Making a difference Life as a first responder

(above): Firefighter/EMTs Everette Thomas and Brandon Newby take a moment to recuperate after responding to a house fire in Arlington County. At every call, firefighters must be careful to stay safe and in good health while helping the community with whatever incident has taken place.

Story by Abigail Presson

The Arlington County Fire Department (ACFD) plays a key role in the community, capable of responding to everything from fire alarms and medical issues to swiftwater rescues and hazardous materials incidents. The department utilizes a variety of apparatus and serves the entire county, as well as assisting neighboring jurisdictions such as Fairfax County. While many people know of the fire department and value its work in the community, not all understand the true depth of the job.

People join the fire department for a variety of reasons. While firefighters, paramedics and emergency medical technicians (EMTs) all have a certain level of drive to help others, some join because they had been exposed to the fire service from a young age due to the involvement of family members. Others can point to a specific experience or moment in their lives as the reason they joined, and some simply knew that it was what they wanted to do with their lives.

“I have two family members that are firefighters; my brother-in-law and his brother are firefighters,” probationary firefighter Veronica Foley said. “I was happy in the career I was working in prior to fire [service], but I wanted a schedule that gave me a little more autonomy than what I had. My brother-in-law suggested to me getting into emergency services because he knew I liked the medical aspect of everything.”

Probationary firefighter Veronica Foley talks with another member of the ACFD after working to put out a fire in a residential area.

Not only do members of the fire department have various reasons for joining, but few came to the fire department in the same way. There is no set path to get to a career in the fire and emergency medical services. Some start as volunteers, perhaps as a way of testing to see if the job was something that they really wanted to do.

“I was getting a degree in criminology to become a police officer and I was trying to decide between the two, if I wanted to go to the police academy or fire academy,” firefighter/EMT Sydney Tippett said. “My uncle was the chief down [where I volunteered], so he was like, ‘Go ahead and try this out.’ So I took a few classes down there, and I was like, ‘alright!’ And if you love it, why not do it?”

Firefighter Sydney Tippett stands on the scene of a fire in a residential area.

Others stumble onto volunteering and the fire service with murkier idea of where they want to go with it. Volunteering and even someone’s first job with a department can be their initial exposure to the field.

“In college, I was in a sports medicine class and I was sitting next to a friend of mine,” Captain Justin Tirelli said. “She talked about the rescue squad and I didn’t really know what that was. She said, ‘It’s the ambulances; why don’t you come down and volunteer with us?’ I didn’t really think I wanted to do that but she said, ‘Well, we need drivers, we need people just to drive the ambulances around.’ I said, ‘Oh, alright, that sounds fun,’ so I went down to the local volunteer firehouse and signed up and they called me, and I got in. They said, ‘Here’s your gear, your turnout gear, we got you signed up for a Firefighter I class,’ and I said, ‘Sounds great; where are the ambulances?’ They said, ‘Oh, that’s the rescue squad, you signed up for the fire department.’”

When applying to a fire department, potential firefighters often look at the department to try and determine if they think it would be a good fit. For some female firefighters in Arlington, the ACFD’s impressive track record with female firefighters made it stand out in a field that is historically a male-dominated profession.

“When I did research about the departments that I wanted to apply to, I realized very quickly that Arlington was going to be at the top of my list because of their progressive and forward-thinking about women in the fire service,” Foley said. “Arlington County hired the first female firefighter, and as averages go across the nation, we consistently hold a slightly higher average of female firefighters, so I was pretty happy about that. It kind of put my mind at ease even though I still knew I was going to be in a predominantly male-driven career, but those statistics and those facts kind of put my fears aside.”

The ACFD is also trying to increase the number of women in the fire and emergency medical services. The department runs Camp Heat, an annual summer program free to all Arlington residents and aimed at girls ages 15 to 18, although all genders are accepted. The week-long residential program introduces campers to the fire service, offers hands-on learning experiences, and exposes them to life in the firehouse.

