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Emergency Volunteers Sound Off

Emergency vehicles have bright lights and loud sirens for a reason. It is to get your attention. If you don't know what to do next, you shouldn't be driving.

The stories are true, but there are no names in the following to protect the innocent.

I have a friend who works for a local Emergency Management Agency. I say works, but she is in fact a volunteer, like most who are involved in EMA’s across the country. The fact that the town where she volunteers happens to be Plainfield is actually irrelevant as far as the point of this post is concerned. What she faces is the same in Anytown, USA. She and the countless others like her are the true unsung heroes of our communities. She literally puts her life at risk, voluntarily, every time she gets a call. She does it to serve her neighbors and town, the place she has lived all her life.

The following is the distillation of a mutual rant fest she and I recently had. It was fun, in a cathartic sort of way. The difference is she has stories and firsthand experience I will never have. While I too volunteer for a local, though different Emergency Management Agency, we have completely different jobs; I am simply constitutionally incapable of doing what she does, or rather, of putting up with what she must in the course of her duties.

She had received a call this past weekend during the height of the storms that blew through town, as well as one for the house fires that were all over the news the previous week. The house fire call was a Code Blue. That means, come as quick as you can, and if you have been volunteering long enough to have been trained and entrusted with a uniform, radio and other equipment that includes a flashing blue light for your vehicle, wear it, bring it and use it. It is an emergency, all hands on deck.

The call out for the storms was just a standard emergency. Hers still required her to up "suit up" and report. My call was for a standby, which means wait by the phone as you may be needed; then, don’t dawdle, but because road conditions are hazardous from where I live to where I would need to be, proceed at a cautious pace. Yes, it is an emergency, but as my job consists of sitting in a room manning equipment, lives literally don’t potentially depend on my getting there fast.

The position she volunteered for requires her to be out on the streets, helping direct traffic, "sitting" on downed power lines, manning road closures and basically supporting the police, fire and other emergency personnel who are actually dealing with the situation, freeing up the paid professionals from the more mundane aspects of the emergency. She’s a better woman than I am. The stories of what she encounters prove this beyond a shadow of a doubt.

We all saw the pyrotechnics in the sky, felt the hurricane force winds and driving rain, and knew there were going to be trees and power lines downed. As each blinding flash faded, we all sat and waited to see if our power supply had been affected, and if we were lucky, sighed in relief. We all watched as trees, those towering, majestic life-sustaining sentinels, swayed beyond what we were sure must be their breaking point, and then held our breath, watching as they snapped back upright to their normal height. Most of us were lucky, but others, not so much.

When a report of a power line down comes in, she is one of the army of trained volunteers all across the country who show up and use their vehicles, lights flashing, and even their bodies to help block the road. Of course, there are also saw horses and signs that say “Road Closed.” Yet, there are a surprising number of people who think the signs don’t apply to them.

Take the truck driver who stopped his rig, got out of his cab and began walking towards her in the driving rain, who tried to walk around the saw horse and sign, all while she is frantically waving him back and screaming to be heard over the storm to “Stay back!”

The fact that he had to stop short of the snapping, crackling and sizzling downed power line didn’t seem to register in his consciousness as he asked,

“Can’t you open the road just for me, just for a minute?”

When the ComEd crew finally got to that particular downed line, it was time for her to move on to another road that was blocked with a felled tree. This was a particularly dangerous one, in that the power was out in that neighborhood, which meant no street lights. The road was tree lined and curved, and the downed tree was within feet of a normally pretty much blind turn. Given the conditions, it was only a matter of time until someone going the posted speed limit came around the curve, saw the tree and swerved either into the oncoming lane or the ditch. Her arrival on this scene allowed the police who had been manning the closure to go off and do other police business.

“But I live just right up the road.”

“What is your address?”

“Well, it is my buddy’s house, and they are expecting me.”

That was one of the friendlier, and more sane exchanges. Often she is cursed at, as if she has conspired with the universe to close this road at this moment for the sole purpose of making that driver’s life more difficult by requiring him to find another route to his destination.

Of the insane exchanges, one she has faced every time she has been on traffic duty goes something like this:

“But I have to go through; it is the only way I know to get home.”

We laughingly agree that it is a marvel, how many people don’t know how to get around in their own town. The other option is to believe there are that many souls out there who think the rules should be changed when it comes to them and their special existence.

