Sounds

All is peaceful. The only sound is the whir of the Coke machine. A window pane rattles as the wind buffets one of the six garage doors. Suddenly, a klaxon blares out. There is a loud CLANG-CLANG-CLANG as the alarm sounds. All across town, men are awakened to the insistent BEEP BEEP of pagers.

All is again quiet in the building. After a few moments, there comes the thud and scrape of the first sleepy man trying to unlock the door. The building is filled with the sound of recently-awakened men stumbling inside. The air is filled with an urgent purpose, accompanied by the clomp of ill-fitting boots and the swish of fire-resistant coats.

There is the click of a switch, and the interior of the building is illuminated by flashing red and white lights. If anyone were listening, he would hear the soft whir of rotating beacons and the protesting ‘pwee-pwee’ of strobe lights, cold from days of non-use. No one is listening.

The walls of the building shake as the great, twelve-foot wide doors rumble up out of the way, and the air is filled with the clamor of “Low Oil” warning bells. With a ferocious roar, the Diesels come alive. The hiss of air brakes is the last sound to be heard before the scream of the siren drowns out all else. The deep bass of the air horn is added to the cacophony, as the trucks disappear down the street in a cloud of black smoke.

Eventually the sirens and horns fade away, and all is peaceful again. The building is left to itself, with only the few leaves blown through the open doors and a lingering smell of Diesel fuel to indicate that anyone has passed this way.


The preceding was written in a college creative writing course in 1989. The assignment was to describe a scene or place using a different sense than one would expect. It has always been one of my favorite creations and is presented here on the theory that Google Never Forgets.

3 A.M.

0300 hours exactly. The call is for a possible allergic reaction. The firemen are already rolling their eyes as we arrive.

I’m greeted by a woman with a history of diabetic neuropathy, with attendant foot pain. She tells me she had a cortisone shot in her knee at 1000 the previous day, and she’s afraid she’s having a reaction to it now. 17 hours later. Because her foot hurts.

Umm, yeah. (*sigh*) Just get in the ambulance. I’m not going to argue about it now; I can write the report and be back in bed by 0400.

Captain Mike

Twice the patient had called EMS, both times with a very serious complaint. When we arrived, both times, we found the patient had been drinking and wanted to go to the hospital for detox. He admitted in private that his more serious complaint was fabricated in an attempt to get a faster response. I would probably be annoyed, but something about the man reminded me of an old friend.

Captain Mike was an interesting character. When I knew him he lived his life alone in an old New England port city. ‘Captain’ was not merely a nickname; Mike was a real ship’s captain who had sailed all over the world. He had lived through a mutiny and spent most of his time on shore now.

In some ways Mike fit the stereotype of a sailor: he was a hard-drinking, functional alcoholic who lived with injuries sustained in his mutiny and with the scourge of diabetes. He wasn’t the old, grizzled, vulgar sea-captain of lore, though. He was a genuinely nice guy with lots of friends.

Almost 10 years ago now, we were saddened to learn that Captain Mike’s lifestyle had caught up with him. Drink and diabetes don’t mix. Mike had slipped into a coma and suffered alone for days before his body couldn’t survive any longer. Friends eventually found him in his apartment, but it was too late.

So Mike, here’s to you. You didn’t think you’d be doing good deeds on the mean streets of another city, all these years later, did you? Today you helped me see past the alcohol to a man’s soul. Hopefully we made a difference.

We’re All on the Same Team, Right?

Steve* and I were out of our district, covering another city. I’d known Steve since he was a wheelchair van driver and I was a new EMT. Now here we were, with over $100,00 worth of equipment, the last line of defense for thousands of people. We had just been discussing the absurdity of that fact when the fire radio squawked.

“Attention Ladder 3. . .”

For us, it’s either good or bad when they send just the ladder. On the good side, someone left dinner on the stove and is now locked out of their apartment. The ladder smashes the door, and everyone but the landlord goes home happy. On the bad side, it’s a medical emergency with someone trapped behind a locked door.

