Field Notes

Before I was dispatching, I was a nozzle nut. My department wasn't real big - we ran about a thousand calls a year - but it was all volunteer. We ran a lot of odd calls, too. Our district was a wild mix of suburban, commercial, rural, and industrial, with a divided highway to spice it up.

I ended up with a lot of memories floating around in my head, and some of them come to the forefront now and then with no apparent reason. This morning, one of them did just that.

I was at home, having a quiet evening to myself while my wife was out at practice. Our small garden apartment backed up to the highway, and the steady drone of traffic was pure background noise. I was just settling in for the night, had just opened a beer and fired up the PlayStation, and heard a loud bang from somewhere outside. I looked out the window, shrugged, and went back to the video game.

About two minutes later, the fire pager tripped from the bedroom. Two-car head-on wreck, in the southbound lanes. I looked at my barely-touched beer and headed out the door.

The station I responded from was a small one - we ran a rescue engine there, and I rarely had a crew on the truck with me. I shrugged into my gear as the doors went up, and headed out as soon as they were closing behind the engine.

As I hit the overpass for the highway, I slowed down and checked out the scene - and then went the wrong way on the highway instead of making the loop around to the next exit and approaching with traffic. The sheriff's department was already on scene and I could see traffic was stopped on the far side.

I pulled up at the same time as the paramedic fly car from the local ambulance service, and was getting the truck set for whatever needed doing (pump gear, circulate, drop chocks, etc). I was coming around the back of the engine and ran headlong into the paramedic, who just looked at me and said, "We need extrication. Now." I looked at what was in front of me. A mid-size sedan going one direction had gone head-on into a minivan the other direction. No deflection, no skid marks, nothing - they had gone square into each other at highway speed.

I opened the tailboard compartment and pulled out the Hurst combitool, fired it up and set the tips in the driver's door of the sedan. I had barely started to twist on the control when the medic grabbed my shoulder and said, "Forget it. Get the passenger."

I lugged the power unit and tool around the back of the car and popped that door. The passenger was very much awake and not happy with us; he had some choice words about what we were doing to the car. His foot was pinned under the dash, and by the time I had his door pried open and out of the way we had some more help on the scene. I had barely started to roll the dash up (a good trick; the relieving cut made in the bottom of the A-post is a pain with a combi-tool) when he levitated out of the car - and promptly spit on the firefighter next to me. *sigh*

The heavy rescue was with us by then, with a full complement of tools and the people to use them. I let them take on the extrication of the driver in the other vehicle - his minivan was pretty well beat and I was still working on the car. I caught my breath for a minute and started looking around. It's sometimes odd things that stick in your mind during these calls. I remember looking in the back seat of the sedan and seeing bags of groceries that had been in the trunk and somehow slammed through the fold-down back seats and into the passenger compartment. On top was a large jug of ERA laundry soap.

And under all those bags of groceries, was a child's car seat.

Time froze. I grabbed the seat and checked it - empty. I emptied the contents of the back seat across the highway - nothing. Under the seats? Nothing. I grabbed a couple people and we started walking back and forth through the median. Nothing. The passenger was gone to the helicopter already, the driver was simply gone ... We didn't know if we were looking for something or not. After a while of searching the median, shoulder, and roadway the chief decided there was nothing to be found.

The other driver was extricated and transported; the sheriff's office was starting their reconstruction efforts, and we were standing next to a body in a car. I looked over the minivan for a few minutes. A load of construction material in the back had slid in the impact and ripped both front seats off their anchors. I've never seen destruction quite like that before or since.

Eventually we got the okay to finish removing the driver of the sedan. The door was opened, and in due course we moved the remains to a body bag for the trip to the morgue. I'd been around dead people before; nothing new there. That was the first time I'd zipped one up, and for some reason that has stuck with me a little bit.

The best summary of the feeling is from a line in M*A*S*H: "It never fails to astonish me. You're alive. You're dead. No drums, no flashing lights, no fanfare. You're just dead."

Yeah. That about covers it.

We eventually did get the rest of the story on the accident. It's a case of folks doing almost everything right and losing at the last minute. No, I won't share those details, because they aren't important.

The empty car seat had been empty all night; the little one was with family.

I've looked over the pictures of that accident scene a few times since; I still don't know exactly why we only had one body bag instead of three. I don't have the photos anymore - at least not those taken with a camera. The rest ... Well, they're there for me to carry.

I guess I can live with that.


Heal thyself

Just a quick note. 

We pick up the phone or jump on the rig to change or save lives every day. Every single day. 

Why won't we pick up the phone to save our own lives?

Code Green Campaign maintains a list of resources that are available. Please use them. 

I don't want to wear a mourning band again. 


911, what is the address of the emergency?

I've got half a dozen half-written posts in the hopper here, but haven't made time to finish any of them. RealLife has been interrupting, and I've been having my own lack of enthusiasm to deal with.

Burn out is real, kids.

Call me back right away if anything changes.


The pose of "Why?"

911, what is the address of the emergency?

Originally posted on reddit, and linked by a former co-worker of mine. Caption: "An ER doctor steps outside after losing a 19-year old patient".

This is the pose of "Why?"

I've knelt that way.

I've seen co-workers kneel that way.

It's asking Why?

Why did I ... ?
Why did he ... ?
Why didn't we ... ?
Why, God?

If anyone in this crazy world we work in tells you they haven't done that sometime, they're either brand-new ... or lying.

Call me back right away if anything changes.