It was a horrific accident at a busy Los Angeles intersection that I drove through usually twice a day. But now, the area was like a ghost town. Rescue crews were already gone. The surrounding streets were closed off as far as the eye could see. A sideways-parked police car diverted me down an alley, only feet from where a motorcycle had laid to rest on its side, alone, quietly engulfed in its own shattered and twisted plastic.
You know how every so often you see something like that and it really stays with you? I still couldn’t shake it by the next morning. Fragility of life. Life is short. Live in the moment. We’re all mortal. Blah, blah, blah. We say those mantras to ourselves and to others, yet they’re easier to forget than where you left your keys. While still deep in thought, Andrew called. A guy we both knew was killed the previous afternoon in a motorcycle accident. That accident.
When someone dies, it can be common to revisit our last experience with them, maybe a dinner, a laugh, a cry. I hoped that in time, the vision of the motorcycle wouldn’t be the last one I had of him.
When someone dies, it can be common to revisit our last experience with them, maybe a dinner, a laugh, a cry.
My dark mood got us talking about how difficult it must be for first responders—law enforcement, firefighters, EMTs, helpful citizens, and the like—to forget what they see: the realities of life, which is often death. “What makes those people real is that they deal with our real,” Andrew said. And our real is often unreal.
A friend of mine is a veteran firefighter with the City of Los Angeles Fire Department, and I remember he once told me his wife couldn’t comprehend the horrors of his job. “It’s hard for the lay person to understand my line of work,” he’d told me at the time. Like when he first started out as a paramedic and responded to a building fire, the worst in Los Angeles history. A 5-year-old boy was handed off to him, soot on his face and not breathing. “My partner and I threw him in the ambulance and we did stuff to save that kid that we’ve never done. My partner was yelling in Spanish, ‘Don’t you die! Wake up!’ and I did mouth-to-mouth, which we don’t really do. We got a heartbeat back, but he died. At the hospital, one of the nurses told me I had a ring of black soot on my face. I cleaned it off, but for about a week, I kept wiping my face.” For some firefighters, like my friend, a coping mechanism for those types of calls is “ghoul humor.” They try to make light of it. But he also admitted it doesn’t get any easier after all these years. “As I get older, I cry a lot quicker.”
Being soft is counter to how we tend to perceive firefighters. Rather, we see them as real men in the sense we’ve been precisely trying to avoid in this “Are You a Real Man?” series: macho and manly. On Andrew’s quest to become more of a real man, we’ve been introducing him to men—and women—in various walks of life to expose him to what’s real about them in order to help him become his best, most real self, too. Our focus has always been on “real,” not “man.” But have we been remiss by avoiding true machismo? If Andrew is trying to become the ultimate man, how much more masculine can things get than when your day involves saving people?
“Well, all I know is, women seem to want firefighters, and since I want a woman, I want to learn what it takes to get them.” Andrew needed to work on his ghoul humor.
So, I called my firefighter friend from high school—not to ask him how he gets women, but about why he became a firefighter. “To help people,” he told me. He’d wanted to become a fireman ever since he was young, “because it’s a big, red fire engine that comes screaming down the street. As a kid, you get to go on a field trip to the fire station. You’re exposed at a young age to the idea that firemen are there to help people, and it’s exciting and dangerous. And it’s sort of traditional that parents preach to kids that firefighters are there to help people. Cops are portrayed in movies as both good and bad, but firefighters and paramedics are almost always seen as good guys.”
“Women like good guys, but they also like dangerous men. I think I’m a little of both: Danger Drew,” Andrew optimistically told me as we climbed into a Vehicle of Real Men, a VWerks-outfitted Jeep Wrangler (www.vvwerks.com). “Also, I know how to handle my hose.” I braced myself for the upcoming onslaught of innuendo at the Rio Hondo Truck Academy in Santa Fe Springs, California, where we were set to spend the day at the regional training center to sample an advanced 11-day course for truck company operations. “Firefighters come in and hone their skills on ventilation, forcible entry, vehicle extrication, live-fire operations, thermal imaging, and firefighter survival,” explained instructor Tyler Shook, who is also a firefighter/paramedic with the City of Vernon Fire Department. “It’s guys and gals who have been on the job for a couple of years and they come here to practice. It’s more of an advanced type of training.”
