Everyday Heroes

The incredible documentary, Burn, gives an inside look into the job of firefighters.

This topic is of great importance to me as my husband, Nick, has been with the Edmonton Fire Department for almost nine years. While the City of Edmonton is not near the financial disarray of Detroit: the stories, struggles, and experiences firefighters share have no borders. The risks related to the job do not change. Nick spent five years at station one in downtown Edmonton. He responded to fires in homes and buildings where he feared what he was walking into, and had no idea of what he would find inside.

Imagine rushing into a building that everyone else is desperately fleeing from.

Imagine the thoughts of their loved ones as they risk their lives for those they do not know.

Imagine walking into a blaze with such intense heat that helmets melt, and face masks warp.

Imagine what they have seen, and what they wish they could forget.

The smell of smoke lingers on their skin for days. A constant reminder of what their bodies, and their minds have been through.

In our seven years together, I have seen a side to this job that I never considered prior to meeting and marrying Nick. A firefighter’s job is much more than putting the wet stuff on the red stuff. It is a job filled with physical and emotional challenges. It is a job filled with sadness and laughter. It is a job filled with failure and accomplishment.

I’d like to share some of my husband’s personal stories. Hopefully you will gain a new appreciation and understanding of the job these men and women do and the risks they take in order to keep people…like you…safe.

Firefighters are first responders. Many people don’t understand why firefighters are dispatched alongside paramedics. As a standard, all firefighters are trained as Emergency Medical Responders, but many are also trained paramedics and Emergency Medical Technicians. Firefighters respond anywhere from five to fifteen minutes faster than paramedics. Since wait times in hospitals are so long, paramedics often get held up with patients. Firefighters are dispatched to fill this gap. In this job, the difference of a few minutes can mean the difference between life or death.

Within Edmonton, there is a small group of firefighters who make up a specialized team. They are trained specifically for trench rescue, swift water rescue, structural collapse, and heavy lift rescue. They are a technical rescue team who are trained to respond to calls most people don’t consider.  For example, they are trained to lift part of a commuter train in case someone falls on the tracks, to save the scaffolder hanging from a building when his equipment fails, and are the team to save you from the river and pull you back to safety.

As a wife to a firefighter I have been witness to the lowest of lows, and the highest of highs of this job. I know for certain it is Nick’s love for his job that pulls him through some of his darkest hours.

As a rookie, with only two months on the job, Nick responded to an early morning call. It was the first call of his shift that day. In the truck on the way, dispatch updated the crew. They were informed that the patient was a six month old baby. Unresponsive, with no pulse. Nick remembers his heart instantly racing a thousand times faster. He replayed his training: thinking of all the skills he had to save this babies life. As soon as Nick entered the apartment, the frantic mom ran to him, and handed him her baby. Pleading for help. Her words rang in his ears as he performed CPR for close to five minutes until paramedics arrived. Nick continued CPR until the ambulance arrived at the hospital. Despite their best efforts, the baby didn’t survive. This was the hardest call Nick has ever experienced. After we had our own daughter, this call resonates with him even more. He still wakes in the middle of the night from nightmares.

Nick has fallen through the floor of a house, thankfully, saving himself by his armpits. While fighting a fire, a second floor deck collapsed, grazing Nick’s shoulder. Had he been a few inches closer, the deck would have landed directly on top of him. While responding to a vehicle collision on the highway, he was struck by a passing car. Again, he was lucky. I still remember receiving the call. There are no words to describe the fear I felt before hearing that he was unharmed.

Despite these horrific and traumatic experiences, most firefighters would tell you that the good outweighs the bad.

While the new EPCOR building was under construction in Edmonton, Nick’s crew responded to a horrific call. A worker was doing maintenance to one of the man lifts. The power should have been shut off at the bottom and top. Unfortunately, only the bottom had been switched off. Unaware of anyone inside, another worker turned the lift on from the top. The man inside the lift was trapped. His clothes got caught in the chains and both of his legs became tangled in the metal. Fast response time, and a well-trained fire crew had the man out within fifteen minutes. He lost his legs, but his life was saved. As the lead on this call, this was one of Nick’s proudest moments.

Two years ago, a huge fire struck one of the senior’s apartments in Edmonton. When Nick and his crew arrived on scene they could see desperate faces from the windows, screaming for help. Pulling these frantic residents to safety is a feeling that is irreplaceable.

Recently, Nick was working a day shift when a husband and wife showed up at his hall. One of Nick’s fellow crew members answered. The couple was looking for the crew who had responded to the husband two months earlier. He had suffered a severe heart attack and was in cardiac arrest. The firefighter, who answered the door, was the one who had performed CPR on the man standing in front of him. Overcome with emotion, the couple thanked him for saving his life. The wife said, “thanks to you, he is here today.” This couple exemplifies why firefighters do the job that they do…these moments are proof that the rewards outweigh the risks.

Firefighters have seen things in their careers most of us can’t imagine. As one firefighter says in the Burn documentary,

“I wish my head could forget what my eyes have seen.”

They see people at their worst. Yet, you will not meet a firefighter who doesn’t love the job. I asked my husband why he decided to be a firefighter. His answer; he wanted to make a difference. Simple, yet filled with passion, conviction and emotion. He and I both know the risks every time he leaves for a shift. We have two rules before he leaves; we aren’t allowed to be mad, and we always kiss each other goodbye. We never really know for certain if we will see each other at the end of his shift. We don’t ever want to regret our last words to one another.

Think about the people you love most, and what you would do to save and protect them. Firefighters do this every day, but for people they do not know. There is nothing more valuable and heroic than that.

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My handsome husband