A first responder is someone who runs toward an event rather than away.
That’s how the U.S. First Responders Association describes the elite public servants, including the police officers, firefighters, emergency medical personnel and others. This week — First Responders Appreciation Week — is a special time to recognize these men and women.
Homeland Security says first responders “are often the primary line of defense for U.S. communities, responding to an evolving spectrum of natural and man-made threats.”
That couldn’t be more true of firefighters as they work to protect the community, not just from fires, but also in emergency medical situations, traffic accidents, incidents involving hazardous wastes, overdoses, gas issues and more.
“I'm one of many firemen here (who) just really wants to do his best to handle anything really that's out of the ordinary,” Norwalk firefighter Ben Blodgett said.
“It’s not necessarily that every call is an emergency. We’re not only expected to put fires out and cut people of a car, but when someone doesn't know what to do, we come and mitigate the problem. ... Every day you come here and there is no standard day. It’s something different everyday and you never know what you’re going to get. (We’re) here around the clock and we're just the safety net, so people can live safe and comfortable lives. Us and police, we’re the line of defense that keeps mayhem from happening.”
National statistics show that fires amount to less than 10 percent of all calls that fire departments respond to in modern times. In fact, in Norwalk, of nearly 2,100 calls in 2018, only 64 of those were fires. The majority of those came in as 1,427 EMS calls.
Capt. Brett Beers, said the job is a difficult one, but is well worth the effort.
“It truly is an honor to be able to go out and serve the citizens here in their time of need,” said Beers, who’s been with the NFD for the past 25 years. “To be able to serve the people that you live with — it’s just a good feeling. The training we receive is wonderful. We couldn't do our job without it and it helps us to be more efficient and effective for the community.”
Beers is the man most responsible for training the firefighters to be ready for anything that could come their way. In this profession, when the tone sounds, the men never know what they could be running into or facing that day.
While the Reflector was interviewing the firefighters for the story, just minutes after sitting down to discuss what it meant to be a first responder, the fire tone sounded. A voice over the intercom told them a structure fire was located near the intersection of Ohio 61 and Ohio 601. Immediately, all five of the firefighters ran out of the room to grab their gear, suit up and take off.
The fire ended up being a moderate rubbish burn and was non-emergency. Just like that, however, plans changed and they had to be ready in a moment’s notice, unsure of what could be waiting on the other side of the call.
“On a daily basis we’re training,” Beers said.
“Training is probably the number one priority of the down time we have; it really is. There’s no do-overs on the fire ground — you really have to have sharpened your skills. The new station helps with that so much. We can do things we didn’t have the space or ability to do before. We have a lot of talent here with these guys so that helps too.”
The lessons the firefighters learn and practice they gain isn’t optional, Chief John Soisson said.
“Training doesn't just help; it's essential,” he said. “There's state-mandated training. We have standardized monthly training and elected training, plus truck maintenance, facilities maintenance. But you really have to make sure you keep up. It’s those high risk, low frequency (dangers) that you have to be prepared for. You may only have to do it once or twice in your entire career, but if you don't know how to do it in that moment, you don’t get a second chance to try again.”
According to the department’s annual report, the 18 firefighters put in more than 4,500 hours of training last year alone.
Sacrifice v reward
Along with being prepared to leave at the drop of a hat, all of the firefighters agreed there’s a price to be paid in this sort of a career, one that usually comes at the expense of time with loved ones.
“In general we spend a third of our life here,” Blodgett said. “We work on holidays, birthdays. I’ve had distant relatives pass away and I wasn’t able to make it. It’s a daily sacrifice. These guys all have kids they’ve been away from for 20-plus years. You miss all kinds of stuff.”
The firefighters do it because they love it and believe they’re doing the right thing.
“The important thing to remember whether it’s a full time or volunteer fire department, things change that quick and you have to expect everybody to be available to drop what they're doing and respond. That goes beyond a paycheck — that's dedication.”
Soisson said that’s how things are for all first responders — no matter the profession.
“Anymore the volume that we’re running, all emergency services are taxed,” the chief said. “That's why we make such a concentrated effort to help each other (across departments and disciplines). That's one of the things we work hard on. We appreciate the jobs that all the guys do and how they work together. The guys and their commitment — that’s what makes the difference.”
Beers also talked the department’s and the individuals’ commitment to the community.
“I feel we impact the community in a very positive way in the training we do, the preparation and as the immediate response to any emergency they have,” he said. “I know that I feel safe due to the fact that we have such dedicated first responders.
Soisson said first responders are “essential” to the community.
“People call us on their worst days. Sometimes we get calls when no one can fix it, but they need to call someone, so they call us. That’s what it’s about — just helping helping people. You should have an inherent desire to help people. That what we look for when we hire guys and what we look for as we train them. I believe all of our guys have that. They genuinely want to help people.
“I do believe there is a high degree of satisfaction that comes from helping people,” he added. “You know, not all problems are fixable, but it’s gratifying when you make someone’s day a little better.”
With so much on their plate and so many dangers and sacrifices made everyday, the job can be a taxing one. The community though, especially during this week of special recognition, can take the same love and concern the firefighters do on a daily basis by expressing some gratitude.
This is nothing out of the ordinary in Norwalk, Blodgett said. He noted that department’s bulletin board of thank-you cards is a constant source of encouragement for the men.
“We all appreciate those thank-you cards — those go a long way,’ he said.
“The community has shown how much they value the guys,” Beers said. “They gave us steaks for dinner one night. A guy just came in the other night, said he went to the grocery store and picked us up some steaks. ... It’s not just that though. It means a lot when people stop you out at the grocery store just to say, ‘thank you for all you do.’ That means a lot.”
BY THE NUMBERS
The Norwalk Fire Department responded to nearly 2,100 call in 2018.
Here’s a breakdown of how those responses were.
Fires — 64
Public services — 129
False alarms — 111
Motor vehicle accidents — 136
Hazardous wastes — 136
Investigations — 84
Firefighters also spent more than 4,200 hours in training.