The front door banged against the wall, accompanied by the frantic wailing of my 7-year old sister.
“I broke my arm! I broke my arm!”
I grabbed a dish towel and dried my hands as I rushed out of the kitchen. I met her at the top of the split-level stairs. “Don’t be so dramatic, Barbara.”
She clutched her arm as crocodile tears poured down her face.
“Let me see.”
She held up her arm. My stomach lurched. There was obvious deformity.
My parents were out-of-town for the day at a funeral. Long before cell phones, there was no way to get in touch with them. My mind reeled. I needed to do something. Fast.
“Sit and hold your arm still.”
Girl Scout training from a dozen years earlier kicked in. I grabbed a magazine, gently rolled it around her arm and tied it with the dish towel. At that moment, a neighbor hurried in the open door to check on my sister. I told him she had broken her arm and I needed to get her to the military hospital. He offered to drive and scooped her up and carried her to the car. In a matter of moments, with ID cards in hand, we were buckled in and set out for the 30-minute drive. However, my neighbor made a split-second decision that would be life-changing for me: he stopped at the local volunteer fire department.
We had moved to Dale City, a suburb of Washington, DC, a little over a year earlier. A recent high school graduate, I had gotten a job with the FBI. While I made work-friends, none of them lived near me. I had made a few friends at church, but they were preoccupied with college and already established friends. I was lonely. I was discouraged. I longed for purpose.
Mr. Thomas’ decision put into effect a chain of events.
My sister and I were loaded in the back of the ambulance. I burst into tears; I hurt because my sister hurt. The EMT offered words of comfort and encouragement, and even attempted to distract us by telling corny dad jokes. Once at the hospital, the ambulance driver, also an EMT, consoled me, and then asked for my phone number. A couple of weeks later, we had our first date, and we stopped by the firehouse.
My interest in red lights and sirens happened long before my sister’s ambulance ride. When I was about four, my grandparents got a police/fire scanner. They listened to it intently every night, and if the event was nearby, they often jumped in the car and drove to the scene. I vividly remember one particular call, in the middle of a cold winter night, when they bundled me up and we went to watch a house fire. From that day on, I was hooked.
So, there I was 15 years later, hanging around the firehouse. When the alarm sounded for a call, and I watched the firetrucks leave with lights and sirens, my adrenalin spiked. Soon, hanging around and watching the action wasn’t enough; I wanted to be a part of it. I found my purpose. I found my people.
I became a volunteer and started my rookie training. I was certain I wanted to be a firefighter. However, after an intense day at the fire training academy, and specifically, a scary encounter with a rolling fireball, I decided I was a better fit for the ambulance.
I went to EMT school and earned my state certification. For three years, I was part of a tight-knit community of selfless, passionate, professional men and women. I learned specialized skills, but also learned to trust my gut. I learned no matter how much you practice, on scene you’re often going to have to improvise. I learned to expect the unexpected. And most of all, I realized that folks don’t volunteer for the glory or excitement, they serve their community because it is a calling of the heart.
By the time I resigned to move to Florida, I had been on more than 300 EMS/fire calls, accumulated a thousand memories, and forged lifelong friendships. Those years in the VFD tremendously influenced who I am.
That quick stop at the firehouse back in 1981 didn’t just change my life, it also changed my sister’s. Decades later, she became a volunteer firefighter and a career EMT (an injury ended her career). Now, her daughter plans to carry on the family tradition and become an EMT.
These days, I still listen to a fire/police scanner app. I hear the faintest of sirens. I can spot red lights in the distance. My adrenaline spikes when I see first responders in action. While I no longer desire to be involved, I thank God for those who are willing to selflessly serve and do the hard stuff.
So, when you see a first responder, thank them for their service. Because one day, they may responding to your call.
God has given each of you a gift from His great variety of spiritual gifts.
Use them well to serve one another. - 1 Peter 4:10