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Editor’s note: Through March, Jennifer Niesslein (@jniesslein) is contributing interviews with interesting, “ordinary” people, who do extraordinary things worthy of the big screen—to complement our Winter 2013 issue. Today is the first installment with EMT and firefighter Andrea Walter.
Pitch: Lots of kids dream of growing up and riding in ambulances and fire trucks. Andrea Walter actually did.
How did you get interested in fire and rescue?
In my early teens, my dad and I liked to chase ambulances and fire trucks in the subdivision where we lived. Out of that early intrigue, I started as a candy striper at the local hospital and then moved into a paying job as a certified nursing assistant. I began as a volunteer with the rescue squad at the end of my sixteenth year. Firefighting came later, when I expanded my horizons beyond the ambulance.
What was the training like?
Getting EMT training was not that bad. You build a lot of camaraderie within each class, sometimes lasting friendships, sometimes temporary drinking buddies. I don’t recall the training to be a big deal, perhaps because of my age. I just wanted to check all the boxes and be able to get on the ambulance or fire truck and make some noise.
I took firefighter training several years into my volunteering because the rescue squad has emergency apparatus that responds on fires and auto accidents. When running ambulance calls began to be a drag, it was great to be able to switch gears and do more firefighting and rescue work, eventually landing me a job in that field.
The movies always portray the culture as this big macho thing. What’s it been like in your experience?
I don’t want to make light of the experience of many women in the emergency services. Some had to fight hard just to be there, just to do their job. I don’t consider myself to be one of them, although I’m extremely grateful to the women who hoed that row before me.
When I began as a career firefighter [at a large international airport]—when it was my paying job, not a volunteer endeavor—I was only the second woman to ever be at the department, and the one prior to me had been gone for more than a decade. There were new rules posted on station bulletin boards about what you could sleep in, which were obviously created just for my first day.
You would think this environment was a set up for trouble, but I never had a problem at that department with the one exception of my pregnancy, which was not handled exceptionally well. I just stayed quiet and did the best I could every shift. Those guys became my family. I remember sending out a thank you email to my shift after the birth of my son and telling them that it was truly amazing to go from being an only child to having twenty-one brothers in only a few short years. That is perhaps the one thing you see in movies and TV that is completely accurate, the bonding of shifts, crews, stations, and departments as family.
How was the pregnancy handled?
There was no policy on reproductive issues, and after the experience I tried to push for one with the backing of the union, although that effort was unsuccessful. It was just not in anyone’s management bag of tricks. How long could I continue to drive fire trucks? What light duty assignments were acceptable? Every shift there was question of whether or not I needed to be transferred. It was far too complex to describe, but viewing it with some distance I can see how difficult it was for everyone involved. The first time you handle a crisis is always the worst. Think of your kid’s first fever and your parental freak out. Subsequent fevers and subsequent kids with fevers get fewer and fewer degrees of freak out. I was the first kid. I got the big freak out.
Late in the evening on my last shift before a scheduled C-section, I didn’t feel well, and I thought my water had broken. I consulted another woman on shift (by then there were three of us in the department), who’d had three kids already, and it seemed like my water had, in fact, broken. I went into the battalion chief’s office and said, “Chief, my water broke, I have to go.” Queue giant freak out. I drove out of there like a bat outta hell trying to avoid anyone taking me in the ambulance.
You see people at their most vulnerable all the time. Has this shaped you as a person?
I will be perfectly honest: I learned quickly that I had to keep all the problems externalized. It was not my emergency. It sounds cold and heartless, but it is an absolute necessity and it allows you to really operate well in emergency situations. After I had my kids, I had a lot of trouble keeping things externalized. The world is full of suffering, and if you go and witness it first hand and can’t properly externalize it, it’s hard to trudge through life every day.
Twice in my life I have worked in a hospital. The second time was in an ICU. Every time I think back on that time, I am amazingly thankful that at my current job, no one dies. I wish everyone could spend a few weeks working in a hospital. After that experience and all my years in fire and rescue, I have a very high threshold for what constitutes an emergency. I value my hospital and emergency service experience for molding of my realization of what is really important and worthy of adrenaline and critical reaction and what is not. If it isn’t on fire, requiring CPR, or having a major medical crisis, it ain’t an emergency.
Can you tell me some of the more memorable calls you went on?
In all the years most of it has all just melted together. What I do remember are some that led me to have my own psychoses, like the one-year-old that died in her crib that made me get up and check my own babies way too often. None of these are worth repeating; they are just sad and I have no way to spin them to be inspirational.
I was in the airport crash truck that put out an engine fire on an airplane sitting on the runway. That was cool but anticlimactic. We pulled up in the truck, pushed some buttons, aimed the turrets, and soaked it. In the movie version someone would have to take a lot of poetic license to make that a blockbuster. I have seen fires in houses and cars, countless auto wrecks, lots of aircraft incidents (none catastrophic), thousands of emergency medical service incidents, suicides and suicide attempts, a drive-by shooting, a swimming pool drowning (another psychosis-stimulant), fights, drunks (funny and mean), and more psychiatric emergencies than someone other than a psychologist should have to encounter.
You’ve been serving your local fire and rescue departments for more half your life, including four years as the captain of the company. Do you still volunteer?
Yes, but in an administrative capacity. I don’t know that I will go back to driving fire trucks. I am getting old, and I made a series of conscious choices that put my family and kids in front of everything else, and going back to operational service would really interfere with that, at least for now.
When you think of your life as a movie, what kind of film do you envision?
A raw and gritty HBO documentary. I love those. It’s just the real thing, nothing more and nothing less. And it would have to be HBO because I cuss a lot and the subject matter would probably play out better with fewer restrictions.
Early in my fire and EMS career there was a show on regular network TV called “Rescue 911.” I hated that show. Every episode had a happy ending. They picked situations that always turned out well, even if the first responders defied the odds in doing it. People got a false sense of how serious or critical rescue calls turn out. I think that is dangerous.
You’ve written and edited a lot, from books for first responders to technical stuff for the government. These days, you’re back to editing. How does it compare?
Honestly it makes me shake my head every day thinking about how people in office settings go nuts over reports, computers, other people’s laziness. When you go to work and someone dies, and you watch the family and friends deal with it, nothing that is happening in your personal life seems to compare. It is a lesson in life perspective that happens right in front of your eyes every day.
About the author: Jennifer Niesslein (@jniesslein) is a writer and editor living in Charlottesville, Virginia; she blogs regularly for VQR. Visit her website at jenniferniesslein.com.