My officer and I are rescue divers and awhile ago we pulled a person from a lake. (I’m being vague for privacy’s sake.) The call came in for a possible suicide attempt. The lake was large and dark. It was at night and we couldn’t see anyone. Resources were called in. Police and Fire were on scene. Air Rescue came to search from the sky with their Night Sun. A police helicopter searched with their FLIR, forward looking infrared, and found the victim, who to our surprise was still afloat. Air Rescue flew over, dropped glow sticks to mark the target, and my officer and I began our swim.
I like to think that I am a strong swimmer, but it was harder than I expected. It was a long swim. We were in dive gear and the weight of it slowed us considerably. Dive gear is meant for diving, not swimming, but we were prepared for an underwater search in case the victim went down. I would have gone in alone, and as I swam, it occurred to me that perhaps I had been a tad overconfident, not a trait I normally suffer from. But, I was not alone. I was with my officer and he is strong as hell.
When we got there, the victim screamed at us to leave them alone. The person was large and hysterical. Together, it took all our strength to pull them back to shore. It wasn’t like training. It was harder. And once our feet hit the shallows and we safely released our patient, were we warmed with gratitude? No. Outrage was slung at us instead.
Thousands of dollars had been spent, multiple resources engaged, and great effort expended. People had risked themselves, air crews flying low over power lines in the dark of night, swimmers taking off across a lake not knowing what they would find, all to be denounced when it was over. We received no thanks, only two words from my Chief casually thrown over his shoulder as he walked back to his truck, “Good job,” which meant more than anything the patient could say. Still, why not let the person drown if that is what they claimed to want, or, at the very least, allow them to save themselves?
We all respond to the call for help when we are tired, hungry, or emotionally drained.
We respond in pouring rain, driving snow, tropical force winds, or the searing heat of a relentless sun. We come to work with aching backs and sore knees, yet jump into our trucks when the call comes for something as small as a flea bite. Or as large as a house fire.
Firemen continue to fall and the pain continues to come. It is more than I ever expected before I became a firefighter. We lose more than one a week and that isn’t counting those assaulted by cancer, which in my department is at a deplorable high. Firefighters have been ambushed and shot. We have been assaulted and cursed. Some of us have been crushed and killed in fires. Sometimes it feels as if we are at war, and like a soldier going back to Iraq four or five or six times, we continue to run calls and fight fire.
Why do we do it?
We do it because we are rescuers and it is not for us to decide who is worthy or not of life. We do it, because it is our job to rescue anyone in need: angel, sinner, child or convict. We don’t do it for gratitude, praise, or commendations. We do it because deep down in our core we are wired to preserve life. It is our calling. We are the strong ones, resilient enough to handle the pain, and when our time comes we will know that our life counted for something. Somewhere, in some tiny way, despite the thousands of mundane calls, even if we touched only one single life, we will have made a difference.
We do it because our job is a gift. It is a noble profession and we are a brotherhood. Eighty percent of us do it for free. Why? Because saving lives, even those that refuse to be saved, is an honor. Because someone must do it, so let it be us. To wade through blood. To walk through fire. To dive into the deepest, coldest, darkest lake because someone may be trapped in a car waiting for us to grab them and pull them back to life. It sounds ridiculously dramatic, but it is what we do.