“This truck academy focuses on the ‘manly’ operations of the fire department,” said Captain Sean VanSluis of the Santa Monica Fire Department, a student himself. “Auto extrication, roof ventilation, search and rescue—those are just some of the evolutions that require brute force and strength.” “Yeah, but what’s the manliest?” asked Andrew, paper and pen in hand, like a weird hybrid of Jimmy Olsen meets The Bachelor. “Attacking a car,” said Captain VanSluis. “Cars weigh a lot, and they’re making them more complicated these days. And the tools that are required to force them open are way above the capacity a human being has, in terms of operating them, lifting them, and getting them in the right positions.”
As the Captain walked away, Andrew said, “How to operate a tool and get it in the right positions. Perfect.”
Right about then, we ran into paramedic/engineer, Jasen Brown, with the City of Redondo Beach Fire Department.
I just cut a vehicle in half,” Andrew panted. “I’m a little tired.
We asked Jasen how he deals with life and death every day: “To be honest with you, we don’t deal with it every day, but it’s definitely hard having to tell someone that their loved one has passed on. It’s rough. I wouldn’t say I’ve become less compassionate, but you do get desensitized a little bit.”
Bryan Dome, a firefighter/engineer with the City of Vernon Fire Department, who is also an instructor at Rio Hondo, was heading up a hands-on extrication exercise featuring a vehicle on its side, replicating a scenario in which it had rolled a couple times or had landed on its side, such as against a freeway K-rail or building. “We’re teaching how to get a person out of a car in that situation,” said Bryan, “and how to work on a vehicle while it’s on its side.” Firefighters were learning things like “peel and peek” techniques for avoiding cutting into an airbag, and “5-10-20,” which means be 5 inches away from side airbags (that’s how far they deploy), 10 inches from the steering wheel, and 20 inches from passenger airbags. “They design vehicles for the consumer. They don’t design them for the firefighter,” Bryan told us. His instruction included familiarizing students with new automotive safety features and also better ways to deal with scared victims (or “patients,” as firefighters call them), such as placing the blanket over themselves too when protecting the patient from the glass that will break and the metal that will twist during the extrication process. They do this because “usually the first thing that goes through someone’s mind when you cover them up after they’ve been in a major accident and you don’t cover yourself up is, ‘I’m circling the drain,’” Bryan explained. “We cover ourselves too to let them know, ‘It’s OK, we’re in this together.’”
We asked Bryan how he deals with life and death every day: “Getting people out of vehicles isn’t a big deal; we do it all the time. It’s the human nature stuff—the children. Seeing car seats, especially a car seat without a baby in it. Those are the ones that worry me most, the ones that give me the most stress.”
It was then that instructor Tyler offered us a Volkswagen Jetta. But not to drive—rather, to rip apart: vehicle extrication. We’d be using their Jaws of Life tools: a spreader, cutter, and hydraulic ram. Donning true firemen gear—helmet (or a “hat” as Andrew not-so-manly called it), fire coat and pants, gloves, and safety glasses—we listened as Tyler noted, “extrication is the active removal of the patient. The extrication, the disentanglement, is actually removing the vehicle from around the patient.”
He then covered the systematic approach taken upon arriving at the scene of an accident in which extrication is required, such as sizing up the situation, figuring out how to stabilize the vehicle, sorting out how many patients and vehicles are involved and how to access them, and evaluating hazards, such as fuel on the ground and other things that could hurt firefighters and patients.
