“And kids, that was the craziest shit I ever seen as a firefighter.”

firefighter speaking to a class of children

“What’s the craziest thing you’ve seen as a firefighter?”

That’s a common question you get as a first responder. The majority of the public don’t realize fire and EMS are essentially now a dual role job. The lack of fires in communities has decreased drastically over the past decades that fire now either acts as the primary EMS providers for their communities or are the first line back-up for a third service EMS department. It’s not like the movies where firefighters get to spend their shift rescuing a kid and their stuffed animal from an inferno. The shift is usually spent doing chores, working out, training, playing grab ass in the station, and going to grandma’s house to help lift her off the floor.

“What’s the craziest thing you’ve seen as a firefighter?”

That can be a difficult question to answer depending on the department you work for. For those working in large cities, most of your time is spent running EMS calls. And the majority of those are as follows: picking grandma off the floor, waking up homeless people sleeping on a bus bench, providing traffic control for minor fender benders on the highway, responding to false alarm fire calls. When there is a real fire, you get about 4 fire engines, 1 ladder truck, 1 battalion chief, and 1 safety officer that respond. And thats for a small fire. When you are part of this response you’ll be lucky to even get anywhere near a fire hose as guys are fighting for the chance to use it.

Working in a small city or town is where its at. You have less resources (personnel, vehicles, equipment, water sources) and more territory to cover (the city limits, ETJ, far off parts of the county with no formal fire department), so that means you will be at every fire response. You will be the one that enters a burning house. You’re the one that cuts a person free from a wrecked vehicle and saves them. It means that every crazy, obnoxious, unimaginable thing that happens in your response area will involve you.

Which brings me back to the question, “Whats the craziest thing you’ve seen as a firefighter?”

I honestly can’t answer that. I started my career in a small town that covered a massive amount of territory. I saw crazy shit all the time. But, a buddy of mine named Jason could answer that question very easily. In fact, this post is titled after a quote of his when I heard him recall an accident we worked a few weeks into my fire career.

It was about 4 AM when the call came out. I was still a rookie working the ambulance as a 3 person crew with my training officer Rick and coworker Mary. We jumped in the ambulance and took off. Dispatch reported the call was for a single vehicle rollover at the base of a bridge just 1 mile away from our station. The engine and quint (a hybrid fire response vehicle, imagine a fire engine and ladder truck had a baby) responded with us to provide traffic control and provide vehicle rescue capabilities in case it was needed. We had an unusually busy shift up to this point and I was tired and blurry eyed. However, when we made the scene my eyes focused as I saw what appeared to be a single cab Dodge pickup truck laying upside down on the side of the road. The lights where still on and by the steam coming from the tailpipe I assumed the engine was still running. Then there he was, the driver, hanging halfway out of the passenger side window.

“Oh shit!”, my training officer Rick said. His reaction did not instill confidence in his assessment of the situation. The engine and quint parked on scene and we all gathered at the patient to see if he was alive.

“Hey, hey, can you get me outta here?”, said the patient. He was a middle aged man, maybe of average height and weight. His truck was completely upside down in a field of grass, wet from morning dew. The front of the truck was pointing down from the weight of the engine compartment. The patient was laying face up with his top half outside of the truck via the passenger side window, the bottom half of him was still in the truck. The field he was in was part of an undeveloped area of town that had no street lights near so we needed to set up scene lights ASAP to begin our rescue operations. As the fire engine crew stabilized the truck with blocks I knelt down and held the patient’s head in a neutral position to ensure his neck would not be further injured.

“What happened buddy?”, I asked.

“Man I was driving to work and I was going kinda fast yeah I know I shouldn’t have been and I needed a cigarette really bad and I grabbed one and went to light it and it fell from my mouth and I reached down to get it while I was driving and I know I was going too fast and man I really need a smoke right now and anyways I reached down to get the cigarette and I guess I lost control and wrecked man I really need a cigarette right now.”

Holy shit, this guy was either in shock from the wreck or geeking out on meth (which was very common for the area). Rick asked if it looked like we could pull him out from the window. I examined window opening. The truck had sunk into the field just enough to limit the space between the patient and the passenger window opening. I realized then that the window must have been rolled down because there was no broken glass anywhere around nor was the patient bleeding. I asked the patient if was in any pain, if he could move his arms and legs and if he felt any numbness or tingling in them. He answered no to all my questions. I asked if he felt like we could pull himself out with our help. He said yes. I relayed the information back to Rick so he could coordinate with the rest of the team.

