That part of Washington is mountainous, rugged terrain with a small and independent population base. Think Bigfoot, and the type of country it would be in, and you’ve got it-not much in the way of big development but a great sense of community, and that’s part of the reason Chuck volunteered.
On this evening, the storm had dumped a lot of fresh snow on an accumulated pack, and for the house they responded to that meant snow up to the eaves all around the house. All the windows and doors were blocked with snow. Some snow had fallen off the front porch, blocking the front door, so the family inside had cleared enough to get in and out of the garage. They were using that as a primary entrance/exit, presumably so they could get their automobile out as well as themselves.
A fire started in the family’s garage, blocking their only exit, when the call came in for help. The parents and children were trapped inside.
On arrival, Chuck’s crew attacked the fire head on at the garage while he climbed a snow bank looking for another entrance to the back or side of the house. Chuck discovered the mother and two children outside the house but trapped between a snow bank and the house. Later, they learned the father had left for work at about 4:00 a.m. Chuck wrapped the children in his turnout coat and took them to a rig to keep them warm. Had they not arrived in time for the rescue, the family likely would have frozen to death. If your brain works like mine, you’re asking lots of questions about “what if” scenarios right now, all oriented toward an outcome that minimizes the risk to this family in the first place, but that is not the point of this column.
Chuck experienced one of the rare events that many of us lived for during our careers as emergency service providers. The save that you can recall for your entire life as part of the reason for your value as a human being. But by pure happenstance, Chuck and I met through a mutual friend and struck up a conversation about all things fire, and that’s where I learned this story. And something else amazing caught my attention and made me want to write about his story.
You see, Chuck realizes that many emergency responders go their whole careers and never experience the type of “save” this event, and his actions, produced. It was doubly rewarding because in this small community, he knew the family trapped in the home quite well. Their kids went to school with his.
But Chuck also realized that was not why he got into the business. He is a community-oriented person out to perform public service for his neighbors, and that is what motivated him to get involved. He became president of his auxiliary as well as a member of the board for the fire district. He served his community in other ways as well. In short, Chuck was motivated by and found his intrinsic value in being a community servant rather than a chance hero in a single event.
It is something my friend Laura Baker of Tucson (AZ) Fire calls the culture shift from “hero to guardian.” We can find other things of value about our jobs because that one “save” may never occur. That’s another story.
The guardian culture finds value in the steady flow of public service over time, being a professional (whether paid or not), and providing that public service both for response and proactively with community risk reduction activities. That can produce an emotional reward system that we’re more likely to realize on a regular basis. In other words, there is more than one way for me to feel good about myself and my efforts if I’m never faced with the singular event that brands me a “hero” in others’ eyes.
Chuck believes this, but his story points out yet another challenge we in the fire service face. Fires are relatively rare in his community, thank goodness, but motor vehicle collisions are not. Years of responding to and dealing with grisly scenes was challenge enough, but being involved in an auto accident himself and being on the receiving end of a rescue caused him to experience enough trauma to be diagnosed with post traumatic stress syndrome. That is when he stopped volunteering. But he still helps his community in other ways.
I applaud Chuck for his service. I recognize him as a guardian of public safety because he was very proactive in his community, and not just as an emergency responder. He valued himself for all those reasons, not only the occasional “save” in traditional terms. Value came as much from community risk reduction activities and the other community service he provided as it did from the saves he provided as an emergency responder.
We need more like him, and we owe them our support.