He taught us about the “try before you pry” step (will the doors open on their own despite the mangled appearance?), then put us to work on knocking out windows and working our way around the vehicle, using the various Jaws of Life on “purchase points,” going after the doors via either the hinges or the bolt sides. Along the way, Tyler instructed us on where to place the spreaders and how to “pop the door,” cut into rocker panels as well as A- and B-posts, fold down the windshield in one sheet, peel back the roof, and “jacking the dash” and “rolling the dash” in order to push the steering wheel and dashboard off the patient. And firefighters make it look easy—the tools weigh between 42 and 65 pounds, and it can take as long as 45 minutes to extract a patient, which is about what we clocked.
We asked Tyler how he deals with life and death every day: “You learn to tune things out a bit, because you have to remember the task at hand. You know what your job is: life safety and property safety. We have certain tasks we need to accomplish.”
After the extrication exercise was over, we were drenched in sweat. “I just cut a vehicle in half,” Andrew panted. “I’m a little tired. One call would be enough.” Then he reflected for a moment. “I was hot and sweating and it was getting harder and harder to lift the tools, but you’re trying to go as fast as you can because you’ve got this ticking clock in your mind and you keep thinking, ‘I’ve got to go faster and faster—I’ve got to save this life.’”
Next in our average-day-of-a-firefighter was actual fire. Two exercises were going on: fire behavior and ventilation. The former’s classroom was an enclosed cargo container, where students could observe fire behavior such as flash-over, occurring two different ways: an oxygen-rich environment with the doors wide open, and ventilation-induced, where the doors would be closed then manually opened. A flash-over would occur thanks to a barrel of fire and plenty of fuel and oxygen creating their own heat, which the walls, ceiling, and floor would then begin to absorb. The three can take only so much before they radiate that heat back into the room, or what’s called thermal radiation feedback. And as it radiates the heat, it heats all the combustibles. “If you’re in here and it’s fully evolved, there’s no way you’re going to survive,” Tyler explained to the class.
The second course was led by firefighter Tony Fish from the City of Vernon Fire Department. The students climbed onto the roof of a small burning building and learned how to vent out heat and smoke, with key instruction focused on how to cut the roof with a chainsaw (always cut parallel to their feet, not back toward their body—nor toward their partner). Does Tony prefer participating in the ventilation or fire behavior drill better? “I don’t like hanging out in any of them. It’s like hanging out in an oven all day.”
We asked Tony what it’s like to deal with life and death every day: “You know that every time that bell goes off you could possibly get hurt. It’s always in the back of your mind. That’s the scariest part. Fire. Unknowns. But we know how to turn it on and turn it off.”
“I’ll say fire’s scary,” Andrew said. “You guys run into the fire! Most people run from a fire!” “It’s just a job we do,” Tony replied. “Some people sit behind a desk or drive a truck or sort mail, but I choose to go in there.”
Once Tony was out of earshot, City of Vernon firefighter Manny Vazquez, who was working with Tony on the ventilation drill, told us, “He’s a hard-working man. He’s a great leader, too. I’m glad I have him in there. Just when I think it’s time to back out, he says, ‘Hold on, not just yet.’ So based on his experience, that makes him a real man, a man I want to follow.”
Curiously, a few firefighters told us that fires aren’t really the focus of their job anymore. “With the technology that’s come about today, there’s not that many of them. There’s a lot more prevention,” firefighter Jasen explained. “With the decrease of fires, it’s important for us to train for these high-risk/low-frequency events, like compartment fires and vertical ventilations, where we’re cutting holes in the roof.” Andrew and I were fascinated that putting out a fire is nearly obsolete these days. I asked my high school friend about it. “I remember 25 years ago, we’d go to fire calls every day. We still go to fire calls every day, but now only about five percent end up being a fire. Part of it is technology, and part is prevention education. We’re fire-preventing ourselves out of a job.”