Recently, there was a spectacular house fire in Plainfield. I say spectacular in part because it was a clearly visible spectacle from nearby busy Route 59. She got the short straw, and was assigned to help direct traffic on that busy street. That meant help keep people from turning onto the closed road due to the number of fire engines, police cars, emergency vehicles, and oh yeah, lest we forget, the two houses fully engulfed in flames.

“But I don’t know any other way to get to that other road.”

“Which road?”

“The one where the soccer fields are.”

This, from a driver with a minivan full of kids dressed in soccer uniforms.

Another woman who either couldn’t or pretended she couldn’t speak English, seemed to view the saw horses, vehicles and uniformed personnel blocking the road as an obstacle course which she was determined to navigate. When her vehicle was finally stopped and a rap on the window got her attention:

“Ma’am, the road is closed.”

The woman spoke to a child in the back seat in a language other than English, and the child translated:

“We are just going home.”

To the woman and child translator:

“Do you live on this street? What is your address?”

After no response, despite an exchange between the woman and child, again not in English, the follow up was:

“If you live on this street, show me your driver’s license as proof of your address, or we can’t let you through”

To which the child promptly replied:

“Oh, she doesn’t have a driver’s license.”

At this, the woman let loose a torrent at the child in whatever language they were speaking, prompting the child to then say:

“I mean, her license is at home.”

It would be easy to say that to someone who doesn’t speak the language, who may in fact come from a country where navigating around road barriers is normal, doesn’t understand that in this country, “Road Closed” or saw horses emblazoned with “Police Line Do Not Cross” means just that.

But the simple fact is that too many people simply don’t respect the flashing lights of emergency vehicles for it to be a matter of not understanding the language or customs. I’m not even addressing the fact that in order to pass the driver’s license exam, you have to know enough English to be able to read road signs. The laws as they pertain to all drivers also must be understood, and  that includes pulling to the side of the road safely and stopping your vehicle at the sight and/or sound of approaching flashing red and blue lights.

How many of us have watched the one car that doesn’t pull over for the ambulance or fire truck? Generally, they are not attempting to go considerably over the speed limit, but on the occasions they are, it means there is a high probability of an actual life and death emergency to which they are attempting to respond. What if it is your house the fire trucks can’t get to in time because some idiot, oblivious or flat-out stupid driver won’t get out of the way?

What if it is your loved one who dies when emergency personnel couldn’t get there in time because someone on the road holds the remarkably insane, full-blown conspiracy theorist nut job idea that ‘they only use those lights and sirens because it is a power trip for them, making all the sheeple pull over’.

We are all familiar with these types, and not because the aluminum foil peeks out from under their caps. Too many of them, when not out driving around blocking emergency vehicles, are sitting in their mother’s basement, negatively commenting on every article about the police, fire and paramedics doing their job.

I’m of the opinion that many of these basement-dwelling trolls do not have a driver’s license, either because it was taken away from them for their refusal to obey the law, or they proved incompetent to drive. Seeing the antics of drivers who did manage to pass the exam, I shudder to think how these individuals would act behind the wheel.

Ask any firefighter about the most dangerous part of their job, and most will respond that it is not the part where they rush into burning buildings; it is simply getting to the burning buildings. The same holds true for police and paramedics, though this last one baffles me the most. A paramedic’s only job is to respond to a call for medical help. Someone is, or believes they are, in such critical condition that they need immediate medical care and transport to the nearest hospital. It doesn’t matter if it is an official, municipal ambulance or a privately owned company contracted to a nursing home, medical center or in some cases, an unincorporated area. If they have their lights and sirens going, someone’s life is probably on the line.

The point is, respect the flashing red and blue lights, whether they are stationary and blocking your normal route home or screaming down the road. Get out of the way. Stay out of the way. Don’t attempt to go down that road. The lights are bright and the sirens are loud for a good reason.

One final note from my friend who volunteers for our local Plainfield Emergency Management Agency. She is a life-long resident of Plainfield and remembers well that up until about 10 years ago, Plainfield was part of the approximately 85 percent of fire departments across the nation that are all volunteer. Back then when driving around town, if you saw a vehicle with a flashing blue light, they were responding to a call for an emergency on their time, with their gas money, at risk of their life for someone else in the community. Back then, everyone moved out of the way.

I am of the opinion that back then, a higher percentage of the driving public in most towns and municipalities moved out of the way for all vehicles with flashing lights. Now, too many people see the opportunity of an emergency vehicle going down the road as a way to skirt traffic by jumping in it’s wake, if anyone else is in fact pulling over.

