Do you remember what it felt like to receive that letter in the mail, with your certificate and shoulder patch, after passing your first EMT class? Or how you felt the day you were issued your first helmet and company insignia?
I sure do. I donned my first officer’s helmet like it was a piece of fine china and constantly looked at myself in the mirror to see how I looked.
For me it wasn’t just a vain glance in the mirror—it was another way to “pinch” myself and realize I had achieved not just a personal goal or EMS certification, but the replication of a tradition that existed in the Heightman family.
My dad’s father was a respected member of an elite gas company rescue team that did mine rescue and responded to incidents involving coal-gas fumes. His brother, Joe, was a bus driver in Union, N.J., and an active member of the Union Fire Dept. and “first-aid” squad.
My dad idolized his older brother. When he was younger, he drove to New Jersey on most weekends to chase calls with him and soon “got the bug.” He then studied and took the test for the Scranton (Pa.) Fire Department, scoring 98%.
With encouragement from his brother, my dad championed the fire department’s leap into the delivery of ambulance service when a city hospital decided to get out of the business. He developed one of the most reputable fire service ambulance systems in the Commonwealth.
I got the ambulance bug at the age of 10 when my dad began to involve me in preparing and equipping newly purchased ambulances for active service. I helped mount equipment and held the small sheets of gold leaf as a professional painter/artist carefully took them from my hand and placed them on tacky paint that affixed them to the ambulance. You get really possessive of a vehicle and profession when you spend hours getting your “baby” ready for service.
It was at the same age that my dad also began taking me to work with him and along on calls. It was a time in my life I will never forget. I idolized my dad, respected what he did and wanted to follow in his footsteps. Despite eventually moving on to college, I kept up with EMS, obtained as many certifications as I could and aspired to be like him.
With that background, you’ll understand why I was so deeply saddened to learn that Kevin Woyjeck, the bright, handsome 21-year-old son of Los Angeles County Fire Deptartment Captain Joe Woyjeck, was one of the 19 wildland firefighters killed while fighting the out-of-control Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona this past month as a member of the elite Prescott Granite Mountain Hotshots team.
Kevin also grew up idolizing his dad and the profession that captured his heart and mind. He was working hard to realize his dream of becoming an LA County firefighter at the time of his death.
To be a highly qualified candidate, he served as an LA County Fire Explorer, became an EMT and served at CARE Ambulance to learn the craft of EMS, patient care and customer service. He studied fire sciences and achieved the status of not just wildland firefighter, but a member of the Hotshots—a fire team that was tasked with physically and mentally demanding firefighting assignments.
But Kevin was much more than just an aspiring firefighter. Behind the doors of the LA County Fire Museum, Kevin shadowed his dad while learning the history of the department as he worked on the rigs.
Kevin was also an important part of EMS history. He traveled the country with his dad and the museum staff to share Squad 51, the Dodge paramedic squad vehicle that Johnny and Roy made famous on the hit ’70s TV show Emergency!, with the masses.
Squad 51 is a vehicle that will be forever etched in our minds because of everything it did to advance our profession. And Kevin, the hardworking, dedicated son of Joe and Anna Woyjeck, and the 18 other brave Hotshots team members who perished with him in a valiant battle to save life and property, should also become etched in our minds.
Although Kevin was not a member of the LA County Fire Deptartment at the time of his death, he earned a spot in the department “family” and a warm spot in our hearts by his dedication to family, EMS and the fire service, and the wonderful example he and his colleagues set for generations of young, aspiring responders striving to succeed and provide quality public service to those in their most challenging and darkest moments.