Firefighter Charlie Heflin hugs Skyler James on May 22, 2014, at her high school graduation party.
By Anne Gagliano
How can a carnivore stroll peacefully among a vulnerable flock of sheep, watching—yet not eating? That is the question posed in my last column, Part 1 of this same title. The answer is this: The tamed, gentle carnivore not only doesn’t eat the sheep but he protects them from the wolves. This is the role of the guardian, the special breed that is violent yet gentle and walks between these two worlds along the fine line of the hero. Is this only the soldier and the police officer, or is the firefighter a sheepdog as well?
I gave examples in my last column of devoted wonderful creatures—actual dogs—and their heroics. Brave and loyal and life-saving. “Parker” and “Trixie” saved their owners from medical emergencies. “Rumble” and an unknown stray dog in Australia stopped violent attacks. In Poland, a stray found a lost child in the forest. “Lily” saved her family from a house fire. Another stray rescued an abandoned newborn baby in Africa. And “Tad” and “Sophie” protected an entire flock of sheep from wildfire. This is what the tame carnivore is capable of. Do these acts remind you of someone? They do me.
It is estimated that American firefighters go on 21,500,000 aid runs a year (statistic for 2015). The number of lives saved on those aid runs is almost impossible to count; some studies say that for every one fatality, there are nine lives saved. A UK study determined that their firefighters save 105 lives a day; but our population is much higher than theirs (65 million UK, 323 million U.S.) There are more than a million firefighters in the U.S.–346,150 career and 788,250 volunteer. They go on more aid runs than fires, saving people from heart attacks, strokes, floods, accidents, hazardous spills, you name it. My firefighter alone has done more CPRs than he can even count; in grocery stores, homes—in the street, in airplanes, at church, next-door—day in and day out for 30 years. That’s a lot of medical rescues; sounds a bit like “Parker” and “Trixie,” I’d say.
Firefighters are increasingly forced to intercede in violent situations. What starts out as aid runs often escalates into altercations—between people on scene and even aimed at the rescuers themselves. They’ve been shot at, assaulted, had rocks and bricks hurled at them, and been threatened in all manner of ways. And they even intervene when vicious animals attack. On September 15, 2017, in Puyallup, WA, Orting Valley Fire and Rescue received a 911 call from a UPS driver. He was “trapped” by dogs. When the firefighters arrived, they saw that the driver wasn’t trapped but was being brutally mauled by four PIT BULLS! The driveway was blocked by a locked fence; a relative of the homeowners was there but for some unknown reason refused to unlock and open the gate. Did this deter them? No, they saw the dire situation and took action. The firefighters rammed the gate, broke through, drove up to the man, and pulled him into the rig. Saved from a violent attack; reminds me of “Rumble” and the Australian stray dog who bit a man who was beating his girlfriend to death.
Firefighters don’t just put out fires and perform aid runs; they do search and rescues as well. In December 2017, volunteer firefighters in Bedford County, VA, were called into action to find one of their own—the missing six-year-old son of a volunteer firefighter from a neighboring county. The firefighters used search dogs, helicopters, and two drones. One of the drones located the boy after just two hours in the forest near Little Otter River. Finding lost children in the woods; exactly like that stray dog in Poland.
Brave “Lily” once saved her family from a house fire, waking them before the smoke detector did. Firefighters go to approximately 1,345,000 structure fires a year. They save countless families from fires and save the taxpayers an estimated $139 BILLION per year in property values and revenue. Families sleep peacefully under the blanket of protection firefighters provide as they keep watch in the night, ready to roll at a moment’s notice.
In November 1995, Charlie Heflin, then a volunteer firefighter in Urbana, Illinois, was working his day job as a supervisor for a cable company. Called out in frigid temperatures to repair a damaged line, he monitored his radio while he fixed the cable. He heard a 911 caller say an abandoned baby was under a tree in a cemetery. Ten minutes went by; still no one had found the baby. Charlie wondered if perhaps they’d gone to the wrong cemetery, so he jumped in his car on a hunch and raced to the other cemetery. He saw no baby under a tree and assumed it was a hoax. But he decided to search one more time; something made him stay. Digging through snow around the only tree, he found the baby wrapped in a towel. She was still covered with blood and mucous, pine needles stuck to her face; he cleaned out her mouth and pulled her under his coat to keep her warm. She was literally minutes from death. Charlie turned her over to the hospital where they spent hours trying to revive the baby. She lived. Due to confidentiality, Charlie was not allowed to know what became of her. He always wondered.
In May 2014, Charlie was invited to a high school graduation party. Skyler James and her adopted family had finally located Charlie. He came to the party and met Skyler for the first time. An honor student, active in theater, choir, and church, she was headed to college. Charlie gave her the jacket he’d kept all those years—the jacket he’d wrapped her in the day she was found. Saving an abandoned newborn baby; harkens back to that incredible stray dog in Africa who did the same.
“Tad” and “Sophie” kept a flock of sheep safe for 20 days during a wildfire in Canada, losing only one. On December 4, 2017, the Thomas Wildfire began. It became the biggest fire in California history, burning 281,893 acres, destroying 1,063 homes, and damaging 280 more. The area affected is bigger than Dallas and Miami combined. Due to bone-dry conditions and the Santa Ana winds, it raged for weeks. But the firefighters rallied; they never left “the flock.” Only one civilian was lost—and that was due to her crashing her car as she drove away from the fire. “We have to kill the beast,” said Capt. Steve Concialdi of the Thomas Fire Department, and they did, with 8,500 firefighters, 1,000 engines and 34 helicopters. They saved countless lives and hundreds of homes. They gave it all their efforts—and one firefighter even gave his life. Firefighter Cory Everson (age 32) was killed—leaving behind a pregnant wife and a toddler.
All the evidence is in, and I think the verdict is clear: Firefighters are indeed sheepdogs—those brave, loyal creatures that stand between the sheep and the wolf. Between life and death. Violent if need be, but never toward the sheep. How do they live peacefully with us? I’ll examine that unique bond in the real world of the firefighter marriage in my next column.
Anne Gagliano has been married to Captain Mike Gagliano of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department for 32 years. She and her husband lecture together on building and maintaining a strong marriage.