Creative writing | 'Tales of a volunteer firefighter' by Ani Arzoumanian (Chapter I)
February 27, 2020
Ever wondered what it takes to become a volunteer firefighter? Full-time premed student and part-time volunteer firefighter, Ani Arzoumanian, shows us the ropes. Check out chapter one of her journey below!
|Writer's name||Ani Arzoumanian|
Neuroscience and Creative writing student; Certified firefighter and EMT
|About the writer||
Chapter I: An Inherently Dangerous Occupation
Your Introduction to Volunteer Firefighting
I am a firefighter for the Hamilton Fire Department, a completely volunteer department in rural Upstate New York. I am also a student at Colgate University.
Not many outside of the fire service really know what it means to be a volunteer firefighter. Most people imagine that if they call 911, firefighters arrive on scene in their full gear, jump off their huge red trucks, and run into the billowing flames of a home to save a family. In reality, it isn’t so clean and straightforward. People don’t think about the fact that if a firefighter so much as opens the wrong window, the whole building will blow up. Or that if a firefighter stands up inside a hot burning building, her face piece will actually melt onto her face. The chief won’t appreciate the extra paperwork for my dumb mistakes. I also would prefer to live.
We don’t run into fires. We run into burning buildings. There’s a difference. A firefighter on fire is just a person on fire. Both are dead in minutes.
What we do is we run like maniacs. Calm, controlled maniacs. Toward the fire. With 40 pounds of gear on our shoulders, a hefty, handy tool, and a shit ton of hose. We crouch and crawl, feeling our way around an unfamiliar house or structure. We sound like Darth Vader finishing up a half-marathon, as we breathe fast and heavy with our face masks, gradually sucking the air out of the tanks on our backs. We learn not to hesitate in our actions, even when our SCBA (self-contained breathing apparatus) bottles start violently vibrating, signaling that we’re almost out of air.
We’re placed in groups and expected to work together effectively. We practice crew integrity and trust. We are responsible for each other’s lives and well-being and, in all honesty, I’ve learned to trust my crew more than anyone else in my life. We’ve learned to stick together and follow commands as one cohesive unit. We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and when we work together, we know the job will be done correctly and efficiently.
I’ve been on my hands and knees in the pitch black, searching for victims through the thick, dark smoke. Clinging for dear life to the hose we dragged in, because if I lose that, well, I’m fucked. So is the person I’m trying to save. The hose is my path to the rest of my company, either backing me up or leading the way. It also leads to my best exit.
I’ve single-handedly carried a living, breathing, 260-pound man down a second story ladder. I know how to break down doors with a halligan and a flat head axe. I know how to stabilize a scene, rip apart cars, extinguish flames, and tie a dozen different knots. I’ve sawed through wood, through metal, through tile. I’ve done so while balancing on an unstable roof, learning to trust the ladders we’ve set up, and my partners.
Most importantly, I’ve practiced almost dying.
“Mayday, mayday, mayday, firefighter Arzoumanian, engine 194. Second floor side Charlie, the ceiling has collapsed. I have a quarter left in my bottle. Requesting extrication.”
“Command copy. All units hold for radio silence. Activate your PASS alarm—extrication and rescue are on the way.”
Part of our training regimen is learning how to save ourselves in the worst possible scenarios. An example of that is jumping out of windows and using my bailout gear, comprised of rope, a hook, a carabiner, and a lever to lower myself safely to the ground to simulate a situation in which I would need to make a decision between life or death. Jump out of a third-story window or stay and burn. I’ve practiced lying face down on the floor with my gear, cemented to the ground with a heavy weight, having to find the PASS alarm (personal alert safety system) on the pressure gauge of my air tank without being able to see or feel around for it. This is simulating what we would need to do in the event of a collapsed floor or ceiling. When this button is pressed, a search and rescue team is dispatched to find me and get me out. I’ve practiced smashing through walls to escape flames and have mastered five different ways to fit through a 1.5 x 3-foot hole with all of my gear. Hopefully, I will never have to use these tactics to save my life, but just in case, the instructors prepare us to face death in the eye and say, “hell no.”
