17 January 2009


When you call 911, a big machine is set into motion. Calls are recorded, locations automatically transmitted to the dispatch center, timers start, and vehicles roll. Here in the wealthy cash-flush privileged dirt poor counties of central Arkansas, each county can only afford to license a couple of radio frequencies, and buy a couple of repeaters. So, multiple departments might share the same radio channel.

Confused yet? Let's break it down. When you join a volunteer fire department, or a volunteer rescue squad, you get as part of your kit a radio. And your new chief tells you, “OK new guy. We share our radio frequency with 6 other departments, so you need to pay attention to the tones, and learn what ours sounds like.” And then, if you're lucky, he'll call dispatch, and ask for a test page, so you can learn what yours sound like.

And then it starts.

Tones are the call to action. The bugler calling you forth to battle. Instead of battling the Jeb Stuart's rebs, though, you're racing to the scene of an emergency. Or, at least, the scene of someone who called 911.

Either way, it starts with the tones.

It's hard to explain what happens when you hear those tones. Whatever you're doing, you mind clears. Adrenaline floods your system. Everything gets clearer, more focused. You hear the disembodied voice come across that radio speaker. “Poor Little Fire Department 12, Poor Little Fire Department 12, vehicle accident with rollover, Highway 212 at the flats, vehicle accident with rollover, Highway 212 at the flats. S.O., State Police, and EMS are in route. Caller reports entrapment, 4 persons involved.”

As you run out the door, you're going through your mental checklist as you listen to your fellow responders check in over the radio. Coat? Check. Extrication gloves? Check. Flashlight? Check. Station keys? Check.

Your buddy, unit 421, lives 30 seconds from the scene of the accident, so he's headed straight there. That's a good thing. 421 has a good head on his shoulders. Sure, he's still new. Only on the job a year, but you know that you can trust him to get a good scene size up. As you're 2 minutes from the station, you hear 421 check in on-scene at the accident. Excellent, you think.

As you pull up to the station, the probie is already there, with the doors open and the rig running. The look of joy on his face is the absolute opposite of the dread that is mixed with your rush. For him, this is a great game. A race against the clock, against twisted metal, with the heroics of flashing lights and news cameras and helicopters all around. He loves the rush of it, loves running code, loves being a guy “in the know.”

You know better. Sure, this is a rush, but it's not a game. Those are real people trapped in that car. It's someone's mother, someone's son. It might be someone you know. Your next door neighbor just bought his 16 year old daughter a new mustang. She squealed with excitement when you brought it out of your garage for her. “Daddy, it's so cute, it's so perfect. Thank you so much!”

Your buddy on scene gets back on the radio as you knock the probie out of the drivers seat. This is no night for an inexperienced driver behind the wheel. “421 to all responding units. 2 vehicles involved. Entrapment in both vehicles. 4 total persons entrapped. One possible missing passenger. EMS 2 minutes out. I've already radioed dispatch to get some helo's moving this way.”

You can hear the panic starting to creep into his voice. There's nothing worse than being the only man on an accident scene, and it's multiplied by a thousand when you don't have the tools you need to start saving those lives.

So, you pull out of the station with the lights and siren going. Its only 5 minutes to the scene at a normal pace. With traffic as light as it is tonight, you know that you can make it in half that. You're ignoring the probie next to you, as you look in the mirror to see the usual suspects in the back, gearing up. You've known those guys long enough to know by their body language that they, too, know this is going to be a tough one. It's Saturday night, and kids are migrating from party to party as the Sheriff's office shuts them down.

The phone in your pocket starts ringing. You can feel its insistent vibrations against the skin of your leg, but there's no way you can answer it. This 25 year old truck takes three hands to drive at normal speeds, and nothing you've done since those tones went out has been normal.

As you round the curve and start down the hill to the flats, you can see the pulsating blue and red lights in the distance. You can see the lights of the ambulance, as well as those of the supervisor, coming down the hill on the other side of the flats. That's good, you think to yourself. That supervisor truck has a little combitool in the bed, and he can help get pillars cut while you get doors off and prep to roll the dash. With two cars, there's no time to spare.

As you pull up on the scene, the lights are everywhere, creating a strobing mess on an already chaotic scene. Cars are pulled over on both sides of the highway, as well as being backed up a half mile in either direction, and you again thank God and the Arkansas Highway Department for their decision to put a suicide lane into this 4 lane highway. You pull out into the suicide lane, and kill the siren. The traffic on the radio kicks up, with other units checking on scene.

