Delayed Response: Thoughts on Public Safety from a Frontline Firefighter/Medic
We reached the end of the hallway. Do I turn left? Or right? I know we’re at the end of the hall because the wall has dropped off my right shoulder and my head has hit the wall ahead of us. What the hell am I doing here?! After pausing for a couple of seconds to compose myself, I start toward the left.
“Right! Turn right!” The calm, confident hand of my captain grabs my shoulder and guides me to the right. I can’t see him, or even see my hands as I crawl on the floor. Complete and utter darkness surrounds us as we continue down the hall. A short distance later we find the front door to the apartment of origin. I reach up and turn the knob. This was my first interior attack at a structure fire, larger than a couple things burning in a kitchen or bedroom. I was not prepared for what waited behind the door.
After any fire service tragedy I find myself thinking about what it means to be a fire fighter. When I sat down to write this piece after the tragedy in Boston last month, I thought I didn’t know the answer. I was being really profound by writing about something I didn't know the answer to. Or so I thought.
Then I spent a day in the city paying tribute to Lieutenant Edward Walsh and Firefighter Michael Kennedy. These men paid the ultimate price at a wind-driven fire in Boston’s Back Bay, ensuring no civilians would suffer the same fate. A week later I stood shoulder to shoulder with (by some estimates) more than 30,000 firefighters from across the country and around the world. I had conversations with firefighters from New York, Detroit, and Seattle, as if I’d known them my whole life. Together we mourned the loss of our fallen brothers.
A couple of days later I went on vacation to Disney World with my family. The trip had been planned for a couple of months before the tragedy. While on a bus from our hotel to the park, we passed a fire engine and ambulance parked at another resort. I heard the man behind me tell his daughter how that engine was different from “his” engine. Turns out he was a firefighter from just outside of Cincinnati who was there on vacation with his own family. We chatted for the remainder of the bus ride.
It was a conversation that would make me realize how much I do know about being a firefighter.
The door swung open to reveal a world completely different from our own. Fire consumed every surface of the room. Broken sliding doors had allowed much of the smoke to escape the apartment rather than choking the view as it had in the hallway, leaving a scene most people will never witness for themselves. A couch, a coffee table, a lamp, and even a dining room table were all clearly visible. From our view at the front door, however, each of these objects was nothing but flames. Time seemed to slow down as we admired the scene for a split second and then launched our attack.
Unable to enter due to the heat, other crews began to arrive at the door with us. The search crew and another member of our own crew who had been bringing more hose into the building joined us. Shoulder to shoulder, we stood at the gates of Hell. Soon we were advancing into the apartment, continuing our attack, and finally extinguishing the fire completely.
Being a firefighter means I could be just about anywhere five minutes from now. Lieutenant Edward Walsh and Firefighter Michael Kennedy made their first mayday call something like eight minutes after they were dispatched to the fire. That means ten minutes prior to their mayday call they were back at the station, performing station duties, and probably wondering what to do about dinner.
Five minutes from now I might be battling flames in the basement of a duplex. I could be clearing an airway and breathing life back into the lungs of a choking child. Maybe I'll be cutting a critically injured patient out of his mangled car which has nearly been destroyed by an out-of-control SUV, and deciding where to have the medical helicopter land. Or maybe I'll be providing end-of-life care to a little old woman in her living room as she takes her last breaths. These aren't dramatic scenarios made up for an op-ed article. These are some of the thousands of calls I have responded to so far in my career. Of course there’s a good chance I might be mopping the station floor, too.
But being a firefighter means more than just being unable to plan my afternoon. It also means I can sit next to someone I've never met before and have an instant connection. Firefighters from as far away as Honolulu have stopped into the station just to say “hi.” And, if I'm ever lucky enough to visit the island, I know I'll get the same smile and cup of coffee in return. It means I know who will stand with me at the front door of that inferno, and who I can depend on when I need help.
Honor, courage, dedication, and tradition are some of the most important traits of the fire service; and we are the ones who carry that on. Being a firefighter means we will never forget our fallen brothers and sisters. We will swarm to a city by the thousands, stand together filling the streets for nearly a half-mile in each direction, to honor the memory and dedication of those who paid the ultimate price.
That's what it means to be a firefighter.
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Tom Valle earned his EMT certification in 2000. After graduating from UMass, Amherst in 2001, Tom worked private ambulance in both Springfield and Greenfield, MA while earning his paramedic certification from Greenfield Community College. He continues to work as a professional firefighter/paramedic in western Massachusetts and serves as the secretary for union’s Local. Tom is continuing his education by working towards a Bachelor’s in Fire Science through Columbia Southern University.
Tom can be reached directly at