“Service to All, Second to None”

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I wake around 5:30, but it is dark enough to be the middle of the night. The radio emits call after call from the dispatchers summoning firefighters and EMTs to help a 1-year-old having difficulty breathing and a diabetic child who hadn’t had food since the day before. There are elderly people suffering heart attacks and drivers having panic attacks. Then a call arrives for a woman in her car on 285 South who is frostbitten.

That could have been me.

I was stranded because of “Leon” – the snow and ice storm that incapacitated Atlanta and much of the south. Attempting to avoid roads glutted with jackknifed trucks and abandoned cars had transformed my 60-minute commute into a struggle lasting more than nine hours.

But I was one of the lucky ones. I was a guest of Fulton County Fire Department Station 11, whose motto is “Service to All, Second to None.” During this time, as in many times before, Station 11 lived up to this motto.

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Just a few hours earlier, I had faced the serious possibility of sleeping in a freezing car on the side of the road or being forced to walk an unknown distance to an unknown destination.

After eight hours of driving, I thought my luck was finally changing when I glided into an open gas station. A moment later, I learned they were out of fuel. Still, I needed a minute to regroup, so I went inside the crowded convenience store.

I quickly found out that I was in better shape than others. Several people had already run out of gas, and none of the nearby stations seemed to have any. A senior citizen was asking the manager to keep the store open past 10, but he simply shook his head and said he couldn’t. She answered him pointedly, “It’s not like you’re going to get home either!”

One woman had just met up with her husband, a utility worker with a truck outfitted for any weather. They were strategizing about how to reach their 6-year-old who had been trapped on a school bus for hours. My good fortune was that my family was safe and warm at home.

I was also fortunate in that I still had some gas, though not enough to keep the car running to stay warm all night. It was 21 degrees outside, the temperature at which frostbite can set in within just 30 minutes.

I couldn’t stay there. There were several figures walking around, looking as if they might start trouble once the gas station had closed. So I started the car again – but in less than a minute I was trapped on the ice.

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Then an old man walked up to the car and offered to help. He pulled up some nearby pine straw, put it around my tires and told me to “Go, go!” I was so grateful and after a few tries, I got traction and headed back onto the icy street.

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The radio reported that every major road was gridlocked with stalled and abandoned cars. My husband was helping me with directions by cell phone, using the Georgia Department of Transportation web site and Google Maps. He found a police station about a mile away, and I decided to seek refuge. At least I would be safe in my car in their parking lot.

But in the dark, I couldn’t find the station. My husband checked for another police station, fire station or even church online – but none showed up.

I considered my options as the reality began to sink in – a wrong decision now could possibly risk my life. I asked God for help and tried to focus. I could have driven to Miami in less time than it had taken me to get to this point, and I was exhausted.

Then I saw a fire station on the right. It hadn’t shown online because it had been built just 18 months earlier. I parked and walked across the ice and knocked as loud as I could on the lobby door, but heard nothing. I banged harder and then I saw someone inside.

He hadn’t heard me, but I was so relieved someone was there. I was shaking by the time I reached the back of the building where I saw a firefighter. I asked if I could come in because I wasn’t sure what would happen to me back out on the road. The kind man in uniform said to me “You are in the right place, come on in!”

The warmth and generosity I found at Fulton County’s Station 11 was overwhelming. Deputy Chief Jack Butler, Captains Donald Harry and Captain Richard Dollar, with Firefighters Vincent Sims, Joaleen Carr, Jason Thomas, Chris Anderson and Lloyd Brown greeted me and about 10 other stranded people with the same warm welcome.

They offered us recliners (which would become our beds for the night); blankets, and Firefighter Anderson even gave me a sweatshirt to keep warm. They gave us hot coffee and shared their food with us. This may not seem important unless you know that firefighters pay for their own food while on duty.

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Firefighters typically work about 56 hours per work week, eating seven meals on duty. The USDA estimates the price of a “low cost” meal at home at $2.57, so with an average salary of $43,000, a firefighter spends roughly 2% of his or her salary on food while waiting for the call to rescue me from a burning building or a freezing car. I am amazed by this.

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Yet “my” firefighters weren’t complaining – if they had it, they shared it. Through the night, they checked on us, made us comfortable and answered emergency calls. Every hour or so a new “guest” arrived needing help, and found it at Station 11.

. . .

It is now 7 a.m. and Deputy Chief Butler switches gears from generous host to emergency response leader as he prepared for a conference call. He has not slept yet it doesn’t show in his calm and measured demeanor. It occurs to me that some people land in exactly the right profession that matches their natural gifts. This applies to all of the men and women who I have encountered at Station 11.

The woman in the recliner next to me takes a sip of coffee. She had slept in her car overnight and arrived shaking, crying and scared. I understood how she felt. Firefighter Lloyd Brown got her situated, then calmed her in a soothing, compassionate voice. I think he understood she was a little in shock. His kindness was truly inspiring, and its effect is something I will never forget.

A short time later, the scent of cooking breakfast and genial conversation raises our spirits. At Deputy Chief Butler’s insistence, we ‘guests’ fill our plates first. I truly feel like I am among friends, no longer a marooned stranger seeking help.

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By one o’clock in the afternoon, the temperature finally breaks freezing and for three hours I follow Firefighter Joaleen Carr in our two car caravan through a maze of cars headed toward home.

When I finally arrive home, my Mom cries and my kids hug me like they haven’t seen me in a week. My husband waits until they are finished then hugs me. I feel his shoulders drop in relief– as we both take the first easy breath in two days.

I think back to just before I left Station 11 when I thanked the crew and said to Deputy Chief Butler “I’m not sure, but you may have saved my life.” His response echoed their motto when he said to me simply, “That’s why we’re here.”

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