Slice of Life

First responders sorely tested

ktanner@thetribunenews.comApril 25, 2013 

As news agencies cover in meticulous detail the aftermath of the tragedies in Boston, Mass., and Watertown, Conn. — as they certainly should — we noticed another story slipping into relative obscurity, as it most certainly should not.

I do understand limited time and space, especially during a nightmare week like that one: Bombs designed to kill or wound as many people as possible at a legendary event; a manhunt; unrelated chemical-laced letters; cops killed and wounded; a suicide vest; gunfights; more explosives; car chases; and a major city at a standstill, except for frenzied law-enforcement activity and physicians racing to save and stabilize their patients.

Under less news-congested circumstances, the huge fire and explosion April 17 at a chemical fertilizer plant in West, Texas, would have dominated national headlines for days. Instead, the story became an also-ran in brief reports on inside pages or during the final 10 minutes of TV newscasts.

By April 21, I had to rummage around online to find any coverage at all, and some of that was days old.

I’m sure when more is known about everything stored at the plant and what triggered the fire and explosion, the incident will be back in the news again, and may already be by the time you read this.

However, reports early that Sunday said the Texas catastrophe had killed at least 14 people, wounded a couple of hundred others and decimated four square blocks of the tiny town of approximately 2,800 now heartbroken people.

A couple of lines on CNN.com and in the Dallas Morning News were especially horrifying: The reports said that at least 10 or 11 of the casualties known at that time had been identified as first responders. Sound familiar? Remember 9-11?

The CNN story also said that “nine first responders from West who died battling the blaze represented nearly one-third of the town’s volunteer firefighting and EMT force.”

Bring it home, people. Just imagine — if something that catastrophic had happened here, who might those nine volunteer first responders have been?

As children, we’re taught by our parents to rush away from danger, from the fire or crash, from bad people and the scarily unknown. But first responders are trained to rush toward disaster.

Our very own firefighters, paramedics, EMTs and law enforcers would have rushed right into that inferno to protect their town and their people. Of course they would.

Because that’s what first responders do. On duty or off, on their own turf or not, they respond.
But each of us has a little first responder buried within.

We saw evidence of that so clearly, so often and in spades, immediately after the Boston Marathon massacre … many, many average-Joe citizens stepping up to help, many putting themselves at risk to aid gravely wounded strangers.

In the midst of all the chaos and terror, pain and blood, anger and anguish, ordinary people turned into Supermen and women as self-appointed, volunteer EMTs, firefighters and cops.

They saved lives.

They weren’t trained to be first responders, but they responded anyway. They didn’t hesitate or stop to ask. They just did what had to be done, fast.

It’s what we all hope we’d do under similar circumstances; we saw it up close and personal during and after the flood in 1995 and the San Simeon Earthquake in 2003. People helping people, whether they knew them or not.

Although gut instinct plays a part in that kind of heroics, each of us can be even better prepared to be the kind of people we all aspire to be in an emergency.

We could train for Cambria’s Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), so when the next North Coast emergency strikes, we’ll be better prepared to help ourselves, our own families, our neighbors and our community.

Even if you can’t become an ongoing member of the team, that training could save your life or the life of someone you know and love. And when the time comes and emergency strikes, don’t ask. Just do.

That’s what’s supposed to happen, in small towns like Cambria and West, Texas, and even in some big cities like Boston. Doing it when it counts.

That’s what they did there, and it’s what we’d have done, too. I’m sure of it.

Editor’s note: To learn more about Cambria’s 130-member CERT team, call 927-6240 or go to http://www.sanluisobispo.com/2013/02/21/2401665/cambria-citizens-ready-or-not.html .

Kathe Tanner is a reporter for The Cambrian and The Tribune. Her "Slice of Life" column appears biweekly. Follow her on Twitter @CambriaReporter.

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