December 22nd, 2005


From The Deadline Pressure Archives...

DECEMBER 24, 2001

I can't count the number of times I've heard this from older, more experienced firefighters: "When it's children, it always gets to you."

So far in my firefighting career, I haven't had to deal with the death or serious injury of a child. But after Saturday, I certainly know what those "old timers" are talking about.

About mid-morning, we were dispatched to a mobile home fire in an area a few miles north of our city. From the moment our radio tones sounded, I knew that the situation was going to be absolutely nothing or would be very bad. Of course, it was the latter.

When I arrived on scene, most of the trailer had already been destroyed by fire. What was left of the home was filled with dark smoke. One of the first things I noticed was the family displaced by the fire. A mother and her two young children were walking towards the road as I made my way to what was left of their house. The mother's eyes seemed dry, but her face was red from crying. I paid little attention to her young son because walking directly towards me was his six-year-old sister.

"Our house burned up," she said. "You have to stay away."

Sitting here, there is no way I can adequately describe how I felt in that moment. Perhaps this points to my failure as a writer but I'd like to think that it instead points to the power of the moment. She was so little. I was so big. Yet she was so matter of fact in her delivery. Her house was gone and she knew it. Her's was situation I could neither dispute or repair. Of course, it didn't help that it was only three days shy of Christmas.

Like a son struggling to make up a story to explain a bad deed to his father, I knew what I wanted her to hear but had no clue how to say it. I stammered, "I'm with the fire department and I'll see what I can do." I felt like I was telling the kid there was no Santa Claus. There was little, if anything, we could do to help and I knew it.

Okay, so I thought I knew it.

As it turns out, I was wrong.

We quickly knocked down the fire, but the home and almost all of its contents -- including what few toys, shoes and clothes they owned -- were destroyed. As soon as the fire was out, we packed up our gear and headed back to the station as we always do.

I knew I felt bad for the family, but I initially regarded this fire as I did any other. Many of the calls we respond to can easily be regarded as some of the worst moments in the lives of those that need us. Of course, the catch for us is to not let the calls carry similar emotional weight. If we let today's fire get to us, it makes fighting tomorrow's fire a little bit tougher than it should be. But when we returned to the station after the trailer fire, I took my involvement in this call to a higher level than usual.

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