Why I’m an EMT

I became an EMT because of natural disasters I witnessed in the Bay Area.

In 1989, I was in an office building near the epicenter of the Loma Prieta earthquake, and saw things happen to furniture, cars, trees, and people that I had never imagined. Driving home on surface streets through the blacked out cities of the East Bay, I saw how the quake had killed and injured people on the highways and bridges I used every week. When I got home, most of the contents of my kitchen lay smashed on the floor.

Two autumns later, an urban wildfire raged through north Oakland. It was another surreal experience. Furniture, screen doors, and telephone books rained down in my backyard from a plume of orange smoke bent low over the neighborhoods by a rare northeastern wind. These items had been sucked up by the rising heat of a thousand houses on fire, like Dorothy’s house was sucked up by the tornado in “The Wizard of Oz.”

I had just finished packing my truck to evacuate when the wind shifted, allowing firefighters to stop the blaze on the edge of my neighborhood.

While researching these events, I learned that there would be more like them, and worse. I vowed to myself that I would not be a victim. I would prepare myself to help others. So I moved out of the city to West Marin, and began learning firefighting and first aid. I also started working harder and saving more, so that I could create a safe haven in the countryside for my family and friends.

Fast-forward to 2005. My wife Antoinette and I moved to Boonville full-time that year. We were volunteering at the Old Time Fourth of July Party, as was my friend Tex Sawyer. I mentioned my intention to join the fire department, and Tex pointed out that Anderson Valley Ambulance also needed people – sometimes more urgently than the fire department. Plus, he added, Antoinette could join as well. She was not interested in firefighting, but she might consider driving an ambulance.

Tex was right (as usual). Soon Antoinette and I were both qualified to drive the ambulance when a 911 call went out. Once we had adjusted our lives to that, I was able to join the fire department too. Carrying a pager or radio around all the time was an obligation, but one that felt good. I was keeping a promise to myself.

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A couple months after I completed my firefighting training, a chance came to use it. On June 20, 2008, dry lightning lit hundreds of fires in Mendocino County. The first local blaze was spotted on Grizzly Peak that evening. I rode up there with Jim Minton and Dennis Toohey. We met a crew from Calfire and spent six smoky hours dousing flames. During quieter moments, when we were waiting for the next water truck, we could hear reggae beats wafting up from the World Music Festival at the fairgrounds.

It was another surreal experience with a natural disaster. But this time nature was playing rough in the countryside, not the big city. My preparation to help others turned out to be useful right here in Mendo.

Antoinette earned her EMT license in 2009, and that changed my appreciation for how much the ambulance service means to people here. It also came clear that this community needs more EMTs to staff the ambulance on a sustainable basis. I saw people burning out, taking too many shifts. So I got an EMT license too.

That made us a two-EMT household, which means Antoinette and I can cover for each other, share shifts, and help each other with training and licensing. Those are good things. But the need for EMTs has not gone away. I am on call for the ambulance a lot more than I thought I would be. So is Antoinette. But if we catch a cold or leave town for some reason, other EMTs will step up and cover the open shifts. That’s the sign of a great team: someone always gets the job done.

It’s the same with the health center, education foundation, senior center, housing foundation, radio station and all the other non-profits we have here. Someone is always showing up to keep a vital piece of our community alive. It’s an honor to stand with them, and if you’re not already doing too much, we’d love you to join us as an EMT with Anderson Valley Ambulance. When more of us pitch in, it’s easier for everyone to stay safe and healthy!

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