23 January 2014

The Webster County Ambulance; and Other Nobility

There’s a dandy social commentary waiting.  It’ll have to wait.  Tonight is free-form writing time. 

It’s cold in West Virginia.  Damn cold.  Well, it’s winter, what do you expect?  And citizens here and all over the north and east are staying away from the outdoors as much as they can.

As I was driving from Morgantown yesterday, I was reminded that this isn’t possible for everyone.  There is a Fellowship which goes extra hard in the cold or the heat or the deep snow.

I was passed on the Interstate by an ambulance with some of my brothers and sisters from Webster County.  Presumably, they made an inter-hospital transfer to Ruby Memorial, one of the large teaching hospitals in WV or to Monongalia General, which specializes in some particular kinds of care.  The R-mobile has various insignia on it, including the “Star of Life” - the universal emblem of the Emergency Medical Services - front & rear.  So as they passed, I gave them a sincere thumbs-up and they gave me a breath of the air horn.  That’s just a simple acknowledgement in that Fellowship.

And I know that back in Webster County, more EMS crews were either in stations or out on calls.

And in every other county - ditto.  For that matter, this goes for all 2,000+ counties in the United States, and in provinces, shires and so forth around the world.

The people of the emergency services - fire, ems, police - don’t have a choice about their work load and don’t have an appointment calendar.  When the alarm comes in, a crewed station will be out the door in 45 seconds or the next due station is put on the call.

Consider that.  Folks are at work.  There's not a lot of sitting around, there is vehicle prep, house maintenance and training, training, training going on all the time.  Those who have called emergency services see fairly calm people in the midst of chaos.  That’s because those professionals seldom see something unfamiliar.  In the worst of times, they can say, “Do it just like in training.”

So from the warm station, they find themselves out in sub-zero temperatures 45 seconds later.  Then there are long walks, long treks carrying heavy equipment, and moving from outside to inside and back over and over.  For the fire departments, the “inside” may be several hundred degrees worth of warm.  For police, usually there is some level of threat or violence.  Among other things, they cannot wear warm gloves because their hands have to be free to defend others and themselves.  

The 45 seconds is the rule on midnight shift, too.  There, they go from a warm bunk into the cold or the heat or the rain or whatever is out there.  

I used to love those calls at night.  A fellow I knew, Jim Page, wrote a book on the subject, “The Magic of 3 AM.”  Everyone is focused on the call, the location, the problem.  But they also have time to feel the different pulse of the city or countryside.  In the fog, they see the red lights popping reflections from the mist back toward them.  They feel the road through the floorboards and the big breath inhale of the large truck engine as it runs up the gears.  On a long response, they have time to reflect -- on the call, on themselves, on picayune stuff perhaps.  “What are you doing after we get off?”  “Gonna hit the grocery store and then try to catch some zz’s.”  That sort of thing.

If they are volunteers or have a second job, the “zz’s” have to wait until the evening.  These are dedicated people.  Through fatigue, they will function.

I remember one of those fatigue days.  I was at the end of trying a murder case that had gone for a week.  (That’s a long case in WV.)  It was August, hot, and during the trial, I would take a midnight motorcycle ride just to get some perspective and fresh air.  We finished the evidence and the argument, and the jury was out for a couple of days.  I needed a change of scenery.  So after the first day of waiting during deliberation without a verdict, I called my buddy and we found a volunteer station in the county that needed coverage that night.  This was in a small town, and it was nearly a “retirement” station at night, a place that you could count on getting a good night’s sleep.  At midnight, we had a snack and turned in.  At 0010 or so, a call came in for a long response to back up some other crew.  We pulled out at 0010:30.

And we pulled back in promptly at 0600, when the shift ended, after running all night on half a dozen long calls.  Our principal reaction was, well, we asked for it, and it was kind of funny.

Oh, I got to snooze on a courtroom bench for a hour or two before the jury came back.

This is natural for these people.  They do not complain and they find these things funny.  There is a certain pride - no, a darn GREAT pride - in doing these jobs well under all sorts of adverse conditions.  These are the people who this week have noted that the school systems are raising sissies by calling off for a little bit of bad weather.  They have a point: children cannot count on getting easy lives handed to them.  Fatiguing stuff, scary stuff and wildly disgusting stuff HAS to be done in our society.

Someone has to clean up shit.  Both figurative and literal.

One of the better lessons I learned was from a Chief named John Green.  He was a hell of a man.  We came back from a call where we’d used a couple of body bags and they needed cleaned out.  That’s part of the job.  A couple of new guys were there and we asked them to help.  They were unused to this and expressed some reticence.  John then explained the “code” of service.  “Boys,” he said, “it’s OK to get sick.  Go ahead.  Go loose your lunch.  Cry.  Curse.  Wave your arms around.  And then get back here, because we have to clean out the body bags.”  

What a wonderful lesson: SOMEBODY has to do the shit jobs.  They only get worse if you wait.

I hope that the brothers and sisters from Webster Springs got home and got to go relax at home.  You can be guaranteed that if they were called later that day, they went in 45 seconds.  That is what the Fellowship does.

Maybe all of us who bitch now and then about our hard lives - the traffic, the kids, our “unfair wages,” the cable going out - need to remember and ACKNOWLEDGE the people who clean up the messes.

Just thinkin’.

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