Letters to the Editor

Viewpoint: The real truth about police and firefighters

In the midst of the economic crisis and current local political situation, I am confounded at the seemingly hostile climate toward police and firefighters in San Luis Obispo.

Recently, several emergency service workers have been verbally accosted and berated while on duty. I understand the politics, but what puzzles me is the seeming disregard for what police and firefighters actually do for our community. 

I have lived in this city for 25 years. I graduated from Cal Poly, and I am a former business owner, a mother of three and the wife of a city firefighter. I am acutely aware of what these men and women see and do on a daily basis. I wonder if there would be more clarity with a greater understanding of the typical day in the lives of San Luis Obispo city firefighters or police officers. 

When not fighting fires, emergency service workers deal with suicides, accidents, drug addiction, homelessness and traumas of all sorts. Does the average community member know the amount of blood, vomit, feces, urine and decaying bodies they encounter on a daily basis?

Many of the horrors they encounter are not in the paper, and if they are, the stories cannot possibly cover all of the shocking circumstances these men and women willingly enter into every day.

I have spent many sleepless nights after hearing about my husband responding to emergency calls.

Some examples:

A man decides to blow his brains out in the park but calls 911 so emergency crews can deal with his body before park-goers come upon the unsightly mess. 

A mentally ill homeless man calls in acute pain. Upon arriving, emergency workers discover he has been defecating in his pants for a month. Firefighters must chip away at the hardened feces to get to the actual problem — his maggot-infested private parts. 

A young college student drinks himself to death while his fraternity “brothers” sleep nearby. When working on his body, police and firefighters must answer questions: “Is he going to be OK?” 

A fire starts in the tent of a homeless man, and firefighters carry his charred, naked body along a narrow creek path in the dark while encouraging him, as the smell of his burning flesh fills firefighters’ nostrils. 

A man who fails to take his medication for mental illness systematically carves off his genitals, then rescuers attempt to save his life and fish the parts out of the trash in hopes of later re-attachment. 

Excuse the graphic descriptions, but there are people who deal with these dreadful events regularly. It amazes me how in our lovely city, there is such tragedy and hurt. Most of us are unaware. 

I know, however, that statistically speaking, the longer we live there are going to be many of us who are in need of the assistance of these public safety workers at one point in our lives.

I am one of those people. It doesn’t seem long ago that I was in my home at night when two wanted felons attempted to break in. If not for police, I’m not sure I’d be here. It was also the fast response of firefighters and paramedics that saved my father’s life during his first heart attack.

I’m grateful for my husband’s job and that he’s there for people in their time of need, as are all firefighters and police. It’s their job to respond, but it’s also a calling that not everyone has.

I’m grateful my husband was holding the head of a dying little girl from my daughter’s class who was hit by a car one terrible Halloween night, and that he whispered gentle words of comfort in her ear. I’m relieved that it’s men and women such as this who respond to our elderly or severely ill who have fallen and need to be picked up, cleaned up, reassured and literally tucked back into bed. They’re there when most of us cannot nor would not want to be. 

There is always going to be conflict and discord in politics. My hope is for the recognition and understanding that these men and women gladly and mercifully protect, rescue, aid and comfort many of us in this community in our time of crisis.

Theirs is a physically and mentally grueling job that they willingly choose. They give their bodies and minds and a great part of their family time — including birthdays, holidays and other special occasions — to serve this city.

The gruesome images they see daily often haunt their thoughts. Many suffer with physical pain from lasting injuries due to their service. Again, and very importantly, they do this willingly and with a calling to serve. 

The stories I hear make me want to hug my husband and children tightly, tell my friends and family how much they’re loved and be grateful for every second of health and well-being I enjoy here in the “Happiest Town in America.” I hope that my loved ones and I are never in need of their services.

Kathy Callahan’s husband has been an engineer with the San Luis Obispo Fire Department for 13 years and previously worked for the California Department of Forestry.