Every member of the fire service should have a sense of purpose about what we do. We should all have a purpose for why we do what we do and I’m not talking about why we joined the fire service. What I am talking about is why we take our job, our responsibility so seriously. Why our mindset is the way it is. Why we are willing to put the safety of others above our own safety. Why we train and drill every tour, even on those days when we’re just not feeling it. Why many of us attend training conferences, many times using our own time and finances to attend.
Everybody has their own reasons behind the purpose of their actions. Early in my career after being assigned to Engine 3, Captain Raymond Hildreth (ret), made it very clear to every member of the company what the expectations were, as well as the purpose behind why we would operate in the manner that we would and why we would train as consistently and intensely as we would. A shortened version of his message was always a reminder that our mission was not only to protect life but also property. He would always remind us that in the neighborhood that we worked in most people did not have homeowners or renter’s insurance. If they had a fire, anything that we did not save, they would lose. There was no insurance company coming after we left to cut them a check to replace their belongings. It was simple - If we don't save it, they lose it. This message stuck with me and was a driving force behind the way that I viewed and performed the job for a long time and is still a message that I preach in the company now that I am a Captain in the same company.
Then my oldest son was born, and many things changed for myself and my family. The changes that followed his birth did not only occur in my personal life but also in my professional life at the fire department. The morning after my son was born, the doctor informed my wife and I that he had Down Syndrome. This was a huge shock to us as nothing had been found during the pregnancy to hint at a Down Syndrome diagnosis, or any health concerns for that matter. At the end of this conversation when the doctor informed us of the diagnosis, he also let us know that a large percentage of children with down syndrome are also born with a heart defect. A few hours later, the doctors performed an échocardiogramme on my son and my world seemed to continue to crash around me. Within a matter of a few hours, I had been informed that my son was born with Down Syndrome and now just a few hours later I was informed by a cardiologist that he also had a heart defect that would require open heart surgery within the first few months of his life to save his life.
That morning, finding out that he had down syndrome seemed like the end of the world to me. I look back now, and I don’t understand why other than that I didn’t have a great enough understanding of Down Syndrome. But just a few hours later, things took a different turn following the results of the échocardiogramme. The realization that the Down Syndrome diagnosis simply meant that raising him was going to be different than we had envisioned but reality set in very quickly after hearing the words open heart surgery. My mentality shifted very quickly from thinking my world was crashing down around me because my son was born with Down Syndrome, to the realization that we can learn about Down Syndrome, and we can learn how to raise a child with Down Syndrome, but the open-heart surgery that is where my world changed. Those words put a level of fear in my mind that I had never felt before and that I cannot explain.
So how does this event in my personal life impact my purpose and drive in my career in the fire department? It was through the realization that occurred in my mind following the heart surgery about the families of fire victims. With my son, we knew he needed this heart surgery to save his life. We researched the different hospital options as well as the different surgeons. We talked to parents that had been in our shoes before us and got their opinions. Ultimately, we choose to bring him to the children's hospital at the University of Alabama at Birmingham to have the surgery performed by Dr. Dabal. At 3 1/2 months old we brought him to the hospital and Dr. Dabal successfully repaired his heart and gave our son another shot at life. It was handing my son over the morning of the surgery that I felt a feeling that I hope to never experience again. That was the feeling of true helplessness. As his father, I was supposed to be able to protect him, I was supposed to be able to make his problems go away. But here I was completely helpless. There was absolutely nothing I could do to help him that morning. My wife and I walked him to the operating room that morning and handed him to a nurse with only one hope in the world. That Dr. Dabal, a man who we had only met in person a few days earlier would save our sons life. And here was my realization as it relates to the fire service.
That feeling that I felt when we handed our son over to the nurse at the operating room was the same feeling that the families of fire victims have as they watch us work. A feeling of absolute helplessness. Every hope and dream that you have is in the hands of somebody else. But here is the big difference, in my sons’ case, we got to research what hospital that we would take him to and what surgeon we would entrust the life of our son. Dr. Dabal, the surgeon who saved my sons’ life, was hand selected by my wife and me. He was our number 1 choice. There was nobody else that we wanted to perform the surgeon. Fire victims and their families are not afforded this opportunity. They do not get to research and select which companies and which firefighters will respond to their fire. Which companies and which firefighters they will trust to save everything they care about in this world.
Another realization occurred to me once the surgery was over, and we got to see our son for the first time again. It was just my wife and I and a few nurses in the room. He was intubated with machines, tubes, and IVs everywhere. It was not a pretty site. You would think as a parent it would destroy you to see your child in that state. But it wasn't, in fact it was the best sight in the world. As bad as the sight was, the world was lifted off my shoulders. I realized that it doesn't matter how bad it is or how bad it looks, as a parent you will take it. I didn't need him to look perfect in that moment. I didn't even need him to look healthy in that moment, to be honest. What I needed was to see that he was alive. This is going to be no different for the families of fire victims.
This realization that that feeling of true helplessness the morning of that surgery was what families of fire victims go through as well became my purpose. To do everything in my power to ensure that myself and my company are as well prepared as possible to give that family that successful outcome, that they would be willing to sacrifice everything they have for. Many times, our thought process is only about the victims at fires or the fire itself because those are the targets of our actions. But this experience provided me with an added perspective of the family members as well.
While the situation that I went through with my son’s heart surgery is not the same as what a family goes through watching us try to save their family member, going through that situation changed my perspective by providing me with extreme clarity on what they are experiencing. This perspective and increased clarity of what the experience is for them has further driven my purpose behind what I do.
Anthony Rowett, Jr. is a Captain with the Mobile (AL) Fire Rescue Department. He was previously a firefighter with the Ogdensburg (NJ) Fire Department. He has an A.A.S in fire science technology, a B.S. in fire science, and an M.S. in emergency services management. He is a graduate of the Alabama Smoke Diver course. He is the owner of Port City Fire Training. He is a contributing author for multiple fire service publications. He has instructed at multiple fire service conferences as well as for individual fire departments. He has served as a lead H.O.T engine company operations instructor. He is also a co-host on the Generation Engine podcast on Fire Engineering Blog Talk Radio.