Not all firefighters die by the flame

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, November 16, 2011

I was at a car accident last week when while taking care of a person who was not badly injured, they asked me, “How can you do this everyday?” The standard firefighter answer is “We love our jobs, and you get used to it.” I started thinking about what that person had asked me and remembered someone had sent me this story.

He had to work that night. Twice Steve had called in, hoping to get approval to take the night off. But it wasn’t going to happen. Trucks were already loaded and ready to move out. He had been running hard for months now, always having to push it in a an effort to hold on to his job. Driving the truck just wasn’t what it used to be. Steve’s cellphone rang about four hours into his shift.

She had hoped he would get the night off. Watching him work so hard for so many months and seeing so little of him, Kat was beginning to feel guilty for feeling neglected. Twice she had hoped Steve’s boss would give him one more night home, one more day to recover, one more day to spend with the girls. Despite it all, she had to smile as he spent his last minutes before work making sure plenty of giggles and lots of hugs and “I love you”s were shared before bedtime. Four hours later she made the frantic call.

She had hoped Dad would get the night off. He had been working so hard for so long, and she missed him. She missed being tickled and swung around. She missed the silly jokes and the special way he would talk with her whenever she was being pouty. Clutching her favorite teddy bear, Sweet Pea had grudgingly settled into her Barbie sheets before Steve had left for work, knowing he had to go. But she wanted him to stay. She always slept better when Dad was home. Four hours later Sweet Pea was being rushed to the hospital, with paramedics fighting to save her life.

Three firefighters were sitting at the station. Perhaps they had been on shift for only hours, or maybe it was days. The call came through to respond, four hours into Steve’s shift, four hours after Kat had told him to have a good night, four hours after Sweet Pea had been put to bed. Working together with all they knew and all the equipment they had, three men tried to save the life of a beautiful, tow headed, 9-year-old little girl who couldn’t breathe. The three knew she had asthma. They knew that Kat had administered every treatment she could, and the CPR wasn’t working. And before they reached the hospital, they also knew that Sweet Pea would not survive this asthma attack.

Two years went by before Kat and Steve were able to meet one of those three firefighters who fought so hard for Sweet Pea’s life. Tearful hugs and heart-felt thanks were given for the efforts and tenderness he displayed, even though Sweet Pea had died.

As Kat and Steve walked back to the car, something occurred to them. They were not the only ones to suffer loss that horrific night. That firefighter, though trained and counseled and “just doing his job,” was a man. And even though Sweet Pea was not his child, he fought for her life as if she was. Her death did not take just a piece of Kat and Steve with her to the grave. But in fact it took a piece of him as well.

That day, thinking of all the Sweet Peas these brave men and women fight for, Steve and Kat realized not every firefighter dies by the flame.

Michael Heath is president of the St. John Professional Firefighters Association.