They Help You When You Need It Most

December 11, 2017

“People wave at firefighters with all five fingers,” Police Officer Cynthia Keast jokes. I stare, blankly. “Oh, because they wave at police officers with one,” I say after a moment. The joke is that people give police officers one finger: the middle one. I then ask if the relationship between police officers and firefighters is negative in any way. She responds saying no; she only has the most complimentary things to say about them.

The joke came from a “friendly rivalry,” but it has some truth to it. Similar to Keast, Oakland paramedic supervisor Brian Stoker mentions how the public seems to favor firefighters, but also comments on the media’s influence. Although he praises firefighters, he expresses some dissatisfaction with how people give them so much credit. He elaborates, saying that sometimes paramedics will save someone from a burning building, but the firefighters will get the recognition from the media. It can be hard watching others receiving credit for their work. But neither Stoker nor Keast blame the firefighters. As Keast puts it: “We’re all part of the same team, like soccer or spokes on a wheel. We all work together to succeed.”

However, the public is not always in love with the firefighters, either. One of the most common misconceptions falls around the question: what do first responders do when they’re not responding to calls?

Sid Jamotte, a fire engineer (the person who drives the firetruck and works the fire pump) at the Ross Valley Fire Station, explains that some people assume that firefighters are not doing anything when they are not running calls. He blames this on ignorance, but says, “It’s on us. … People just don’t know what hasn’t been taught to them. When someone says something [offensive or ignorant], it’s a great opportunity to learn; it is a great opportunity for the firefighters to teach or inform the public.” I ask him what a typical day looks like for him. He explains the extensive training all of the firefighter go through, and mentions that they will soon be brushing up on flood situations, as Ross Valley is prone to flooding in the winter. He returns to his empathetic manner, saying: “…but you can’t expect someone who’s not in the station to understand everything that we do.”

Photo Provided by Sid Jamotte; A selfie taken by Jamotte (far right) and two fellow-firefighters, on call.

Keast’s job, when she’s not responding to calls, is to patrol San Anselmo, and make sure everything’s running smoothly. She explains patterns she and other police officers see, saying: “If we see a car parked at a park at 6 pm, we aren’t going to be surprised if it is there at 3 am. But if we see a car not there at 12 am and then if we see it at 3 am, that catches our attention. It doesn’t mean anything bad is going on; we’re just going to make sure everyone is okay.”

Within the first thirty minutes of my time with Stoker, he tells me that his job is: “somewhere between yard duty and a babysitter.” Stoker shows me everything on his computer. He can see where all of the ambulances in his county are, how fast they are driving, and how many of them are at any given scene; if there are more than three units (ambulances), he has to be there. He checks in with each paramedic he sees, as well as many of the firefighters and police officers, further illustrating how the many departments work together. At one point I say to him something about saving lives. He laughs, explaining, “We don’t save people’s lives, we only prolong the inevitable.” I laugh, and then there’s a pause; he continues, “After 21 years in this job, you develop a pretty sick sense of humor.”

I spend five hours that night with him, getting a truly incredible experience. I meet the staff at an emergency room in Oakland, a group of firefighters at an East Bay fire station, and multiple paramedics while Stoker checks in to make sure everything’s running smoothly and to follow up on cases. But there is also the responding part of their jobs.

Photo Provided by Stoker: A scene to which Stoker responded; a failed suicide attempt.

With Stoker, we respond to three code three’s, the most extreme cases. Lights and sirens whirl as traffic parts in front of us like the Red Sea. During a calmer part of the drive, Stoker tells me about the babies he has delivered – all nine of them. For one of the births, he describes all of the bodily fluids that are part of a birth swishing around the floor of an ambulance. He turns, saying: “whoever says childbirth is a beautiful thing was not in the room when it happened.”

The most consistent thing that these first responders had to say is, as Jamotte explains: “we meet people on their worst day… If they call us, something has gone drastically wrong.” This stress carries over to the responders, as Jamotte continues: “there is a staggering amount of suicides in the fire service right now, and PTSD has been on the rise for years.” PTSD is no longer thought of for just ex-military; now people are finding that police and firefighters suffer from it, as well. I interview him around hour 120 of his shift. A typical shift is 48 hours on, four days off, repeated, but despite this overtime, Jamotte is calm and collected, mentioning the healthy dinner he is in charge of making tonight.

Jamotte continues, explaining that, with this realization, first responders are taking action to save not only other’s lives but also their own. Whether it is work-out sessions they have, or group therapy, and even yoga, they are living their lives with more consciousness on their occupation’s effects.

Another large part of their job is working with the fire explorers, a sector of the boy scouts, which is a program for people between 16 and 21 years old, training them in the basics of firefighting, but also “how to be better versions of themselves.” If you are interested in learning more about this program, you can read more about at http://www.rossvalleyfire.org/about/explorer-post.

Whether it be working with fire explorers, or responding to safety needs, all of these first responders are vital to the well-being of their communities.

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