Early in my„EMS career, I didn’t understand why my dad did some things, like wash and towel off patients who had soiled themselves in bed. Acknowledging my lack of understanding, he often said, ˙What would you want done for you if the shoe was on the other foot?Ó
I found myself fully understanding his ˙shoe on the other footÓ comment on Oct. 21 when dry„Santa Ana winds whipped wildfires into 80 mph firestorms on three sides of my community in„San Diego„County. I became aware of the mounting disaster when my son Joe called at 1 a.m. to tell me that he was being held over on his shift with the California Highway Patrol to help evacuate residents from the southeastern region of„San Diego because wildfires were burning through neighborhoods at one mile per hour.
I knew the combination of high winds and nighttime conditions would ground air assets and allow the red devil to spread and grow in intensity. But I was unaware, until I turned on the television, that at least four other fires were being fought in other parts of the county at the same time. I also learned that one of the region’s most heavily traveled highways was overrun by flames and closed to traffic, and„EMS and fire personnel were in the process of evacuating a hospital and several nursing homes. My„EMS juices began to flow.
But for the next two and a half days, I found myself caught, in more ways than one, in the middle of the fire triangle I had studied for so many years and was unable to assist in any way.
To make matters worse, in addition to the fires burning out of control and moving like lava flowing from a volcano, my home is situated just two blocks from a canyon filled with dried brush and vegetation that hadn’t received a drop of rain in 125 straight days. With all the fire resources deployed and focused on the major fires, I knew that if a fire broke out in that canyon, it would turn my ˙safeÓ neighborhood into a parking lot in less than an hour.
I suddenly found myself with the proverbial ˙shoe on the other footÓ and was changed — for the first time in my career — from a rescuer who would respond to the needs of others to an individual totally dependent on others to save my home.
It was both a frightening experience and a learning experience, causing me to kick into survival mode and take action to save my family, our pets and our important possessions. It’s not an exercise I would wish anyone to have to go through, but one I recommend you think about in case you’re in a similar situation.
What do you take? What’s your best escape route? What’s Plan B if your primary route is blocked? Which hotels will allow your pets to stay with you? In the middle of developing answers to these questions, the power went out in my neighborhood. I thought, OK, here we go. Armageddon is about to begin.
I turned on my survival radio and learned that fires were now burning on„Camp„Pendleton, the Marine Corps training facility in the community that borders mine. The pressure was really on me now to be prepared in the event we had to evacuate.
I had already set out my survival cache of spare batteries, water, paper products, flashlights,„EMS supplies and duct tape (of course). I also made sure that we packed essential clothes and dog food (for the dogs, not me). But what else should I take?
I began to assemble important papers and artifacts. Insurance policies, car titles, birth certificates, the key to the safety deposit boxÚand the warranty for the washer and dryer. (Don’t ask me why. Your mind does strange things when you’re under stress.)
A local television personality who lost his home but stayed on the air broadcasting the news, noted his regret at having left behind all of the video tapes he had taken of his son growing up. So I hurriedly packed up all of our videotapes and photo albums.
But what else should a pack-rat like me take? What about my Kennedy assassination research library, my bag-valve-mask collection, my resuscitator collection, my helmet collection, my toy collectionÚ? (You know where this is going.)
I soon realized that there weren’t enough moving vans available to haul away all the ˙stuffÓ I thought was priceless a few hours earlier. Now, I realized all the items I collected for decades could be worthless bits of ash in just a few short minutes. So I decided to leave it all behind and take a few smaller items that I could easily carry and meant the most to me: the family photos off the walls, badges I wore throughout my career, cassette tapes of my children’s first words and my Dad’s ˙Iron Claw,Ó the now-illegal device my father carried on every shift to control hemorrhage or unruly patients. (Come on, I had to take something from at least one collection!)
After two days of hellish wind-whipped fire racing out of control, the winds slowed enough for 64 helicopters and air tankers, and 4,000 of the best friends a guy could ever have, to lay a beating on those fires and allow my life to return to normal.It’s a humbling experience to have ˙the shoe on the other foot.Ó Think about that the next time a patient needs you to wipe blood off their brow or a tear from their eye.