“I ended up being one of the mentors, which I thought was really neat as a probationary firefighter because there’s still so much that I’m learning,” Foley said. “What the mentors do is we get a chance to act with the girls on a more one-on-one level. The girls are split up into different groups, and the mentors are able to be with those girls for however many hours during the day or even get a chance to sleep over with them, to be a night mentor, and answer their questions, help them out through scenarios, [and] help them learn the different aspects of the fire service. It’s really cool because those potentially are the future female firefighters in the department, so seeing them at such a young age interested in the fire department is really neat.”

Before being sent into the field as a probationary firefighter, members of the department are put through rigorous training. The medical training typically covers topics from emergency trauma, such as that from car accidents to psychiatric emergencies. The fire service training includes lots of practice using equipment such as ladders and the self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) that they use to breathe during fires.

“Most of the training I was fine with, but then I we did something called confined space,” Captain Tirelli said. “In confined space, you have to squeeze through a very small, enclosed area. Even though it’s a training situation [and] nothing bad happens, your body and mind’s instinct is to panic, for some people at least, in these very small, confined places. You have to learn to control that, and so that was a bit of a learning curve for me, to control that panic, to know that it was just training, that there was an end, that there was a beginning, and that there was always somebody there to help you out.”

Daily life varies from firehouse to firehouse and from day to day. While each crew might start out with a schedule or a plan for how they want the day to go, it can change quickly if a call comes in. Since there’s no way to predict when someone might need to call 911, the crews in the ACFD have to be ready at all times. Firefighters in the department are also kept occupied with training and chores around the station.

“[Daily life is] busy. Busy, and you are constantly learning,” Foley said. “There’s always something to do, there’s always something to know, especially as a new person. There’s a lot of preplanning and thinking ahead, so even if you have downtime, if you can call it that, the wheels in your mind should be constantly turning. If you’re not physically busy, you’re mentally busy all the time. Then coupling that with the calls you get, you could be in the middle of doing something, you could be in the middle of eating and then you get a call, and you have to switch into game time mode, so it’s always busy.”

Those in the fire service say there are many parts of the job to love. From the training to the people they meet and work with, individuals in the fire department are excited about their work.

“Meeting people [is my favorite part],” Foley said. “People are quirky and weird, but people make the world go round. It’s nice to be able to get outside of your bubble and your comfort zone and experience different cultures, different viewpoints, different mindsets. This is definitely a job where you get to do that. Also, when you get to help someone, when you get to make an actual difference in somebody’s day, it’s very satisfying, so I love that.”

Days on the job are not always easy. For some, training and maintaining skills can be difficult, while others might grapple with the unusual schedule. Many firefighters and emergency medical responders, though, find that calls that do not end well can be one of the roughest parts of their job.

“Hard calls [are the most difficult part],” Tippett said. “Death or anything like that, that sucks. I mean, it’s part of the job, so you learn to handle it and deal with it in your own way, but that’s definitely the hardest part, when you can’t make that difference. You always want to make the difference, you always want to save somebody, but when you can’t make the difference, that’s the hard part.”

With every call comes the risk of mental stress for the first responders who were there. Things do not always go right. It is important for firefighters and emergency medical personnel to take care of their mental health, so these tough calls generally do not go unnoticed. Many fire departments across the country, including the ACFD, have implemented programs to help responders deal with the harder calls.

“Mainly [I deal with bad calls] within the department and everything because you try to rely on your crew,” Tippett said. “They were there with you. Everybody usually gets together and we’ll do what’s called a hotwash. We’ll all sit down and be like, okay, let’s talk about what just happened, let’s take it from the top, let’s see what could we have done different and everything like that. Then we have a team where if you need extra counseling, you need someone extra to talk to, we have a whole team that you can schedule a sit-down with and it’s a whole group of people where you just sit and talk it out. There’s more than enough emotional support when it comes to the fire department just because of those calls, because it does take a huge toll on people.”

