By Michael Morse
If I told this story once, I have told it a million times. When I had no hope, nowhere to turn and no answers, I called 911. My father was in the final stages of brain cancer, my mother was at the end of her rope caring for him, and I was a young man. When he started to hallucinate and became uncontrollably irrational, she broke down. I arrived at their home after work for a visit and confronted absolute chaos. When it became clear to me that I could not handle the situation, I made the call. I had no idea what to tell the 911 operator and simply said I needed help with a cancer patient. Within minutes, an engine company from the Warwick (RI) Fire Department arrived with a crew of three. I tried to explain the situation but could not find the words.
The firefighters entered my parent’s home and got to work. They recognized my father’s extreme frailty and my mother’s agitated state. I have no idea how they did it, what they said, or how they knew exactly what to do, but within minutes, the worst moments of my life were over. By the time the first ambulance and paramedics arrived on scene, my dad was entertaining the firefighters while my mom relaxed in a different room.
Twenty minutes after I made the 911 call, my parents were in separate ambulances, both stable and well cared for. The firefighters stayed and secured the home, instructed me to take my time on the way to the hospital, and reassured me that what was happening was not unusual. Their calm demeanor and professionalism put my life back in order. I was able to do my part in continuing to take care of my family–not just that night but in the difficult days and weeks that followed.
To say that I was profoundly affected by the firefighters would be an understatement. Three years later, I found myself in the 42nd Training Academy of the Providence (RI) Fire Department, where I began a 25-year career responding to emergencies every bit as traumatic as my own.
It is understandable that firefighters are not as excited by EMS calls as they are for fire and rescue jobs. EMS is often considered an interruption to our “real” mission: fighting fire. What to us is an ordinary call is to the people experiencing it a truly memorable event. We see a lot during our tours. What appears mundane to us can be quite extraordinary to the people who are living through it for the first time. Losing control of a situation is not something people think about, but more often than not it is the reason why they call 911.
Every firefighter who has sworn the oath of office carries with him or her an immense responsibility. What we do, who we are, and how the public we protect perceives our actions has the potential to live long after our time is through. When a loved one is injured, sick, or dying and entrusts their care to another, a bond of humanity between strangers is formed, and this bond is everlasting. It matters not that the emergency might be insignificant to us; to those who need us, it is enormous. The lasting effect we have on victims, patients, and everybody involved with whatever it is we were called to can span generations.
I learned firsthand what caring, competence, tradition, and excellence existed inside the fire stations that I once drove past without a second look. Learning that the people in uniform who respond were not only good, but also exceptional, changed the way I perceived society as a whole. When I became one of those people, I never forgot how good it felt knowing that people really do care about others. It made me take the time and put forth the effort needed to learn how to best act during an emergency.
The firefighters who responded to my home are retired now, but my memory of them, though faded, is alive and well. When it was my turn, I hope I served the community well. I like to think that even though I am no longer in the fight, my deeds will not be forgotten. If you are fortunate enough to be on the responding side of the 911 call, always remember that what you do is vitally important, and can be timeless no matter how routine the call.
Michael Morse is a former captain with the Providence (RI) Fire Department (PFD), an author, and a popular columnist. He served on PFD’s Engine Co. 2., Engine Co. 9, and Ladder Co. 4 for 10 years prior to becoming an EMT-C on Rescue Co 1 and Captain of Rescue Co. 5.