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A look at the realities of life as a first responder

By Neil Zawicki Albany (Oregon) Democrat-Herald

ALBANY, Ore. – “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen?”

That’s a question people ask paramedics all the time, according to Matt Johnson, a 26-year-old firefighter/paramedic at Albany Fire Station 12.

Two of his fellow firefighters, paramedic Alex Funicello, 24, and Emergency Medical Technician Jessica Jackovich, 24, say they get that question all the time as well. In fact, generally, the three prefer not to tell people what they do for a living, because it opens the door to potentially uncomfortable conversations.

That’s not to say they’re not proud of what they do. This new breed of first-responders arrived at their jobs through years of volunteering, academic study that approaches pre-med levels and intense hours of training. What they bring to the job is a command of the newest procedures and technologies. What they don’t bring is the level of street smarts the older firefighters have. These two breeds blend at the fire station, and the respect goes both ways.

“It’s a lot of fun to watch the new guys on hot calls,” remarked firefighter/paramedic Shane Castle, a veteran with more than 10 years at the department.

He was sitting with Funicello on a Saturday morning at the station dining table, the unofficial gathering place at every firehouse. The two talked about what Funicello learned in school, compared to what Castle has picked up over the years. Talking about a recent car crash, they explained how the driver complained of neck pain but couldn’t tell them what happened. While Funicello checked vital signs and looked for other clues, apparatus operator Doug Ketelson, another veteran, noticed a tiny star-shaped crack on the windshield, just about exactly at head level to the victim. He made the call that her head had struck the window. And he was right.

Ketelson says every call he has ever gone on runs like a slide show in his head. He’ll replay the slides afterward. Other firefighters talk about running through drills in their sleep.

Another difference, says Funicello, is that he could be on a call and triaging patients to determine who needs to go to the hospital, going through his checklist and referencing procedure, while a veteran like Castle could stand 10 feet away from a patient and be able to say, “transport him.”

While Castle listens to Funicello talk with authority about the newest procedures, he surprises the new paramedic with some questions about critical steps and policies. He is, after all, training him while Funicello finishes his probationary first year.

But Funicello brings real-life experience to the job as well, and Castle knows that. When Funicello trained as a paramedic in Austin, Texas, he went out on a call where a semitractor-trailer ran into a car full of people, and he was the person in charge, or PIC.

“There’s not a whole lot of structure when you’re first on scene,” he says. Funicello also worked as a paramedic for a year with a private ambulance company in Salem.

Sitting in the back of Medic 12, the station’s ambulance, Johnson, Funicello and Jackovich talk about what happens in this small space, which most people think of as simply providing a ride to the hospital. For the paramedics and EMTs, the interior of an ambulance provides much more than that.

“There are a lot of life talks back here,” says Johnson. Jackovich says they’ll sometimes become counselors to the patients.

“You see a lot of things you didn’t think you would ever see,” she adds.

Other calls can go wrong in ways so intense that the whole story likely never goes beyond the dining table at the station.

“Sometimes after a bad call we’ll just sit up and talk,” says Johnson.

Choosing the job

Johnson, who recently cleared his probationary period at the Albany Fire Department, has been cultivating his career for the past nine years. He thought about law or politics in college, but ultimately got his undergraduate degree in public health at Oregon State University. He volunteered with a fire department on the Oregon Coast, and worked as a paramedic in downtown Portland. He actually graduated from paramedic school in Austin in 2016 with Funicello, and the pair were amused to find themselves working for the same department, at the same station.

Funicello was in the explorer program with Gresham Fire in high school, where he got to spend time with firefighters, and decided he wanted to be one. He later volunteered with the Corvallis Fire Department, and lived at one of the stations at the same time. He says it irritated him not to know what was going on during emergency calls, so he decided to become a paramedic.

Jackovich earned a biology degree at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, and spent some time shadowing different medical professions. When she did a ride-along with paramedics, she says she decided, “This is it.” Specifically, she says it was a head injury call that got her to sign up.

While the idea of a gory head wound might not seem to most like a reason to choose a career, paramedics look at it differently. It’s not about the head injury, it’s about how to deal with it.

“We’re problem-solvers,” says Johnson. “We show up and make decisions based on the nature of the call.”

Castle says people tell him all the time, “I couldn’t do what you do,” referring to the gore.

“But really nobody thinks they can do it until they do,” he says.

Castle likes the analogy of a duck on a pond to describe how paramedics conduct themselves.

“You’re calm on the surface, but you’re paddling like hell underneath,” he says.

Station 12 Lt. Levi Lindsey says he can handle any type of emergency at work, and no level of gore will affect him, but if one of his kids even gets a bloody nose at home he simply can’t handle it.

“I don’t know what it is,” he says with a laugh. “I think maybe it’s because I approach work a certain way, and I just can’t flip that switch with my own kids.”

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