, shaking, live with action, gruesome action, reminding us constantly that we were there! What’s inside that suitcase wants to come out so badly and there are days it does and on those days it seeps into the presence of others it is always at the wrong time, the wrong moment leaving you drained while those around you are wondering what the fuck! Can you feel a bit of pressure there?
So let me break this down, yeah, break it on down now!
What that means is during my supposedly cushy ten days a month, I work, train, eat, run calls, fight the eternal, emotional nightmares, and oh if I’m lucky and it’s a good shift, I may get 5 full hours of sleep.
Yeah good times.
So let’s talk a little more about the mental aspect now that we have covered the basics of ten days a month.
When I started the chief told our graduating class: Cadets, you are going to see some things out there, some really horrible things.
Yep that was it.
We all laughed because we were larger than life, we had graduated, becoming probationary firefighters which meant we were now somehow invincible, indestructible and we’d fully bought into the bullshit associated with wearing a fire department shirt. Please understand I don’t mean that disrespectfully at all. The day I pulled that fire department job shirt over my head for the first time was one of the proudest moments of my life. It was a defining moment, an accumulation of hard work and drive, succeeding when others told me repeatedly I was too old to try or I would definitely fail. It also comes to note that I fully loved the career field I came from, but I always knew deep inside there was more, that I was supposed to do more, not for me, but for others. It gnawed at me day and night from the inside so when firefighting found me I knew it was what I needed to do.
It was difficult too for as I stated I had an established career, I owned a home and had a wife and child. To leave that security behind on the slimmest of chances one day I may get hired was a tough pill for my family to swallow. But they did, they trusted me and stood behind me all the way! All because I knew inside there was more. It’s why I get a little miffed when I see our shirts on non-fire personnel. It was the hardest garment to obtain because it meant you survived, you made it, and you wanted it that bad. You simply had to earn it.
We laughed, thought there was nothing we couldn’t handle and for a while it was surreal. Looking at your first dead person is overwhelming to say the least. Now throw in a side of body deformation, evulsion, amputation, violent drug overdose, murder, self-inflicted suicide by any means. Heck let’s play the old adage of children are the hardest. To me children are indeed the hardest, but it’s not because they are dead. Nope death is an end, they don’t know it or feel it, and the ones who suffer are those left behind. It sucks for someone so young because they never had a chance at life and that is a sad depressing thought, but for me children suck and stay with you forever when they are the living.
Mom has an overdose for the third or fourth time and said child walks in to witness us performing CPR to no avail. 5 year old in the back seat screaming for mommy who is clearly nothing more than a blood smear across the entire front seat, never coming back, never able to hold her child again. Son comes home from school to find dad slumped over the corner of the bed with half his head gone from self-inflicted shotgun blast, bits of skull and dura matter cover the wall and ceiling like bloody popcorn. We arrive to an insane scene filled with screaming and hysterics, mommy or daddy aren’t coming back and a child’s psyche is destroyed for life. Yeah the living children always get me. It’s the father in me, I want so badly to take them home, hug them, help them anyway I can and it is always without fail a very quiet engine ride back to the station.
But wait there is more…
There is no place in this damn town I can go without seeing ghosts. Every place, even some of my absolute favorites have ghosts standing around, looking at me, and asking me why?
Why couldn’t we do anything or how did this happen? They tower like billboards flashing a message that blinds me, leaves me seeing only white as repeatedly I flash back to a moment, that second in time where we either tried like hell or made base contact and called it as we saw it. D.O.A. Another father, son, mother, daughter, aunt, uncle, grandfather, grandmother etc.. gone way to soon.
