The Man Who Came to Dinner

"OK, now we're going upstairs. Come on, run up the stairs," said Rocky.
"Yeah, that's fun for about a minute," I said as they lifted the tank off me.

"Now imagine you've got a coat, lacings, paddles," said Rocky. "You've got a bundle, maybe a line, and you're heading into a fully charged fire that hasn't been ventilated yet, and all you can see is orange. And you have to go towards the orange."

Back in the kitchen we found the rest of the group digging into a variety of Ben & Jerry's flavors topped with fresh strawberries. As I helped myself to some Cherry Garcia, Cynthia, a pregnant member of the regular E40 team who'd dropped by to say hello, rose to excuse herself. "But we're waiting for a run!" I called out with mock enthusiasm.

Just then the lights over the desk came up and the alarm began to sound. The entire team jumped to its feet as Alison grabbed the address and emergency information, which had instantly been sent over from headquarters. "You wanted a run?" she said. "You got it. Let's go."

Seconds later Khai was pushing me up into the front center seat of the big red engine. It roared like thunder, the lights and sirens came on, and the traffic pulled over to either side. Alison drove the engine while Khai manned the radio, calling out directions and information. My job was equally crucial: wear a pair of protective earphones, sit still, and shut up.

I think I did pretty well -- for my first run.
We pulled up to a two-story flat on a quiet street. No answer at the door. No neighbors in sight. The firefighters paced about, yelling, "Hello," into the air. As Khai considered the options (breaking down the door or pulling the ladders to scale the roof) the garage door was opened by a neighbor, who directed us to cross through her apartment and up the back stairs.

From the patio in back we could see a very old woman clinging desperately to her bedroom chair. The Life Line call button clasped in her hand had alerted the Fire Department. Although we could see the woman, the door was locked, and the clock was ticking. Just as Khai was about to give the order to break the glass, Elizabeth succeeded at jimmying open a window and climbing in.

As the firefighters began emergency care, paramedics arrived to help stabilize the woman. The group carried her on a stretcher down the stairs and out to the ambulance as I tried to stay out of the way. Looking around the room I saw school portraits of numerous faces, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, I imagined. I was struck with a sudden pang of guilt as I envisioned the chain of late-night phone calls that would likely soon communicate the news of the scene in which I'd somehow found myself.

Out on the dark street I stood beside the two vehicles with flashing red lights as the medics and firefighters worked carefully inside the ambulance.

Khai ran out briefly to get something from the engine. "They've intubated her," she called to me. "They're forcing air in with the ambo bag. Not good."

Once the woman was stabilized the ambulance took off for the hospital. We all climbed into the engine and headed back to the station. "She looked a lot better by the end there," said Khai. "But I don't think it's going to make much difference in the long run."

After watching Alison back the engine flawlessly into the bay, we all fell onto the couches inside as Khai went about the necessary paperwork and the crew debriefed the chief about the run. Elizabeth headed upstairs to try to get some sleep.

Although I was able to say my goodbyes and head home for the night, the firefighters knew that at any minute the alarm could ring again and send them out to another unknown emergency scene.

"Sorry you didn't get to go on a fire run tonight," said Alison, shaking my hand.

"That's quite all right," I told her. "I'm not sure I could have handled that."

By Barry Levine

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