Being a firefighter or first responder is a very physically-demanding task. On medical calls, responders have to be able to lift the patient and carry any necessary equipment. Fire calls involve lots of heavy equipment as well, including the gear and SCBA tanks that firefighters wear. Maintaining a high level of physical fitness is therefore a very important part of being a first responder.

“In the Academy, it’s very physical. Once you get out, depending on where you go, you might not have that daily push, that daily drive, to stay physical. You have to find it within yourself sometimes to make sure you’re keeping your body in shape. If your body is as healthy as you can make it, it kind of alleviates that stress, so making sure you’re eating the right things, making sure you still exercise on a daily basis, that way your body is strong enough to take the calls.”

The work schedule of a first responder can be tricky to manage, especially at first. Crews work 24-hour shifts with one day off in between. After three shifts, the crew gets a four-day break before their next rotation starts. These 24-hour shifts can pose a challenge, particularly if the station receives a lot of calls and has to work through the night,

“A lot of people know we work 24-hour shifts, but as much as you think that at the end of 24 hours you just go back to living your regular life for a day, it doesn’t really work that way,” Captain Tirelli said. “You’re still recovering from your 24-hour shift. Sometimes you have to sleep when you get off because you were up all night, which is essentially a continuation of work because you can’t really get back to your normal life. If you can’t sleep and you have to get back to life because it makes you, then you’re a different person when you do that, so you don’t really know about the time commitment that you’re really signing up for when you start.”

ACFD units sit on-scene at an early morning fire.

Part of the ACFD’s history will always be tied to the terror attack on September 11. When American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon, Arlington County firefighters were dispatched to the scene to provide medical treatment for the victims, search for survivors and combat the fires that had broken out. Some of the individuals who responded that day are still with the department.

“I worked at Falls Church, station 6, and I was a truck driver that day,” Captain Tirelli said. “That was my first day driving the ladder truck on an incident. I’d been in the field since May of 2001 and only been to a few fires. Then we got sent out to the Pentagon. We were on the first alarm at the Pentagon. It was long hours, but we were psyched, we were amped up for that. This is what we trained for. Now, nobody can really train for that kind of an incident, but we wanted to be part of this. We knew that this was bigger than just us. It was bigger than Arlington, it was bigger than Virginia. It was the world that we were with, at that point.”

While September 11 was a somber day for the entire nation, for some first responders, it carries additional meaning. 343 members of the New York City Fire Department (FDNY), as well as another eight EMTs and paramedics from private organizations, were killed during the response at the Twin Towers. While the fire department has always been a close group of individuals based on the nature of their work alone, September 11 strengthened that tie for many first responders.

“There was a little bit more of a sense of brotherhood with the brothers and sisters in New York City and our responders in Shanksville, Pennsylvania,” Captain Tirelli said. “We all have a common bond. There’s one other guy that works here who I was with on the ladder truck that day and we have that common bond, it’s always a thing we’ll have for the rest of our lives. When we tell stories about it, I’ll say, ‘Well, I was with so-and-so that day.’”

For any students looking to get involved in the fire service, many first responders advise just jumping in. The Career Center offers an EMT course, and the ACFD’s Camp Heat program offers more of an introduction to the fire side of the department’s operations. The state of Virginia allows any individual 16 years of age and older to become a certified EMT. Many first responders start as volunteers to get some experience before applying to be a career firefighter, while others might recommend going straight to a paid department.

“My brother-in-law, when I was thinking about [joining the fire department] told me it’s the best-kept secret, and I honestly believe that. Anybody at a high school age that’s considering fire service, I think it’s a wonderful idea because there’s so much more to it. I thought it was just putting water on fire —there’s so much more to it than that. There’s so many avenues that you can branch off of. You can do [hazardous materials], bomb tech, you can become a paramedic. You can do things that doctors in the hospital do. You can do things that people go to school for eight years and don’t do. I’ve already helped deliver a baby, and I’ve only been out in the field for going on three months. People go to school for eight years and they don’t get a chance to do that yet. I would say, just do it.”