I See Dead People

Really, I do. I am a volunteer firefighter and going into bad situations is what we do. I see dead bodies on a far too regular occasion. A couple phrases come up from time to time when people talk about firefighters- and most first responders;

• We Go In When Everyone Else Goes Out

• We Only See People On Their Worst Day Ever

Now both are obviously generalizations, but I thought to myself, “self, how many people know what it is a firefighter does?” So I thought I would write about that. A peek behind the bay doors of what it means to be a firefighter.

Every year when new applicants are brought in to be selected as new recruits, the same question gets asked; “Why Do You Want To Be A Firefighter?”

Almost 100% of the time, they all have the same answer; “To Help People.”

While it’s true that’s part of the job- like literally the biggest part of the job, you don’t actually get to do it that often. When I first became a firefighter, my chief gave me a very interesting statistic that I didn’t believe at the time, but have come to realize is almost completely accurate;

• 80% of our training is on battling fires

• 15% of our training is on vehicle crashes

• 5% of our training is on medical knowledge

The crazy thing is;

• 80% of our calls are medical related

• 15% of our calls are vehicle crashes

• 5% of our calls are actual fires

Now those are not actual statistics but the message behind them is very accurate. I have been part of two fire departments and it is very close to the same. Very few of our calls are actual fires, and those that are typically are grass fires. Very few actual house fires. I have never been on a call where we go rushing in to save the family, but I have been on more calls asking us to come help with dead bodies than anyone close to me realizes.

I was late to the party when it came to joining the Fire Department. I wanted to for years but with 3 small children and multiple other things going on in my life such as sports and being active in community theater, I didn’t feel I had any spare time to commit to it.

If this is where you are in your life but still feel like you want to be a part of this exclusive group of weirdos- jump in! At worst, you will not be able to commit to the time. At best, you will be part of something greater than you could ever imagine.

My first call ever came on the night I was recruited.

It was a medical call (see above “stats”) for a woman who was unconscious but breathing. Turns out a drug overdose. We were able to resuscitate her before the ambulance showed up to take her to the hospital, and we did- so it was a win. After we returned to the hall, the chief asked me a question that to this day sticks with me on any call that requires me to enter someone’s house; “Did you see the guy with the gun?”

My former Chief loves telling this story. In his version my eyes got as big as saucers with a “caught in the headlights” expression on my face. “No, I didn’t see anyone with a gun!” There was no one with a gun, but his point was to make sure to always have an escape route planned when you are in someone’s home because you never know what they are dealing with in their lives.

My first time at a scene with a dead body was definitely memorable. We get called for an assist to the police as they think they have a body but can’t open the door. This happens quite often because let’s be honest- we carry some pretty wicked “let’s break stuff” tools, and the cops have little batons.

So my partner and I arrive on scene and you could smell it before you got to the front door. ..

The two police officers on scene told us there was a suspected body inside one of the bedrooms but the door was blocked, and they couldn’t open it. We walked into the house (wearing dust masks) following the hallway to the end of the building where the blocked doorway was. “Try Before You Pry” is a statement we use a lot, so I tried the door first. It opened ever so slightly, but I got it enough that I could see hair poking through the very slightly open section.

OK, so the body itself was blocking the door. Now it moves from a “let’s destroy a door!” to “we must preserve all the evidence”. We carefully destroyed the hinges in order to pull the door off with as little disturbance to the body as possible.

And then there it was. My first dead body.

I had been on the department for about 2 years at this point. I had never been involved with investigations at any point, let alone being the first person to look into a room of interest. As a fire service, we judge NOTHING we see. It doesn’t matter if you are a hoarder, a nudist or whatever- we are there to help you. That’s it. We discuss things within the department, but we never discuss our own theories outside of the group to the general public. That’s how rumors and bad press happen and nobody wants to be “that guy”. As this event is several years old and a completely closed case- I can talk about it, it’s vague enough to not identify anyone.

So here I am- the first eyes into the bedroom where this person drew his last breath. As people, we want to be able to rationalize what we see. “What was this person’s last moment that left him in this pose?” He was naked, lying on the ground between his bed and the bedroom door with one arm outstretched as he appeared to be reaching for something- likely the door. And that’s as far as he got. Then he died. Alone. No family to rush to his side. No friends to be the first to confirm the worst. Two firefighters and two police officers- complete strangers gazing upon a man’s final moment.

One of the two police officers was unable to contain himself and immediately rushed from the house out to fresh air where he could allow the contents of his stomach to remind him how squeamish he was. I don’t know if it was his first body- I didn’t get a chance to ask him, or if it was the sight of the body, which looked more like a mummy that had slightly decomposed and was discovered after hundreds of years, or if it was the smell.

And the smell… I will never forget that taste.

It was bad, and to this day the worst smell of any scene I have been on. I have learned that is the smell of human flesh decomposing, but this one was unique. The officer who still remained in the house with us estimated that the body had been there several weeks for it to look the way it had- shriveled and browned. Turns out that for whatever reason, the poor guy had sealed his bedroom window with towels and had a small space heater cranked as high as it would go. In August.

We learned later that he was only in there a few days and the extreme heat in the room was what had caused his body to look the way we saw it.

Not all calls are as exciting as that. Especially on a larger department. The last dead body call I was on I didn’t even get out of the truck. There were enough firefighters on scene before I got there that I never even saw the door. But that’s how it works- sometimes you get to deal with stuff and sometimes you sit and wait.

A large part of the calls we get are false alarms. Either an automated system in an apartment or hotel sets off an alarm that we need to come and inspect just to be sure, or carbon monoxide detectors that start making noise. Usually they are just needing new batteries, but we will walk through the home with specialized gas detectors to ensure that family is in absolutely no danger.

Vehicle crashes believe it or not end up with far fewer fatalities than you would imagine. Sure I have seen parts of people at the side of the road, many feet away from the rest of the body, but people are able to walk away or the paramedics are able to get them out of the vehicle more often than not. Remember the saying that we “only see people on their worst days”?

The most ironic/dark part of being an emergency responder is that in order for you to do your job, someone has to have “the worst day of their life”.

I would never wish pain, suffering, heart-ache or loss to ANYONE, but knowing someone is trapped in a car, and we get to use the jaws of life is a VERY exciting concept on the drive to the scene. Then you get called off because they were able to get out themselves, or the paramedics on scene were able to get them out.

Helping people is the single most rewarding thing you can ever do in your life. Be it helping an elderly person walk across the street or helping that same woman sleep at night knowing she isn’t going to suffer from carbon monoxide poisoning despite her alarm waking her up at 3:00 a.m. My point is that a large part of what we do isn’t always directly helping anyone. I have done CPR on a dead woman for 45 minutes in the hope that I could help her. Nobody was helped that day. But I was super excited that I actually got to do CPR.

We ride that truck all the way to the car crash after being called off in the hope we can help someone. We rush to a fire alarm in a hotel we know isn’t burning in case there really is something wrong, and we get to help someone.

Being a firefighter is less about actually helping people, and more about training to be ready to help someone- just in case. Training to cut into a car we may never get the chance to do. Training to rush in to save a family that already got out of the house. Training to do CPR despite possibly never getting to actually do it. Because you never know when someone is about to have their worst day ever.

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