Tonight I celebrated the Ash release with some wonderful friends. There’s something humbling about people celebrating your hobby, especially people who knew you when you were picking fights with your AP Biology teacher and cutting seventh period because you were eighteen and a know-it-all.
When I go to book launch events or signings, or meet someone and get into a conversation about writing, what I did before I was an author always comes up. What jobs did I do at the fire department, what we’re they like? There’s a lot of mystery to how Fire & EMS work, even when you’ve seen a fire crew first-hand. I love to talk about it, to share my first love.
Inevitably someone will laugh nervously and ask in a half-whisper, “What’s the worst call you ever had?”
They don't mean to sensationalize a painful experience – it’s genuine curiosity. To the person asking, the answer isn’t personal. I’m always grateful they have no idea how black the answers get.
Really there are two kinds of ‘worst’: worst in terms of loss and anguish, and worst in the personal, psychological sense.
For some in Public Safety, these two moments are the same thing; mine are different. The former I don’t share with anyone. I couldn’t talk about it with friends and family then, or now. I can’t remember it, years later, without falling apart. The latter is poured out here.
You won't see me in this video, and you won't hear my voice, the practiced cadence I’ve developed over years of meeting people in person or in my headset, on the worst, sometimes last day of their lives. But I am here. A part of me is always here.
The man inside this rollover is pinned. His arm is crushed beneath his vehicle, trapping him from inside and outside. When the call connects, he’s screaming. I still have to ask:
Fire and paramedics, what’s the location of the emergency?
Sir, can you hear me?
Medics, can you understand him?
I don’t answer the police dispatcher, and she understands my silence because we’ve worked at this together for years. You don’t tell a terrified person that you can’t decipher their panic, that you don’t know where they are, in the worst moment of their life.
Where are you hurt? Take a slow deep breath for me. Is there anyone else in the vehicle? Any other vehicles involved? What do you remember seeing?
He doesn't know where he is, disoriented and terrified, suffering high-speed trauma. What’s the last place you remember? Help is on the way.
He blurts out a neighborhood, well-known but winding, bridging the middle-south of our jurisdiction. But it’s a start. I reassure him. I answer my responding units on the TAC channel. I answer my partner who asks if what he’s described could be a certain intersection. I’m answering my units again, and reading my map, and promising the help is coming as fast as it can. The call-board alarm is shrieking in my ear.
In a few seconds, his vehicle will catch fire. Between his screams, we try to find him using cell tower data, aerial maps, and the few clues he can shout while I promise that help will come in time. I promise he won't die. We’re not going to worry about that right now; we’re going to focus on getting you help. What do you see around you? It’s okay if you can’t see. Don’t exert yourself. Turn your face toward the window; don’t breathe the smoke.
You’re not going to die.
When the flames spread and smoke fills the passenger compartment, I'm not sure that's true. His arms are burning. His screams reach a pitch so high, so quickly, that he sounds like a different person. He stops begging me to help him and just begs me to stay with him. All I can promise now, silently, is that he won't die alone.
On this deceptively beautiful spring day I've experienced death more times in my career than I can remember, but never so helplessly. I’m certain I’m going to listen to him die, and it’s going to tear my soul, but I will listen. I’ll sign out at 1900, and I’ll sit in my car till 1938 sobbing my eyes out. Then I’ll leave and take the call with me on my hour drive home while the Palmer hay flats pass by in a long gold ribbon, a beautiful sameness that lets me think too much. This call will sink beneath others, part of a sedimentary layer of more worst, last days on earth. When I get home, I’ll sit down and write, and write some more; try to keep myself ahead of the memory. One book, three books. Five. Just keep writing.
I do find the victim’s cross streets, and the police are able to arrive before the medics. Officer Veenstra and bystanders lift the vehicle, freeing the patient and pulling him clear just as the truck becomes fully engulfed. You may lose some of the impact of the moment, having an idea how this will end, but like me, who had a much different belief in the outcome, when you hear Officer Veenstra call to the patient, you'll still choke up a little.
This call will haunt me for the rest of my life. I’ll never not think of it without that first panicked skip of my heart, before my head remembers that it’s alright now. Before I remember, humbled, that I witnessed heroism thwarting the hand of Death at very, truly the eleventh hour – something so miraculously commonplace in my world. I remember the tremendous effort and ingenuity of human beings trying to save each other, and the memory falls back into its place.
So, when someone asks, ‘What was your worst call?’ I smile and shrug. “You know, they all run together after a few years.”
“Too bad. You should write a book about all of your calls.”
In some sense, my books already are.