“Ladder 3, respond 7 Duke Avenue for the well being check.*” This would be the bad side. Someone apparently hadn’t seen their elderly neighbor in a day or two. Steve and I started sliding toward the address. ‘Sliding’ is a term of art in our business. It means we know we’ll be going somewhere, but we haven’t been dispatched yet. We’re not supposed to go until they send us, so we leave the red lights off and ‘slide.’

“Fire Alarm to Ladder 3”
“Ladder 3”
“Ladder 3, do you need EMS?”
“Ladder 3, that’s affirmative. We’re with the patient now. Have EMS continue.”

That was our cue. “Operations, Paramedic 8.”
“P8, go.”
“Mike*, do you have a call for 7 Duke Ave yet?”
“Nope, let me check with the other division.”

You’re kidding, right? We kept heading that way anyway. “P8, operations.”
“Go ahead.”
“The other division knows nothing about it either.”
“Mike, tell them Ladder 3 is looking for us, and we’re going. We’ll sort it out later.” Some of our Telecommunicators are good at anything but communicating.

Duke Avenue was a small, one way street on the extreme other end of the city. Upon our arrival, Ladder 3 was in the middle of the block taking up the whole street. We parked behind it, grabbed our gear and headed in. The captain met us on the front steps. We could see the broken doorjamb behind him. “She’s upstairs,” he said. “The visiting nurse called when she couldn’t get in. No one’s seen the patient since yesterday morning, and she’s down on the floor.”

Unfortunately, this is fairly common. Some of our most needy patients live alone with no one to look after them. We started upstairs. The apartment was as we’d expected; the trash hadn’t been tended in a while, and there were large stacks of newspapers, magazines and clothes everywhere. Some survivors of the Great Depression simply can’t throw things away; they’re afraid they may need them someday. We are left winding our way through the piles.

The firefighters were tending to Mrs. Smith*. She wasn’t badly hurt, but she needed to go get checked out. We loaded her into our folding stair chair for the climb back downstairs. It always seems that the sick people don’t live on the first floor, and in our old cities all of the staircases have at least a 90 degree turn in them. This one had a full 180 degree turn.

As we reached the bend, we stopped. Looking down, we found a police officer struggling to open the door from the inside. “Who shut that?” I yelled.

“I did,” responded Officer Dumbass, defensively.
“Why the HELL did you do that?” I yelled back.
“I had to see if we could secure it.”

OK, it’s always a bad idea to argue with the man with the gun. Add to that the fact that we work for a private service; we’re not supposed to antagonize the municipal employees. They tend to complain to our bosses. Still, here we were, two paramedics, a sick patient, and two firemen, all trapped in the stairwell with Officer Dumbass.

The firemen saved me. They could yell with impunity, and yell they did. Meanwhile, the poor captain was out on the front porch by himself, forcing the door open. AGAIN. Thanks, Cap.

We carried Mrs. Smith out to the street, only to find that our friend in blue had parked his car directly behind our ambulance. Ever notice where the stretcher goes?! Now that he was humiliated, Officer Dumbass decided to ignore us. He reasoned that he desperately needed to get some information from the visiting nurse. One of the firemen offered to move the car, but the captain wouldn’t let him. “Just climb on the hood; let him explain the dent to his Sergeant.” I think I like this captain.

Eventually Mrs. Smith got to the hospital in one piece. She got checked out, got social services, and came safely home again, no thanks to the local PD or our own dispatchers.

*Names and other identifiable details have been changed, of course.

Can’t Make this (Stuff) Up

“You can’t make this sh*t up.” A fire instructor whom I admire once told me that. As I look back over my career in both EMS and the fire service, I see how right he was. Friends laugh at my stories, and my wife says I should write them down.

Like many people in EMS, I never intended to be an EMT or Paramedic. I have an Ivy League education and a degree in engineering. I had just gotten my EMT certification for my volunteer fire department when I got laid off from my real job. I figured I’d work the ambulance for a few months while I looked for another engineering job. I got hooked on EMS and here I am, almost ten years later, writing short anecdotes for the book I hope to write some day.

Stay tuned for anecdotes in no particular order. The names, locations, and other details have been changed to protect the innocent or guilty, as the case may be.

(Thanks to Tom Reynolds and AD, among others, for the inspiration to blog instead of keeping my notes locked up in my laptop.)