Fire – an EMS student perspective | Guest Column

Submitted by Kevin Ranker

[Thursday] was exhausting, emotional… and totally inspiring.

The day began at 6:26 [that] morning when I received a text from the San Juan EMS Administrator asking if any current EMS students could respond to Friday Harbor for “a major fire.” He explained that crews had already been there for hours and they could use help with “rehab.” I had no idea what rehab at a major fire consisted of but I remember thinking… if they’re asking us for help, this must be major.

By 7 a.m. I was on the water (thanks to John and Maia) and on my way to San Juan Island. I was on the phone with my wife as I came down San Juan Channel from the north toward Friday Harbor. She was asking me if it looked serious to get an idea of how long I’d be gone. At the time, as the wind was coming from the north and blowing the smoke away from me low in the sky, I could barely see any smoke and was just saying maybe it wasn’t as bad as I thought… and then, then I rounded into the bay and saw flames high into the air and smoke billowing up and over town.

Once I docked the boat and arrived on scene I learned quickly that “rehab” is the designated area where the firefighters who have just literally come out of a burning building must come to check-in so that we can take their vitals and make sure they are ok. They rest for a mandatory period of time, get fluids and food, and then we clear them to go back… and do it all again.

As many have discussed today, the horrific loss for many of our neighbors due to this catastrophe is extreme. Some of our friends and neighbors lost their entire businesses and some… their dreams, but thank God, no one was hurt. Over the next days and weeks, we must all do whatever we can to support our neighbors who lost so much today.

What can also however not be understated is the remarkable and tireless dedication of the men and women who responded – for hours and hours and hours! This fire was tackled and contained before doing even more damage by dedicated professionals and dozens of volunteers.

When I arrived shortly after 7 a.m., crews from San Juan Island Fire, San Juan Island EMS, Orcas Island Fire and Rescue, and Lopez Fire had already been on scene for hours and we were not slowing down. Instead, they were recommitting again and again with shift after shift of tireless effort. To watch the clockwork coordination and complete commitment between these different agencies made up of a majority of volunteers was enough to make anyone tear up and pause in awe.

In rehab, this kind and remarkably dedicated neighbors of ours would come in soaking wet, exhausted, heated and covered with soot… and all they wanted to do was get back to do more as quickly as we’d let them.

It also must be stated that while every Islander has cursed our ferries in recent months, today was an important reminder that while the system has flaws, our Washington State Ferry employees are dedicated public servants who will drop everything to do what they can to help us in a time of need. Early this morning, Washington State Ferries did drop everything to make sure that crews and equipment were able to come from other islands to respond. And, the local Friday Harbor Washington State Ferries personnel made sure everyone on scene had access to their restrooms and that ferry traffic was managed every time a ferry offloaded directly into this situation.

And then… every single restaurant and store from the Golden Triangle to Market Chef to Kings began delivering tray after tray after tray of food and coffee and water to the scene and asking if there was absolutely anything else they could do.

Submitted by Kevin Ranker

Then, when you thought you’d seen every sense of how incredibly powerful community could be… a ferry worker pulls me aside and says, “we’ve got more fire trucks coming off this boat, where should they go?” Well obviously, I was not the one to ask, but I thought to myself… what other freakin island has a fire crew to send over?!? Waldron?

And that is when I look up and saw Skagit County and Burlington Fire coming off the ferry to relieve our local crews – many of whom at that point had been going non-stop for eight and nine hours. These firefighters from the mainland dropped what they were doing, drove to Anacortes and got on the ferry for over an hour so they could spend hours on San Juan Island, fighting a fire away from their own communities… to make sure our exhausted fire and EMS could rest. This is when I got tears in my eyes.

I left the scene early afternoon thinking that our EMS class that was scheduled to begin at 5PMand go until 9 p.m. would surely be canceled since our main instructor and everyone else who lectures for us had been on scene working this fire since 4 a.m. and had already had a busy night on calls before that.

When I asked our instructor… she smiled and laughed and said… “see you in class!”

I left and realized it was not worth trying to go back to Orcas and return for only a few hours later so I went to the station to rest and try to get caught up on work that had been put off the entire day.

When I walked into the station, all of those same incredible restaurants had begun delivering food to the station to make sure that when these remarkable superheroes came back, they could enjoy some exceptional food while they waited for their next call to come in and they would go help someone else.

A couple of hours later our instructor and others came back and began teaching an inspiring, captivating and fully engaging lesson on how to deliver a baby in the field if you have to and can’t get mom to a hospital.

I sat in class with the other students and am sure I wasn’t alone in simply being awestruck at the dedication of our fire and EMS professionals and volunteers on each of our islands (and the mainland) and everyone else who rallied on San Juan Island to simply help their friends and their community.

And… it struck me once again how truly fortunate we are to live where we do. The powerful sense of community I’ve witnessed today was an unbelievable and a crystal clear example that… we live in a very very special place.