A helpful deputy is waving his flashlight frantically. You follow his directions, and pull up on the side of the road. There's a car down there, resting on its wheels. That's the good news. The bad news is all you can tell is that it used to be blue. And it's a car. Of the medium sized late model variety. Other than that, the mud, broken glass, poor light, and “jacked-up-edness” of the vehicle makes further identification just about impossible. Maybe after the wreck, if you can find the trunk lid, you can find the make and model of this twisted piece of wreckage. That'll be easier than asking the State Police investigator.

But that's not the priority right now. The two people you see still in that car are.

First things first. Get the probie and 410 in there to hold c-spine. Find 421 and find out which car is the priority. Get the scene lights up and working so we can actually see what's going on. Get that car stabilized so it doesn't slide any further down the bank.

421 runs up, and he's out of breath. “The other car is toast. Driver's already DOA, and the passenger's dead but doesn't know it yet. The medic's over there, but he said to concentrate on this one. And we've got an empty carseat in the back of that car. Deputies are searching, but no luck yet. I'll keep you updated on the other scene. I've got command tonight. Get those other folks out of the car.”

It's a wonderful feeling when someone else takes command. 421's got some time in, been through the classes. He knows how things work. Most importantly, you can trust him. He has the drive, the knowledge, but most importantly, he can work. He doesn't need hand holding.

And that means it's time to get to work. You've got a good crew. They know the drill. While you were talking with 421, they're getting the lights up, and now you can see what's going on. They've got the tools and the pumps off the truck, and with your nod and point, they're plugging in and getting the pump running.

403's got the fancy new plastic cribs off the truck, and he's stuffing crib and killing tires. He teaches extrication for the fire academy, so you know he's got that under control. That car's not going anywhere. The EMS supervisor comes up, and he lets you know the passenger in car 2 has expired, and they're moving equipment to concentrate on your car.

“Blankets!” You turn, and and 431's tossing you the wool army surplus blankets out of one of the compartments of the rig. She's a good member. Not one to take charge, but she's got a good head on her shoulders, and is one of the go to members for medical calls and event medical support.

Focus. Get those blankets down there and get those passengers covered. You need to get that windshield off that car, and that's not happening until you can protect the injured from the glass hailstorm that's about to come their way. You send 431 to the car with the blankets, and grab your gear. Turnout coat, extrication gloves, and that new helmet your dad got you for Christmas, good man that he is. Grab the windshield saw, and you start to maneuver down the incline to the car.

By the time you arrive, there's an honest to God crowd around the vehicle. Bystanders, deputies, the EMS personelle, as well as your guys and girls. This is a prescription for disaster, as you know that you're about to add power tools to the mix. And not your average power tools. Those spreaders push away from each other with 30,000 lbs of force, and the you've seen the blades of that cutter slice through a 1” solid bar of tempered steel like a hot knife through butter. So, you get the deputies to get everyone who doesn't need to be there away from the car. You know, doing their job.

Now for a word on windshield saws. You've seen the demos of the fancy electric saws. That being said, with a price tag that reaches far beyond your budgetary allocations, you'll have to make due with the $110 manual saw you trained with. And let's be honest, it's not that slow. Not with an experienced operator at the handles. And you've cut away your share of windshields.

So, to work you get. 421's appeared, so you and he get to work getting that windshield off. The EMS supervisor has gone to work on the C pillars with his combitool, so all you have to do is get the doors off and the A and B pillars cut, and that roof's coming free.

At this point, training takes over. The driver's door is pretty banged up, but you get it off without too much trouble. As soon as you get it off, the medic takes your position, getting a line on his patient. You drag the tool and hydraulic lines over to the other side of the car, where the door's a total mess. You try and you try, but you can't get a good bite into the twisted metal that used to make up this door.

Finally, you get a good bite, and the door pops open just like you'd grabbed the handle and opened it. The EMS supervisor, who at this point is laying across the hood trying to get a line on the passenger, breathes a sigh of relief, and gets off the hood. He takes your spot, and you're two pillars from getting the roof off this twisted piece of scrap. The passenger, who has spent the last 10 minutes in near-total panic, calms down as you get the door off, and the supervisor talks to him in calming tones.

You step back, and let the man with the cutter replace you. Next thing you know, your reenforcements are lifting the roof off, and you finally have access. The passenger comes out onto his backboard, slick as snot. Well, snot with two peripheral IV's, and their associated lines and bags, and a cervical collar, and enough blood to puke Wes Craven. Head wounds, man. They're nasty.

So, as passenger gets wheeled to the waiting 'bolance, you get to concentrate on the driver. And he's bad. The noise of the approaching helicopter gets your attention, as this guys needs in that whirly bird. Bad. Between the bilateral tib/fibs, left humerus, and right hand, he took one hell of a whack to the head. Like, fixed and dilated on the left. That kind of a whack. Responding to pain only. One of those.