The first call I ever responded to was on a Wednesday. It was 11 a.m., and I was taking notes in my Challenges of Modernity class at Colgate University. My professor was lost on a tangent about the French Revolution when my pager started vibrating. It was startling, and it took me a second to understand what was happening. The girl next to me let out a small gasp, surprised to hear the loud vibration. The next thing I knew, I was on my feet, running out of the building. I sprinted down to Admissions, the wind whipping against my face, looking desperately for a way to get down to the station. Suddenly, I realized that one of the senior firefighters parks his car at the Admissions parking lot. Sure enough, as soon as I had the thought, Caleb came sprinting into view. We both raced to his blue pickup truck and rushed down the hill. At this point, I felt exhilarated beyond compare. I wondered what the call would be, since in all the rush I completely missed the verbal dispatch from my pager. All I heard was “EMS call,” which meant that it was a medical emergency. We got to the station, located over a mile off campus, in less than two minutes. I stumbled into my bunker pants and hopped into 195-1, our rescue vehicle. We drove back up the hill, sirens blaring, and arrived on scene at Alumni Hall. I was holding our EMS bag. When I walked in, the first thing I saw was one of my friends, unconscious, on the ground.
At that moment, I could do nothing but stare, as my heart sank deeper and deeper into my chest. I didn’t know what to do. It is my job to help. I am trained to help. So, how could I feel so goddamn helpless? The ambulance arrived, and left, and I hadn’t moved a single step.
Luckily, my friend was OK. If she hadn’t been, I might not have forgiven myself as easily for my inability to act.
We hear about line of duty deaths all the time. We start every training class by talking about all of the accidents in the news: three firefighters died in a structure fire last night, one firefighter died in a training accident a few days ago, one firefighter was injured from a motor vehicle accident involving a fire truck—etc. etc. We discuss these seriously, though we never think about it happening to one of us. The truth is, accidents happen all the time. I am a first-hand witness to this.
I’ve watched my friend almost die.
We were practicing a tactic known as Vent, Enter, Search. Firefighters utilize this method when there are known victims on the second floor of a house, and the stairs inside are inaccessible (either because of a structural collapse or fire). Here’s what it entails: We set up ladders to second-floor windows. Two firefighters put their masks on and climb up—one of them jumps into the window to search a bedroom, the other stays on the ladder to receive a victim. They do this for every room until all victims are found and rescued.
We were practicing this very drill on a Monday night. It should have been easy. We do this so often, it becomes a routine. That day, someone new was added to our company, and we weren’t used to working with him. He wasn’t used to working with us. When he rescued the “victim” in training, and he pushed the “victim” out of the window, he pushed my friend off the ladder.
I only started breathing again when he did. For the shocking few seconds that he didn’t move—that he didn’t even breathe—I thought for sure he was dead. No, no. He can’t be. This kind of thing doesn’t happen to us. I waited for my real self to wake up from this horrific nightmare. At this point, denial was my only protection.
The ladder was 16 feet tall, and my friend was perched maybe two or three rungs from the top. I watched as he toppled backwards, arms flailing in an attempt to grab a hold of the ladder and failing to do so. An instructor rushed forward with his arms up, in an attempt to soften the blow. He pivoted the falling firefighter onto his shoulder, for if he had fallen onto his back, he would’ve shattered his spine and snapped his neck. Instead, I watched as his helmet crashed into the muddy ground, the rest of his body following suit. I watched as everyone rushed toward him, and he wasn’t moving. Dead still. These are a few seconds of my life that I will never forget.
As I looked down at his limp body, there was no denying the truth. He was probably dead. Maybe, just maybe, he was alive—but paralyzed for the rest of his life. I found myself internally screaming, “No!” Not him. The rock of our team, the model student, firefighter, EMT, athlete, friend, son, boyfriend, leader. I looked up to him; we all did. And to see him falling, seeing his whole future collapse in front of me, was the scariest part.
And then, he jumped up and told everyone that he was fine. No, he didn’t need an ambulance. No, he can keep going. No, nothing hurts. Nothing hurts. I discovered then that he was the very best liar.
Forty minutes later, I found myself dragging his body desperately into the emergency room. Shouting for someone to help us—please help us—when the hospital was empty and dark. Even when I managed to find a hospital employee, and she started registering him as a patient, it seemed nobody understood the gravity of the situation. I stayed by his side, holding his hand, for hours.
He could have died. He should have died. Had he fallen at a different angle, had the instructor not been there to pivot him onto his shoulder, had the ground been concrete and not mud... there are a million different things that could have decided his fate. Miraculously, he is fine now. All that’s left of this traumatic day are the occasional jokes to try and lessen the mental damage.
We often forget about the risks we take to do what we do. Anything can go wrong. We are the people who run towards the very thing others are running away from. We actively place ourselves in dangerous situations.
And I continue to do so even after this accident. If not me, then who?
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