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editor's notes

There are days I whine about my job.

The hours are long, the pay could be better.

People are mean to me. I can’t spell certain words. I hate layout.

I’ve got it easy.

I knew this already, but it got reinforced when I met a while back with a handful of local first responders - firefighters and paramedics in this instance.

With more than 100 years of combined service between them, I suspect they’ve seen enough human wreckage to last twice that long and I wanted to hear about it. So they told me.

Up front, I’m not naming names. I don’t want these people, whom I have a great respect for, to be targets on social media. Besides, as much as first responders love rescuing citizens, as some call us members of the public, it’s taking a psychic toll.

Last year, more than 200 first responders, a designation that includes police officers, committed suicide in the U.S. Of that number, 104 suicides were committed by firefighters or EMS workers. Eighty nine were firefighters. 14 were either paramedics or emergency medical techcnicians, aka EMTs.

“The main thing citizens need to know is when you sign up for this job, and you deal with the dead babies and the dead people, and the car crashes and the burn victims, and when you’re away from your families running calls on Christmas or other holidays, don’t expect us not to carry some baggage.”

“I have total respect for the military for what they do and I know the PTSD they deal with is real, but we deal with one situation and then we go right back out and run another call at a wreck or a fire or some baby dying, without a chance to process any of it.”

“The fear you sometimes have is you won’t be fast enough to answer a call, or you won’t do something you could have done quick enough to save someone, and those are the calls that stay with you. It’s never the good calls that stay with you. It’s always the bad ones.”

“There are times when the self-doubt comes in. The could I have or should I have, and what if I had done this five seconds earlier, would this person have been OK?”

“It’s that did that person die because of something I didn’t do or didn’t do? Would he have lived?”

“It’s even more challenging for people who’ve lived in an area, they’re born and raised there and then they have to respond to a house fire or a wreck and it’s people you know, and you don’t have the choice of not running the call. You have to go.”

“As a paramedic I worked my own mother’s call when she died. I had to work my own mother’s call.”

“Some of the problems we face? Alcoholism, drug addiction, problems at home.”

“Or just losing it. Try getting home and seeing your kid playing with a bow and arrow and it triggering something in you because you’ve seen some accident with a bow and arrow going into somebody’s kid … so you snap.”

“Or your kid rides his bike without a helmet and you’re yelling at him ‘do you know what brains look like leaking all over the road,’ and your kids are like ‘Dad’s lost it again.’” “Sometimes you go on a call and somebody’s injured so bad you know there’s not a damn thing you can do for them and all you can do is suck it up and try to help as best you can. And 20-30 minutes later you’re back on a call for a stubbed toe. You just have to shift those gears and drive on.”

“There’s an epidemic of suicides among first responders and still we’re scrutinized for everything we do. I worked two back to back calls and we park at a store to pick up something and this citizen walks by and says ‘I wish I got paid to goof off,’ and I’m thinking ‘you get paid to sleep at night in your own bed at home.’ But you can’t say anything.”

“Or the people who come up and say, ‘all you guys do is spray water on fire’ when you haven’t had any sleep since 2 a.m., or you’ve actually responded to a call where a man was on fire. That happened to me once. A guy was literally on fire right there in front of me. Try getting that lovely image out of your head.”

“Some EMS personnel will work a shift at one department and then go work another shift at another one because the starting pay is so low they have to do that to survive.”

“It’s not a good thing. You’re looking at someone making critical decisions about someone’s life who should be sleeping but because the pay is so bad they can’t make it on 40 hours a week.”

“If you’re a shift supervisor, even when you’re off you’ve got your radio with you because those are your guys are out there and you’re worrying. You can never be completely off. It takes a toll.”

“I hear people complain about their day and it’s that they had to clean extra tables or something. Sometimes after a really bad shift I feel like saying, ‘you really don’t want to know how my day was, you really do not want to hear it,’ and that’s true. It would give them nightmares, some days.”

“Why do we do it? I guess I do it because I need high adrenalin jolts and I’ve been doing this so long I can’t do anything else. You get to help people, too.”

“Why do we do it? I don’t know. I think you have to be a little sick.”

“We do sometimes get to get cats out of trees, too.”

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