In defense of career fire and rescue professionals

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 2, 2003

Editor, Suffolk News-Herald

On Friday, Aug. 22, 2003 an editorial titled &uot;In defense of a squad leader&uot; ran in the ReaderViews section of the News-Herald. This article was defending former Bennett’s Creek Volunteer Rescue Squad chief Sean Edmondson. While I have never met the author, and certainly do not wish to impugn the good work done by the volunteers in the past, I must respond to the veiled accusations and direct insults leveled at Suffolk’s career firefighter-medics by Melissa &uot;Creeker&uot; Parden. In addition, her attack on the public, whom she apparently is appealing to for help, is in poor taste.

The author attempts to ferry the charge that somehow, because we are paid professionals that we do not care about our patients we interact with and treat every single day. Nothing could be further from the truth. I personally have witnessed countless acts of selfless kindness and dedication to duty by Suffolk’s career fire-rescue personnel, as well as the appreciation on the faces of the patient and their family members. Firefighters and paramedics, whether volunteer or career, are by and large kind and caring people. This does not change when one moves from a volunteer position to a career position, as Ms. Parden charges. Simply put, in the EMS world, the zebra does not change his stripes. Simply ask Mr. Edmondson, since he also is a career firefighter in a local Tidewater fire department.


Email newsletter signup

This brings me to the next question of Ms. Parden’s logic. I do not know what she or her husband may do for a living, but I would bet that they have some kind of job in order to pay the bills. Firefighters and paramedics are no different. We all have to put food on the table, make the house payment, and save for the kids’ college education. Since when did making a living by holding down a job in an honorable profession become a sin? Nationally, firefighters have for the last two years consecutively been recognized as being the &uot;most admired&uot; and &uot;most trusted&uot; occupation. Did September 11th have something to do with this? We can only hope so, as the entire world witnessed the bravery and unabashed dedication to duty that, in losing 343 lives, saved an estimated 10,000 on that fateful morning.

Working the World Trade Center incident alongside four other Suffolk firefighter-medics for a combined total of seven weeks, we know firsthand the sacrifices made by &uot;paid&uot; firefighters, both there and everyday across our nation. I have lost many good firefighter friends and family members in the line of duty over the last 32 years on the job. Neither I nor any members of Suffolk Professional Fire and Rescue Association will ever apologize to anyone for the profession we have chosen, sworn an oath to, hold so dearly, and sacrifice so much for.

And just for everyone’s information, being &uot;blessed with having an EMS volunteer in your family or circle of friends&uot; is categorically no different than having a Fire-EMS career professional in your family or circle of friends. We all sacrifice precious time with our families for the sake of serving the public, and spend countless hours studying for initial certification and continuous re-certification. Suffolk’s recruit firefighter-medics start their careers with a grueling 20 weeks of firefighting, EMT, haz-mat, and Shock Trauma technician training, all day Monday through Friday, with some nights and weekends thrown in. If successful, they graduate and are placed with an engine, ladder, or medic company, all of which are fully equipped EMS vehicles. So you see, our firefighter-medics are assisting our sick and injured public from Day 1 on the job.

If you want to go further with your EMS education, say all the way to paramedic, then you must pay for your entire education and take your own leave days off to attend school. The city does nothing to assist, unless you are fortunate enough to be one of a very few who can take advantage of an occasional state EMS grant program to allay some of the costs. And by the way, no one is &uot;forced to get on the ambulance,&uot; as letter suggests. Our dedicated people are hired with full knowledge that everyone runs EMS calls, either on the fire truck or ambulance. It’s just an accepted part of our job, and we look forward to assisting our citizens in their time of need. And as for that &uot;paycheck&uot; thing, perhaps someday Ms. Parden and I will have a chance to meet and travel to a firehouse to take a look at what these dedicated individuals actually earn (that’s right, EARN). She might just get a giggle out of it.