A world without these heroes? But then one of the things you quickly learn when talking to firefighters is that none are comfortable with the hero label. “Those guys in Afghanistan and Iraq getting shot at, those are heroes,” said firefighter Bryan. “To me, a policeman, a fireman, it’s a job just like construction worker, carpenter, or plumber. It’s a paid profession and this is what we do. They’re in dangerous situations, too. We’re all the same.”
“I don’t consider myself any more real than anyone else,” said my firefighter friend. “This just happens to be a career I chose. I will say it does take a certain personality and a certain character to be able to go into a situation people are running out of because they’re in fear for their life. No better example than the 343 who died on 9/11. If you want the definition of a real man, I would say right there, that’s what makes us real men. Those guys knew they were going into certain death, but that oath we take when we raise our right hand and swear to protect the citizens of whatever city we choose, that oath, that creed, that is what allowed those guys to go into those buildings and climb those stairs. That’s why firefighters are real men. They went in while others were running out or jumping out. They tried to make a bad situation better.”
On September 11, 2001, we learned for certain that firefighters are heroes. Just not superheroes.
When we asked various firemen at Rio Hondo what qualities it takes to be a fireman, we heard things like loyalty. Integrity. Thick skin. Good sense of humor. You can’t be afraid of heights. “When we’re driving and hear the siren, we pull over and don’t think about it again, but they’re on their way to save someone,” Andrew said on the drive home. “What makes them real men is that they have all those qualities, but also, when there’s a tragedy, we think we’re going to be able to do the right thing. But firefighters automatically do the right thing. Every day.”
“When I kiss my wife in the morning and go to work, I know the reason I kiss her is because I don’t know if it’s the last time I’ll be doing it,” said my firefighter friend.
We should all be doing that, not just firefighters. Fragility of life. Life is short. Live in the moment. We’re all mortal.
We’ve written often in this Real Man series about heroes. One thing Andrew and I have talked about with each other is that every one of us has the potential to be the hero in our own adventure. Not an adventure like Indiana Jones—although some of us might have that—but in everyday life, and especially on days when it might truly seem like the Temple of Doom. And there are other heroes all around us in their own adventure: firefighters, police, doctors, friends, family, soldiers, postal carriers, construction workers, electricians, truck drivers, teachers, magazine writers, and you. They’re there to disentangle us from the wreckage and say, “It’s OK, we’re in this together.”
A few years back, I began training through the Los Angeles mayor’s office for a response team that would provide one-on-one assistance to victims or the families of victims immediately after a traumatic event—traffic accident, suicide, shooting, or other unimaginable occurrence. Our instructor told us about how the event itself leaves a mark in the victim or family’s memory, but it’s the seemingly minor things that happen when receiving the news or going through the actual trauma that leave an “imprint.” Maybe it was the way the person delivering the bad news clicked a pen or that he blinked a lot. The moment is always imprinted within the main memory.
Even during our worst catastrophe, firefighters manage to leave an imprint in the memory as trying to make our bad situation better.
I asked Andrew how he deals with life and death everyday: “I don’t know that I deal with life and death every day. I mean, I try to save spiders when I can. And when I see a car accident, I do have a moment when I get scared and realize it could happen to me. No one wants to admit that one day they’ll die. But I also know that both life and death make me evaluate where I am in life, what I want to do, and how I can be better. You reach an age where you want to make a difference. Through the people I meet during Real Man, I gain more perspective and knowledge about how to do that. I get an idea of who these people are by living their full life in one day. I hope I can make a difference in people’s lives as much as they have in mine.”
After the motorcycle accident, I went to the rider’s Facebook page. One of his friends had written, “You are loved by so many. You did it right. You will be missed.”
It got me thinking about how we’d asked Tyler whether he’s a real man. He’d said, “We’re only defined by what we do in life. My job is a firefighter. But I’m also a husband and a father. So hopefully those make me a real man.”
And that may be the best imprint any of us can hope for, that others remember that we did life right. Be real, and you will make a difference.