In the Line of Fire
It was a beautiful spring afternoon, sunny and still. Five men hovered over me, pulling, tugging and tightening until I could barely breathe. In the final moments, they covered my head, led me into an empty house and then set it on fire. In seconds the flames flashed up the walls and over the ceiling. I could no longer see my hand in front of my face. The heat was unbearable, and I thought to myself, who in their right mind would choose the day they were going to die. I closed my eyes and tried to remember everything they said to me. Then I felt a hand nudging me, leading me out to fresh air and holy ground because I was certain to do a sanctified dance as soon as I could see the sun again. But before I could, the crew, those five guys who promised me nothing would happen to me were there with high fives and cold water. I made it through my first and last “controlled house burn” training.
I started my career in emergency services, namely with the fire department. They did a little bit of everything: fire, water rescue, hazardous materials and first responders. When everyone else was running away, these heroes were running toward the danger to save lives and property.
This gig wasn’t easy for a young woman in a male dominated profession. Some of the toughest and most painful moments of my career came out of it, but it made me stronger. Today I can look back and fondly remember how hard I worked to get the guys to accept me. I say guys because this department’s first women firefighters came along three years later. I knew I couldn’t do my job without them teaching me the ropes. And, if that came with going through training with them to understand what they dealt with daily, then I was suiting up and going for it.
I remember the day I finally broke the ice with them. I stopped by one of the stations, and as I walked up, I could hear some good ole Sunday School words, that’s cussin’ for my high-brow friends. I heard one of them say, “Hey, cool it, there’s a lady present,” and they all turned to face me. I didn’t miss a step. I turned my head and yelled, ‘Where is she?’ They paused for what felt like an eternity and finally burst into laughter. The next week, I received my first invite to lunch at that station. It’s an unspoken rule that if you get invited to eat at a station, you’re one of the crew. I can officially go on record that firefighters are some of the best cooks in the world. I mean, slap yo mama and kick your dog kind of cooking. Every year the police department challenged this theory with a chili cook-off of sorts, and I understand the championship goes back and forth, but hands down, I gained 10 pounds fooling around with those station invites.
As time passed, these lunches around the table meant much more than eating a meal. Listening to their stories of heroism and sometimes loss, one could understand how quickly your co-workers become extended family. Not everyone goes to work knowing that one misstep or split-second decision could cost a life or lives. It’s a heavy burden for emergency services personnel and their families to carry. These men and women don’t receive combat pay like the military, even though they are often in harm’s way each day.
Watching the devastation unfold as Hurricane Harvey leaves a significant wake, I’m reminded of how many emergency services professionals left their homes and loved ones to rescue others. They’re not checking Facebook to see if their loved ones marked themselves safe or pulling cell phones out to check their text messages. They are focused and working to get people to safety. Unlike the Super Bowl™, there aren't any after-the-storm parades, championship rings or I’m going to Disney World commercials. When the water recedes, these men and women will report for duty the same way they did before Harvey, ready and willing to serve.
My thoughts and prayers are with all service personnel selflessly working to protect and serve. I’m grateful the first part of my career was spent in organizations where the goal was to make sure everyone who starts the shift with you, leaves the shift to report to their loved ones. When lives are on the line, your workday perspective takes on a new meaning where your purpose is to be there in case a nudge is required to see the sun once again.