Teenagers fight fires and save lives

Dec. 19, 2004, midnight | By Jody Pollock | 16 years, 1 month ago

This is not a drill

In the second story of a brick house in Hyattsville, a man lies stiffly on the white sheets of his wooden bed. Translucent orange bottles of prescription pills rest next to him. In the background, two small dogs yap frantically. The man is dying. A 16-year-old has been sent to save him.

It is 8:00 p.m. on Sept. 11 when junior Neil Flannery bounds into the bedroom, rushing over to check the man's pulse and place a cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) mask over his face. Flannery rolls the man onto a stretcher before handing him to be carried into the ambulance waiting outside. Unfortunately, the man has already died. "I didn't know I couldn't save him," says Flannery. "I found out the hard way."

While this was the first time that Flannery had to test his limits, he is certain it will not be the last. As a certified probationary Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) firefighter, Flannery dedicates at least 48 hours every month to volunteering at a Prince George's County fire rescue station. While there, he can be called upon to pry people out of mangled cars, extinguish raging fires and perhaps even save some lives.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, over 685,000 people between the ages of 16 and 24 volunteered in medical care, Emergency Medical Service (EMS), fire or public safety services in 2003. For Flannery and other teenage volunteers across the country who sacrifice their time and risk their lives to serve their communities, dealing with the death and destruction inherent in firefighting and EMS has become a weekly occurrence.

Commitment to the community

Before receiving his certification as an EMT firefighter at the Wheaton Volunteer Rescue Squad, junior Sean Conte had to complete an application, an interview, a physical examination and five months of rigorous training. He had to take tests on CPR and participate in hours of hands-on simulations, memorize all of the equipment in an ambulance and sit through lectures on blood-borne pathogens. Like Conte, every teenage EMT or firefighter cadet must complete the lengthy prerequisite training courses in order to receive certification.

Inside the ambulance on Nov. 21, the wailing sirens somewhat muted, Conte hangs onto an overhead bar while quickly rifling through a bulging red bag to locate a specific piece of equipment among the jumble of tubes and masks. Not only can he name each of the nearly indistinguishable plastic-sealed packages, but he can also determine what he needs for each call in a matter of a few seconds.

As active volunteers, Conte and Flannery must report to their respective stations one night every week and work one 24-hour shift every month. Conte describes his volunteerism as a full-time responsibility. He even had to sign papers that, in an emergency situation, allow the Wheaton Volunteer Rescue Squad to pull him out of school. "It's always a part of your life. You always have a commitment," Conte says.

Conte explains that part of that commitment is the willingness to put himself in unpredictable and potentially dangerous situations in order to help others. "It's life-threatening, and you just have to jump in," he says. "Fires can't be taught by the book. You just have to not think about it."

Captain Susanne Mann, Recruit and Cadet Coordinator for the Montgomery County Fire Rescue Training Academy, rattles off numerous safety risks involved in volunteering as an EMT or firefighter. "You have the fire, the heat, the smoke, the blood-borne pathogens, the broken glass, the collapsing buildings," she lists. Because of the hazardous nature of volunteerism, the Training Academy prepares cadets to take any necessary safety precautions, according to Mann.

Intensive care

However, the training period cannot prepare volunteers to deal with the emotional toll of witnessing injury and death, says Takoma Park Volunteer Fire Chief Jim Jarboe. "It's traumatic," he says. "No two calls are alike. You never know what you're going to see or how you're going to react."

Flannery cautions that EMS and firefighting are not for the weak of heart. "If you really can't deal with death and blood, you shouldn't be there," he warns. Drained from the calls he responded to as early as 4:00 a.m. the night before, Conte stands in the white hospital hallway on Nov. 21, dark bags under his eyes. He has just wheeled a 15-year-old physical abuse victim, restrained by the thick black straps that run across her shuddering body, into the next room. While in the ambulance, Conte dabbed softly at the tears pooling in the girl's eyes.

On the way to the hospital, he has watched people die right next to him. Conte explains that because much of what he sees is extremely disturbing, he purposely does not dwell on it. "All you can think about is the moment. You can't afford to be upset," he says. "If someone dies, they die. You did the best you could, and it's not your fault."

"The baby of the station"

Witnessing disturbing events and situations is just one aspect of being an EMT or fire fighter. Flashing a grin, Flannery notes that EMS and fire rescue volunteers have opportunities that most teens never will. "As a teen, it's really incredible to experience those things like putting out a fire or saving someone's life," he says.
"It's almost surreal."

However, Flannery's mother was initially skeptical about his abilities as a volunteer. "She said, 'You're so young. Are you sure you can do this?'" he recalls.

Conte says that at first, the firefighters at his station looked down on him because of his age and inexperience. Now, after he has gained the trust and respect of his fellow volunteers, Conte describes the Wheaton Volunteer Rescue Squad as a tight-knit group of friends. Over a dinner of homemade fried chicken and mashed potatoes, a few crew members chat about the most recent episode of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, while others tease Conte about his Halloween escapades.

As the youngest member of the Takoma Park Volunteer Fire Department, 17-year-old senior Ana Velasquez calls herself "the baby of the station." Even so, she feels like an equal among the older volunteers. "People call you because they need help," she says. "Age doesn't matter."

It certainly did not matter last January. While driving to her part-time job a few weeks after she was certified as an EMT, Velasquez watched in horror as a pedestrian in front of her was struck by an SUV and left unconscious in the middle of the road. Without hesitation, she jumped out of her car into the busy intersection, risking her life to help stabilize the pedestrian as he lost consciousness several times. After flagging down a passing nurse, Velasquez waited patiently by the pedestrian's side for half an hour before an ambulance came. It was just another day for Velasquez, but were it not for her, it could have been the pedestrian's last.

Jody Pollock. Jody is a CAP senior (finally!) who is looking forward to another great year in Silver Chips. When she's not driving herself crazy with her impossibly busy schedule, she's singing with InToneNation and going to City at Peace practically every day of the week. Somehow … More »

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