In The Shift, Michael Morse, author of Rescuing Providence and Responding, takes readers through a typical 14-hour shift in a busy urban fire-EMS department.
“Rescue 4 and Engine 8, respond to Chapin Street for a domestic assault, stage for police.”
The lights blind me, the echo from the PA rings in my head, and I’m rising from the dead sleep that followed my body into the bunk in Rescue 4’s office. I’d managed to get a stack of reports finished and filed before calling the missus to say goodnight. It was the first time since 0600 that my body was horizontal, and likely would be the last till tomorrow morning. My shoes are still on, the radio clipped to my belt, the portable mic lying on my chest.
“Rescue 4, responding.”
I’m too tired to slide the pole. The stairs are the safe alternative to reach the apparatus floor, and I walk them slowly, the overhead door creaking open, Jared waiting, engine running, warning lights activated and ready to go.
“Nice break,” he says, looking refreshed as only a 20-something-year-old who just worked 16 hours with eight to go can, and a pushing-50 rescue captain cannot.
We head west, toward Chapin Street and the incident.
“I hope it’s a police matter,” I say.
“I wouldn’t mind a little action,” replies my partner.
We approach the scene slowly and stop behind Engine Company 8, lights off, motors idling. People are wandering the streets; dealers, their customers, drunks and hookers for the most part. The cops are nowhere in sight, and the house in question is quiet. Minutes pass, still no police.
“Think we should investigate?” asks Jared.
“We’ll wait for the cops,” I say, stifling my own desire to find out what’s going on. Inside the house anything could be happening. Most of the time it’s not life-threatening; kids fighting with parents, parents fighting with each other, husbands beating their wives, wives beating their husbands, but you just never know. I hate thinking somebody is being abused and we’re sitting a few blocks away, waiting.
“You have kids?” I ask.
“Boy and a girl, 7 and 9,” Jared replies.
“Of course I do, but it is nice coming to work sometimes.”
Coming to work is easy. We get to leave it all behind every week and play hero in the big city, leaving the little things for our other halves. Little things like paying the bills, caring for the children, shopping, laundry and making our houses homes. If we are not careful, the hours away from home can become the time we find ourselves living for; the escape from the mundane, a break from the monotony, no feeding the pets, no hearing the din from the kids, a respite from dealing with the people in our lives who matter most.
“Mppphh,” I grunt in reply.
I want to tell him, but like the rest of us, he’ll have to find out for himself. The job is intoxicating. The only responsibility we have is answering the calls for help from strangers, and there is no emotional risk, no compromise, no fighting or nagging and nobody to be accountable to. But we always have to go home. When going home becomes less desirable than going to work, that’s a problem.
We like to blame our ridiculously high divorce rate on the stresses of the job, the things we see and the strain of being a firefighter, cop or EMT, but that’s only half the story. The other half we bring upon ourselves by not being present where we are needed most. Even when we are home, the draw of the job is never far from our hearts and minds. It’s as if we lead double lives, and the balancing act wears you down after a while.
Two cruisers speed past us and stop in front of the house on Chapin Street. We sit silently and monitor the radio.
“Engine 8 and Rescue 4, police matter; you can go in service.”
“Too bad,” says Jared as we drive away from the scene. “I think I’m starting to like this EMS stuff.”
“Really?” I respond, surprised and more than a little pleased that he admitted it.
“Yeah, it’s kind of addictive.”
I know exactly how he feels. Some people never understand how satisfying the simple things in the fire/EMS field can be, and how important it is to leave it at work. It took me a long time to figure that out, and to appreciate that I have the ability to do what I do, the opportunity to do it in a wonderful place called Providence, and the experience to know that what matters most begins at the end of the shift.
“Rescue 4 and Engine 8, respond back to Chapin Street for a shooting.”
“Rescue 4, responding.”
But that is a long time from now.
Michael Morse, EMT-C, is a rescue captain with the Providence (RI) Fire Department.