My friend is too much of a professional, even though only a volunteer, to say what I think. It is my opinion that if you are dumb enough to skirt a road closed sign and end up stalling your car in the flooded road, you got what you deserve. This thinking is what keeps me from volunteering for her job. Ever.

Those who allow me to do the volunteer work I do, know this side of my personality. It is why I’m behind a desk and a bank of computer monitors. It is a standing joke that I am not allowed near the general public, and they shudder to think what I would do if armed. They know I would be too tempted to shoot out the tires of someone trying to get around a road block.

Of course, it would only be to allow that citizen to help further block off the road with their now disabled car. Obviously the flashing lights, signs and barricades were not enough to deter that motorist, but perhaps with their vehicle added to the mix, others would be stopped.

Really I’d just be allowing that person to do their part in the interest of the safety of all the rest of the idiots. I mean motorists.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

JW July 05, 2012 at 05:24 PM
Denise, Thanks for finally putting this out there. Thank you to all those who volunteer in our community and put their lives and family on the line when the "call comes in". Plainfield would not be as it is now if not for soooo many volunteers. Hope the persons sited in this article read it ! I too am a volunteer in Plainfield and have been on the EMS side too. All too many times there is that "one" person who just doesn't think rules apply to them. I guess what people don't realize too is that those vehicles coming at them are multi-ton and you would not want to be hit by one.
Agie Lefler July 05, 2012 at 07:15 PM
You're right "your friend is too much of a professional, even though only a volunteer, to say.." To what you're opinion is on several of your own personal observations about "sheeple",etc, you lost me once your sarcasm became prevalent. But that's my own personal observation.I agree there's too many gawkers and drivers behaving clueless behind the wheel and I understand in some cases right is right and there's no extra time to put it in any other way but "just the way it is" but there are some uniform wearing volunteers who take their own self given authority perhaps a bit too far. Here's what I would do, I'd keep in mind the protection I am giving is for the community I am serving. Full of many characters. Learn a 2nd (3rd) language to be able to help more thoroughly , no need to be fluent, key words is all. Develop a thicker skin so none of my own sarcasms come across in communication, whether by accident/intentional it has no place when the goal is to serve everyone's betterment &safety.That includes basement trolls living with mom who have their own views perhaps ignorant. (due to ignorance, possibly genetic, not ours to judge). I felt a need to reply for anyone out their, like your own friend, who just might have a different slant on the matter. I wish you nothing but luck and safety and unusual enlightenment to better assist you in your future communications with the public. God Bless you and the rest of the volunteers. Chin up!
Denise Williams July 06, 2012 at 04:34 AM
JW, you're very welcome, and thank you for your time and efforts. Thanks to your family as well for sharing your time for the betterment of the community.
Plainfield Conservative July 07, 2012 at 02:24 PM
A big "Thank God" goes out to all you emergency personnel (paid or not). You really do not get the respect and thanks you deserve on a regular basis. I have to admit that there are times when I'm in a hurry to get somewhere and those little flashing lights coming from behind I'm reluctant to pull over until they get right up on me.....AT FIRST. Then, I take a moment and try to think if it was MY LOVE ONE or MY HOUSE they were trying to save and immediately pull my butt on over until they go by. I'm not even going to comment about the illegal driving without a license and not speaking a lick of English and the dangers that imposes on our society, lol. I think that I'll save that discussion for another time...another thread. Thanks again!
Margie Bonuchi July 08, 2012 at 01:39 PM
Being close to PEMA through my husband, Roger, and 3 of my employees, and knowing several members personally over the years, I have heard these stories many times. They are volunteers, but whether they volunteer or are members of the police or fire dept, they are many times ignored, insulted and treated badly. They are thick-skinned or they wouldn't last. They show a high level of professionalism and are not there for their own gain or pat on the back, they just want to help. The flashing lights should be enough of a universal signal that each driver needs to know to have a license. When you see that, respect that. Turn around, pull over or just get out of the way...period. I do want to share that many times they are treated very nicely too. Often times, business owners show up with food and drinks when they've seen PEMA out on the corners. Private citizens have offered bottled water. Businesses have offered coffee and sandwiches, especially in extreme weather conditions. There are a lot of good people out there. But if you are the ones who try to push these emergency people for your own gain, remember they are savng you from yourself when there are power lines down or in one case, an amonia leak that would have been deadly to the person who begged to continue on his route. Remember flashing lights...get out of the way!

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