“OK sir, we are getting ready to get you out of here”, I told the patient.

“Oh awesome man I really need that smoke man I’m dying for a cigarette what time do you think it is I really need to get to work.”

The patient kept talking when I overheard what sounded like the beginning of an argument. Why would there be an argument at an accident scene? Was this supposed to happen at a traffic accident/vehicle rescue? I didn’t recall this from my fire academy training. I asked Rick what the hold up was and with a bit of sarcasm informed the whole crew very loudly that the patient needed a cigarette.

“Hey bud, change of plans. We are going to use the spreaders to lift the truck up so we have more room to pull the patient out.”, Rick said.

Spreaders are basically a hydraulic powered tool that look like a pair of large, heavy scissors that open wide to separate things rather than close to cut them. The plan was to position the spreaders under the truck at the A post (the metal post between the windshield and the passenger door) and lift it up so there was more room to get the patient out. I thought this sounded like an awful idea since the ground was wet and the weight of the truck had already caused it sick down in it but hey, I was a rookie so what did I know. So we went for it. Which for the record is not a good way of doing things in a rescue scenario.

I told the patient what the plan was and that we’d have him out ASAP. He responded again about how he really needed a smoke. Rick was leading the call and commanded the spreader operator to start lifting the truck. The truck began to lift off the ground ever so slowly. I thought to myself, wow, I guess this was a good idea. The truck went a bit higher, then a bit higher, then a bit higher, then…slam!

“Ahh! Ahh! Ahh!”

The spreaders sank into the damp ground and along with it went the truck. What little room we had to work with before was now lessened by the awful plan we enacted. I was still positioned at the patient’s neck and could see there was light shining between his chest and the window frame.

“Matt, Mary, grab him by his armpit and waist, I’ll hold his neck in place, pull him out on my count.”, Matt and Mary positioned themselves and awaited my count. “3, 2, 1, pull.”

Out came the patient from the truck in one piece. No visible bleeding, no leg deformities indicative of broken bones, no nothing that looked injured. His screams had been in fear from the truck falling down towards him. Luckily, it had not put any force upon his body. The patient immediately got off the ground and stood upright. He looked around at all of us and we all looked back at him.

Silence.

“Anyone got a smoke?” the patient asked.

We talked the patient in to letting us take his vital signs and perform a physical exam on him. Everything looked fine. We told him we couldn’t guarantee he wasn’t injured internally and wanted him to go to the ER for further evaluation. We let him smoke his cigarette while he decided what to do in order to get him to calm down. He decided he’d go with us which made us all feel at ease since we though we almost crushed him. Hopefully the doctors wouldn’t find any internal injuries and he could go on with his day and smoke as many cigarettes as his heart desired.

On our way to the ER he asked for us to pull over so he could smoke again. I offered to let him have a smoke outside the ER door before we’d go in. He agreed to that plan. When we arrived at the ER he got off the stretcher and elected to walk in himself. He immediately asked for the nearest restroom because, “I’ve got to piss like a fucking race horse”. A nurse showed him the way. Rick and I finished giving report to the doctor when the patient came walking out of the restroom. We introduced him to the doctor.

“Hey doc I could really use a smoke, where can I go for that?”

“There’s no smoking in the ER sir, plus its bad for you. I need to exam you for any injuries you may have suffered.” the doctor responded.

“Well that shit ain’t gonna work. I need a smoke or I’ma get the hell up outta here.”

“Sir the door is right there if you do not want to be evaluated.”

“And like that the patient who was trapped under his truck and almost crushed by the fire department not but an hour prior walked out the ER doors and did not come back. All for a damn cigarette. And kids, that was the craziest shit I ever seen as a firefighter.” my buddy Jason told the class of 6th graders that came to the station for a tour that day.

Silence.

When we where asked that all too familiar question by the touring class I planned to tell them about delivering a baby or the time I pulled some kittens from a storm sewer drain. But no, Jason couldn’t help himself. He was on autopilot as the story just came spewing out of him. Initially I considered jumping in to modify the events for the kids but rather let Jason do his thing. Then he told them about the meth the cops found in the truck and the class teacher decided the field trip was over.

These are the memories that warm my heart when I think about my days with the fire department. The ones that end with a somewhat happy ending, or perhaps not a tragic one.

Interested in becoming a paramedic and/or firefighter? Read this first.

Enjoy more posts at priority2respiratory.com

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Tony Chapa

Tony Chapa

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Diary entries from my 10+ year career as a firefighter/EMT and paramedic in central Texas.