A man overcome with fumes in a grain silo that no one could get too. Another steps in front of a train and faces it with a hardened resolve, we picked up pieces for what felt like hours. A car full of teenagers, flipping over in the night, their burned bodies found when the fog lifted in the morning. The smell of burned flesh, young, old, that smell, it doesn’t discriminate and it never goes away. We pulled those kids out for the coroner, one piece at a time, one badly burned smelling piece at a time. A teenager hung in the garage, with obvious signs he changed his mind to no avail, he was a victim of love gone wrong. Another teenager who shot themselves because that person was tired of being bullied, thinking a bullet was better than another day at the hands of his tormentors. A former law enforcement officer kills himself in front of us as we turn the corner because he couldn’t stand the pain any longer. I can never erase the image of red spray exiting the top of his head. Domestic abuse where a patient is terrified to have you help them simply because of your gender or look. Where it is all you can do to remain professional as anger seethes deep below the surface while you bandage up the knuckles of one’s attacker. CPR attempts, oh lord the CPR attempts, so many, more than I can count, and to be honest there have been so many that I can’t even put a win to loss ratio on them anymore and yes we do take it quite personally when we lose!
These are merely a few, a tidbit, the smallest of snippets regarding calls I have been associated with over the years. Many so very graphic and disturbing. We as firefighters get the distinct pleasure of bearing witness to the most horrendous acts one person can inflict upon another or themselves.
I think back to what the chief told us, what I stated above: You are going to see some things out there, some really horrible things.
He was right and in his defense it was a very different time. We firefighters were expected to be tough, to hold it inside, you were laughed at if a call bugged or bothered you in any way. We used and still do use dark humor to quell the inner beast at times, getting us through a shift. Firefighters don’t cry, they are supposed to be strong, and brave. We are the hero’s so we must act like it. Yet we never claim to be heroes and I personally cannot stand anyone within the service who acts as though they are, for we are just people. People who do a job for which we are well trained. We have a need to help and combined with education and overwhelming compassion that is why we do what we do. But hero? No
The ghosts are real. They are fucking real and they never go away. We keep them from our families and our children but they to pay the price.
Some days I just want to be left alone, I don’t want to talk and I’m a prick no matter how hard I try to keep it together. I am lucky, as I stated earlier my wife understands, but that is because she was once a firefighter so she knows the schedule, knows the struggles we go through and understands when I need to be left to my own devices. But that doesn’t make it right.
My children can’t do anything without me seeing the dangers! I am constantly all over them for whatever they do like an insane safety cop trying my hardest to keep them out of harm’s way. When either of my boys pulls out of the driveway I am constantly on guard, worrying the call will come that one of them has been killed in an accident. At the station when I finally get to lay my head down for a bit I pray they are all safe at home, yet images of horrific accidents or fire rolls through my head and instantly transposed upon my family. I close my eyes tightly and fight the mental demons knowing (irrationally) that one day the tones will roll and my address with be on the tip of the dispatchers tongue.
Speaking of addresses, there is no count to how many times the dispatched address is a person or family within my personal circle. Working in the town for which you reside and your children participate brings with it another responsibility, another personal struggle when things go south. When things go well, the pats on the back are extra special, but when things go south the stares are twice as painful. If you perish on my shift either before we arrive or in front of me, it is a tough to pill to swallow when I don’t know you. Your ghost lingers and wonders why. But if you are a member of my extended family, close friends, or even well-known acquaintances then it’s even harder. Looking into the eyes of your surviving family members is so hard, there are no words to say, your ghost is much harder to deal with and every time we (surviving family) cross paths the pain is all to real. You wear it like a badge of failure.
The fire service has determined PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) is a real thing. Thank goodness, because we are losing way too many members to the mental struggles that resides within us all. In this writing I have only touched on a small portion of what rolls around inside my head on a daily basis and I know I am not alone. There is so much more and one day I will talk about it all. One day I hope to purge all the ghosts, at the very least erase the faces. I know deep inside this won’t come until I retire as every shift has a new face attached. They say time heals all wounds, but these wounds never heal. They are covered in scabs, scabs that we keep picking at because we just can’t or in some cases won’t let them heal. We need to see them, feel them and remind ourselves they are there for some fucked up, unknown reason. I’d like to think it is our humanity reminding us its ok to feel. But after a while you just don’t wasn’t to feel anything anymore.
The best we can do is recognize the problem, show it to the world and find help for those who need it desperately. They are out there, and they need compassion and understanding for the weight carried upon their backs. Weight that feels as though it is driving them to their knees.
I have 6 years left to go.
6 years of only 10 days a month.
Pretty cushy gig huh?