Also, just to fill you in, our career firefighter-medics also volunteer in our community. We are involved in youth sports, Scouting, Muscular Dystrophy Camp, Central Virginia Burn Camp, Cancer Relay for Life, and raise money to provide scholarships for deserving college students from the Suffolk-Franklin area. In fact, our organization has raised nearly $200,000 for charities over the last five years, and is committed to continuing this proud tradition. It’s all part of &uot;giving back&uot; something to our community who so graciously supports us at every turn of the road. We are truly grateful to the citizens of Suffolk and Franklin for their support of our charities.

In 2000, the Suffolk city code was changed to place all fire and rescue services, both career and volunteer, under the administrative umbrella of the Suffolk Fire and Rescue Department. Until recently, the two volunteer rescue squads attempted to cover the entire 432 square miles of the rapidly growing city from their two stations, downtown and north end. Working in a joint plan between the Fire and Rescue Department and the Nansemond-Suffolk squad’s leadership, ambulances have now been spread out to Station 2 (Downtown), Station 3 (East Suffolk), Station 5 (North Suffolk), Station 7 (Holland), and Station 9 (Chuckatuck) to provide better coverage. Suffolk Fire and Rescue Department career and part-time employees staff all units day and night, except with Nansemond-Suffolk volunteers staffing the Downtown unit at nights and on weekends. The Chuckatuck ambulance goes out of service at night, unless all other units are out on calls. Coupled with Advanced Life Support (ALS) engine and ladder companies running as first response EMS crews, response times for our EMS delivery system have markedly improved. To be sure, so have the chances of surviving a serious injury or sudden illness.

What’s going on in Suffolk is no different than anywhere else in Virginia or the United States. People work two jobs to pay the bills, and they want to spend what limited time they have with their families. No time is left to volunteer, but the public (especially in growing affluent cities like Suffolk) demands quality services with quick response times in return for their tax dollars, and rightfully so. Volunteer organizations gradually fade, and localities replace them with career providers. In fact, last year in Virginia, career firefighter-medics covered over 80 percent of the state’s total population, and responded to over 75 percent of all EMS calls in the Commonwealth.

People commute farther away to their workplace, and in these trying economic times employers are less likely to allow employees to dash away to answer calls with their volunteer fire or rescue squad. Chief Steve Moody of the Driver Volunteer Fire Company, who I have known for many years and worked many incidents with, recognized this several years ago and asked the Suffolk Fire and Rescue Department to put career firefighter-medics in his station during the day for coverage. This was an example of forward thinking and problem-solving to assist the public. And I’m sure he realizes that at some future date, there may be a need to further assist the Driver volunteers with some 24 hour staffing.

That would be a tough call for him, but Moody is the type of chief that would move forward rather than see the people in his community suffer. In a nutshell, this is 2003, not 1953. The butcher, baker, and candlestick maker don’t all live around the town square anymore, and can’t respond when the fire-rescue whistle blows. But services still have to be provided. That is the charge of the public to their local government.

Sean Edmondson was referred by Ms. Parden as a scapegoat&uot; in the Bennett’s Creek investigations. I don’t know if that is true or not. And as I stated before, I don’t know Ms. Parden. Oddly enough, I recently worked a temporary duty assignment at the old Bennett’s Creek station for four and a half months, pulling 10 24-hour shifts per month, and never met her…not one time. So you see, names on a membership list do not make an organization. They must be ACTIVE names. She later raises the issue of &uot;the demise of the squad.&uot; I truly wish she had taken a more positive stance and instead welcomed the career firefighter-medics’ assistance to the North End EMS dilemma. Not having expressed this, I therefore am forced to agree with her closing premise that there are &uot;those who stand to gain personally from the demise of the squad.&uot; Those people are the good citizens of northern Suffolk, who are now enjoying fast, courteous, quality service at a good value, provided by the dedicated men and women of Suffolk’s career fire and rescue community.

J.R. Lilienthal, president

Suffolk Professional Fire and Rescue, Inc.