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Heart of Darkness


If the public only knew some of the dark, fetid holes we, their lauded life-savers, have to crawl out of in order to come to their aid, they would be astonished. When we tell tales of responding to dark alleys, funky apartments and foul trailers, they nod in appreciation. But if they knew of some of the putrid, pestilent swamps from which we must slither, blinking, into the light of day (or the glare of night) to respond to calls—places many of our colleagues euphemistically refer to as "stations" or "crew quarters"—they'd be shocked.

My first station in Bloomington, Ind., was a lovely old house. Plenty of room to roam, full bathrooms, a kitchen, comfy beds and a front porch. I was livin' the dream, baby! Then, I moved to Ohio and a different reality set in: an old gas station in Lorain converted to an EMS station. The trucks had it great in their big, heated bays. The crews, apparently less valuable and more easily replaced, were stuffed into windowless closets. The particular joy of this station was the top bunk located right below the heater vent. Oh, the thermostat wars we had in winter! But few funky quarters can match the miasmic polder that was Station One on Middle Avenue in Elyria.

Imagine a three-bay garage at the back of an old, one-family home, its driveway squeezed between house and fence. Our mirrors barely cleared every time we backed in. We had just taken over a mom-and-pop ambulance service, and somehow we were awarded the city 9-1-1 contract. We hastily installed particle board partitions, built bunks and, in general, winged it.

It wasn't uncommon for us to pick up discarded furniture from the curbside on the way back from a run to furnish the palace. For a long time the bathroom was a drain in the garage floor. But out of this dump we would emerge, lights flashing, in our shiny trucks and pressed uniforms, just as if we had come from a real station, and nobody knew the difference.

Over the decades, there have been many more splendid warrens—the toxic, mold-infested den in the Bloomington college dorm, which after 15 minutes produced all the symptoms of organophosphate poisoning.  Also, I remember the desolate, empty wing of the hospital in Oberlin, the patient room on the seventh floor of the Elyria hospital (Yes, we actually responded from the seventh floor!) and the various and sundry cubbyholes, burrows, lairs, haunts and holes out of which I've worked out of over the years.

As the red-headed step-children of public safety, our pay is often less and our benefits are usually paltry. So why shouldn't we live in squalor as well? After all, it's only by working extra jobs and endless overtime that our own homes are any better suited for human habitation than the hovels from which we respond.

The public and our elected officials realize that their lives are in our hands. They need to make sure we have facilities that match that responsibility—or at least a place where we can wash our life-saving hands.


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