“Roll every available ambulance you got to this location.”
Radio traffic from that day tells volumes, just in timbre of voice and speed of speech. Initial businesslike dispatch information and incident command is matter of fact. Then “it is confirmed, repeat, this is a terror attack” ratchets up the stress inside the voice of the man asking for help for a scene none of us could have imagined. Asking for every ambulance available, at some point it dawned on the men and women in uniform that this day was different as far as we would be responding to our own.
Shift after shift, the bloody becomes commonplace and the heartbreaking becomes something we often have no luxury to withdraw and mourn – not for hours. The banal and the rote are comforting and the non-emergent is most often our reality. We accept, we treat and transport with dignity. We all know we don’t see horrific very often, or if we do, it’s in spurts. Then the bread and butter of transfers and invalid assists help us get some distance and square up our shoulders again.
But to realize, looking at black smoke and hearing the shrieking alarms of the firefighters within – to realize, that is our family in there. Today we are going to walk and search and frantically try to save our own brothers and sisters in uniform. I think the initial numbness would be a blessing. I cannot imagine the days and weeks ahead. Seeing the families at the services. Families you’ve laughed with over potlucks and company events. Spouses who knew the demands of the job and selflessly carried on at home, just like your own spouse. Children who ran and played with your own.
I think we operate out on the edges, and that’s where most of us feel comfortable. Out on the edges you can see forever, and life is sharper, more in your face. But we don’t walk alone. We walk those edges with our brothers and sisters - in grey, blue, brown, you name it. The patches are different and the faces change, but we are one family, and we all bleed when one of us is wounded. I cannot imagine the empty chairs at the station tables, the forgotten personal belongings on a dresser or an end table in living quarters.
Most of all, I can’t imagine the next time the tones go off. Walking out to the garage, climbing into the apparatus, engine, or ambulance, and facing a world, which has suddenly become more horrible than any of us could have dreamed in any nightmare. If we had the capacity, would we be able to feel any riders with us, no longer able to work but still drawn to the job?
9/11 is so many things. For me, it is a day members of our family went into a scene of terror and horror, ran in and without a thought gave their lives in the service of strangers. Just doing the job – oh, but doing the job with no reserve or holding back.
As a nation struggles with division, as law enforcement, fire and EMS continue to find our way in a world where the only constant is change – I think of those in uniform that day and I am grateful for the example they gave us. Forward. Wisconsin’s motto and the only way to live life, whether out on the edge or not.
Strong work, rest in peace. We’ve got it from here.