Answering the Call: An Up-Close View Into the World of First Responders and the Struggles They Often Face

Firefighters Kayla Curtis and Kristina Vitale of the Medway-Grapeville Fire Department run towards a burning home after noticing an American Flag on the front porch as flames begin to work their way throughout the home. The two firefighters could be seen carrying the flag away from the home as the rest of the home in Freehold, NY was soon fully-involved in flames on Saturday, February 22, 2020.

Firefighters, police officers, EMT’s often go unrecognized for the life-saving work they do to protect their communities. When hearing about things such as fires and car accidents in most media outlets, you may hear or see a basic overview, but very rarely do you see every aspect of the emergency services on the scenes. Getting an up-close view of emergency services in action is important to me, as it shows the dedication, emotion and hard-work of first responders that often doesn’t get as much attention as it should. In addition to all this, there is a mental health aspect that often goes un-noticed in the world of first responders.

A hoseline is pulled off the engine by firefighters working quickly to extinguish a garbage can fire that spread to a home on January 23, 2020, in Delmar, NY.

Most fire departments, especially in rural areas, are 100 percent volunteer. When the fire department gets dispatched for a call, members drop what they are doing, leaving family and friends on any day and at any time, including holidays, to risk their lives to help others.

Firefighters work to extinguish a fire at a home caused by an explosion in the garage on January 5, 2019, in Westerlo, NY.

Knowing the risks, first responders put their lives on the line to help others. While others are running away from danger, first responders are running directly towards it.

Firefighters battle a fully-involved structure fire on April 3, 2019, in New Baltimore, NY. A fire ignited at the home and then the wind-driven flames quickly engulfed the rest of the home within minutes.

In the volunteer community, volunteering is often referred to as “neighbors helping neighbors.”

Firefighter Jody Burrows of the Coeymans Hollow Fire Department kneels to catch his breath at the scene of a structure fire on February 16, 2019, in Ravena, NY.

First responders often push themselves to their limits trying to help others and serve their community.

Sgt. Bob Baldwin of the Bethlehem Police Department investigates a crash at a cemetery in Glenmont that resulted in a driver being extricated by the Selkirk Fire Department and later arrested and charged with DWI on March 1, 2020.

Since first responders are at the scenes of the worst day in someone’s life, they see and hear things on any given day that most will never experience throughout their entire lifetime. Some of that includes seeing lots of blood, severely injured people, mangled bodies, hearing the screams of pain and cries for help.

An exhausted firefighter walks away from a burning building back towards the fire trucks after helping on the scene in Coxsackie on December 8, 2018, where a retired firefighter was killed in a blaze. Firefighters can be seen in the background setting up additional ladders to access the upper floors of the building to fight the fire. A retired member of the Coxsackie Fire Department was on the third floor and room of origin of the fire. Firefighters worked to rescue the individual, but were forced to leave the building due to heavy fire conditions.

On scenes where somebody loses their life, first responders often shift the blame on themselves. They may feel as if there was something they didn’t do or something more they could have done to help save the person. Cmdr. Adam Hornick of the Bethlehem Police Department says it’s important that they know they did everything in their power to save the person. “You’re not just saying it to patronize them, you’re saying it because it’s true,” he said while discussing mental health among first responders.

Firefighters work to extricate a driver from their car after they crashed head-on with a fuel truck during a snow storm. The crash on River Road in Glenmont on December 17, 2019, also resulted in the passenger of the car being ejected from the car and into the roadway where first responders treated the patient with serious injuries.

While putting on a straight face to do their job and help others, they may often push aside things that may be bothering them. “We’re not super-heroes and we’re not super-people,” said Commissioner Joe Catalano of the Elsmere Fire Department while talking about mental health among first responders. “We have emotions and feelings just like everybody else.”

Greene County Paramedics and Coxsackie Ambulance EMT’s demonstrate caring for an unconscious and unresponsive patient from a serious car wreck on an actor as an audience of students looks on at a mock DWI crash at the Coxsackie-Athens High School on April 30, 2019.

Those that work tirelessly around the clock to help save lives typically don’t ask for anything in return.

A balloon celebrating a 21st birthday is seen coming from a car after the roof was cut off during a mock DWI crash. An actor portraying a mom that just lost their child in the mock car wreck is held by police as she collapses in tears as an audience of students and parents in the background watch the mock DWI crash unfold at the Cairo-Durham High School in Cairo, NY on May 8, 2019.

First responders are there when others are experiencing the worst time in their lives. Some of that feeling often can be transferred to the first responder, especially if it involves children and they are a parent themselves. “It’s a lot different when you’re dealing with a traumatic call like a dead child or a dead infant when you don’t have children,” said Hornick. “But as a first responder, when you actually have children or children that are that same age or similar age, that affects you differently.” 

A firefighter places a blanket over a body as another body with a blanket over top is seen in the background as EMS crews made the choice to discontinue revival efforts of victims in a mock DWI crash at the Coxsackie-Athens High School. Another firefighter is seen holding a deflated balloon and a microphone describing the events and the aftermath to the students attending the presentation.

Those that aid others in their time of need are often hiding struggles of their own caused by things that they’ve heard and seen while helping others in their worst.

Assistant Chief Joe Firstiun exhibits grief to firefighter Eric Besenfelder after a fatal car crash on Route 9W in New Baltimore, NY. Firefighters had to wait for New York State Police to conduct their investigation before the body could be extricated from the vehicle. The chief is overcome with emotion as firefighters wash blood from the roadway with the hose as the car is loaded onto a tow truck in the pouring rain on October 23, 2018.

While being around first responders for a long period of time, you begin to see how certain situations and traumatic events affect certain people. Those you see taking heroic actions, helping others and doing the best they can to save lives, can often be impacted themselves and hold those emotions in. First responders put their lives on the line for others, but those heroic actions sometimes come with side effects that many may not be aware of.