By Michael Morse
In the beginning . . .
I would tell stories about the job whenever people asked, and I let them know what it’s like in the “real world.” I would tell them about the system and how it is abused, about the junkies and how they were ungrateful, and about the people who didn’t speak English and how they didn’t even try. I’d talk about houses without smoke detectors and the dead people inside of them, the kids who were dumb enough to get shot, and the ones who didn’t have a clue and got themselves robbed and beaten for being in the wrong part of town.
In the Middle . . .
As the years progressed, I tried to stop complaining about the system and mentioned about how people were addicted, and how some of them died. I’d talk about how I was learning to speak Spanish and about the difficulties people with little income had. I told them about the kids from the inner city who grew up with more violence at their front door than I had seen on TV. I would even let them know about the kids from out of town who came here for college and were slowly but surely learning how to live on their own without getting beaten or robbed.
Toward the End . . .
I didn’t talk much; I didn’t want to cheapen the struggles of the people who called 911 for our help by telling stories to people who were not looking for understanding but thought it was entertaining to hear about a world they would never experience.
If nothing else, being immersed in the ebb and flow of life in Providence allowed me the opportunity to see things through the eyes of people whose life experience was far different from my own. I was invited into the homes of some of the most powerful families in America and saw that their daily lives and struggles were very much like everybody else’s. I responded to the projects and the tiny apartments where people struggled to survive but did so with grace and dignity. I met people whose lives were about to end, and connected with them on a level I did not realize I was capable of reaching. I treated the homeless, the wealthy, the addicted, the innocent, and the guilty. Each and every one of the people who crossed my path had their own unique story, struggles, and triumphs.
I could never do any of them justice by painting my experience with the public with a broad brush; our lives are far too complex, and the reasons people end up in a situation that made a call for help necessary are much too nuanced for their story to be told properly. Yes, our well-meaning 911 system is being abused and, yes, addicts overdose and sometimes die. Kids get shot, some get mugged, homeless people wander the streets, and wealthy people get lost in their loneliness and addictions.
People still ask me what it was like to be a firefighter/medic in Providence. I’m glad that I had the opportunity to experience what I did and that people care enough to hear what I have to tell them. And I’m truly grateful that I was able to learn that our work involves far more than stories about accidents and disasters. When I get the chance to talk, I make every effort to tell what I believe is the whole story, and not just the provocative parts.
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.