AKA, he's in really, really bad shape. And the nearest neurosurgeon is a 15 minute flight, from road to pad.

And we're wasting time on the ground. We have to get this guy out of the car, and what's left of his legs are NOT cooperating with us.

In fact, they're suffering from a near-permanent attachment to what's left of the dash. In fact, as you look down in the footwell with a flashlight, you can't immediately tell what's dash, and what's leg. Everything's bloody, and everything's broken.

So, it's ram time. AND, you get to try out that nifty homemade ram stabilization tool that one of your guys made. One side of the ram on the dash, against the framework, and the other on your new u-channel wonder, and in 15 seconds, the legs are free. And the blood is flowing.

Fortunately, today is not your day on blood control, and the driver is whisked into the back of the ambulance to get him as stable as possible before he gets tossed into the chopper and disappears into the darkness. On the bright side, the chopper managed to find the accident scene on its first try tonight, so that part's working.

And then, a rapidly as it started, the patients are away. Except for that empty carseat. Then, with timing that would be worthy of Houdini on his best day, the State Police officer announces that the baby is at home with Grandma, and we need to start getting his highway clear.

As you walk over to the other car, you realize you have no idea what happened here, other than two cars crashing into each other at high speed. The other vehicle is absolutely demolished. It used to be an Explorer. You can recognize that much from what's left of it. There's blood all over what's left of the windshield. The coroner's assistant is taking pictures, and the backup Staties are measuring and taping and getting ready for the accident reconstruction team. As you walk up to what's left of the driver's window, the smell hits you at 25 feet. It's a smell that's all too familiar, and all too unwelcome. Booze mixed with blood. Lots of booze. Bourbon, if your nose is operating at its usual skill. You walk up to the car, hoping, praying that you find a broken case of Kentucky's finest in the back.

But you know the answer. You've been down this road before, and you know that you'll head down this road again.

But for now, it's time to clean up and go home. There is work to be done, equipment to be cleaned, cables to be coiled, tanks to be filled. Lives go on. The people who are sitting on both sides of the highway need to go on their way, about their business. And you need to get home, to the quiet, to the peace.

Until the tones go off. And the process starts all over again.


  1. Good post. I really got the feel of the situation.

    Good luck with the new blog.

  2. Great story telling style. You give just enough to keep me reading and I couldn't get away!
    I look forward to following along. Stay safe.

  3. Wow, you have quite the talent for story telling! Excellent post.

  4. Mighty fine, Toad. Welcome to my bookmarks.... Not gonna say welcome to the blogroll until I actually get around to updating that danged thing, but I'll be checking up on ya.

  5. I came here on AD's recommendation, and I'm glad I did.


  6. Very powerful writing. Here, on the other side of the mike, it's helps to know what goes on at the scene. (Not only physically, but also what's going on in the minds of those having to deal with the tough situations.)

  7. Excellent post. Came by way of AD.

  8. Howdy Toad. I'm here on AD's rec, and I guess we're neighbors. I live in the not-a-college-town-but-a-town-with-colleges somewhere between Toad Suck and Pickles Gap, and it's good to know you're part of the cavalry.

    And don't laugh, but with my luck, I probably have you or your colleagues to thank for saving me from one of my many disasters. Thanks for what you do.

  9. Was pointed to your blog by AD.
    Your story sucked me in... in a good way. :)

  10. Wow...

    It's been almost 18 years since the last time I worked a call and your narrative details brought it all back.

    Thanks to AD for pointing this way...

  11. Sent here by way of AD. Glad I was. My husband is a volunteer firefighter/first responder. You have all my respect.

  12. Here via AD. Great story. I work at one of the hospitals that many of your accident victims are probably sent to.

  13. Another one here via AD. I like guns and good writing so it looks as though you've got another follower. Great post!

  14. Like most of the others, I was directed here via AD. Intense. Really great stuff! Keep writing because I plan on returning!

  15. Keep writing, you have a nice style. I will be watching for more.

    Thanks to AD for the heads up.

  16. Here from AD - and glad I came. Your writing style is fantastic, and I can't wait to read more.

  17. ArmedSchoolteacher to AmbulanceDriver to you.... and a fantastic piece of writing. Great job.

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  19. Here from AD -- Amazing and poetic. Thank you for the glimpse into the heart of rural EMS. Neighbors helping neighbors. I was worried there for a minute that the DOAs were going to be in a shiny new red mustang. Glad to continue reading. Keep up the posts.

  20. Wow - btdt on the LE side of the accident scene. Interesting to "hear" it from the FF side. Great writing. Thanks for putting it out here.