You’ve seen them racing by in their brilliant red rescue trucks. You’ve watched them on the news being recognized for their heroic bravery. But have you ever stopped and really thought about who these brave men and women are that work as firefighters and paramedics and how much they do for our city?
I recently had the pleasure of speaking with one of Birmingham’s firefighters and rescue paramedics – Derrek Oldham. As a firefighter with Cahaba Valley Fire since 1998 and a paramedic with the City of Hoover since 1992, Derrek has over 20 years of experience as a firefighter and rescue paramedic.
As you can probably imagine, becoming a firefighter and rescue paramedic is no easy task. It requires hard work, long hours of training, and dedication and a sincere desire to help others. So you have to wonder what makes a person want to be in this line of work. This is, of course, the first question I ask Derrek during our chat.
“It was a long time ago,” says Derrek.
He draws out the o in the word “long” to emphasize he’s been in the profession for more than just a few years.
During an Eagle Scout Day that was held in Birmingham, each Eagle Scout had to pick a profession and be assigned a mentor. The mentor’s job was to teach their student(s) the steps to follow in order to go into that profession. Derrek chose firefighting and medical care.
“It was when I was a kid in Boy Scouts. I was interested in first aid. I wanted to help folks.”
You’ve probably noticed that firefighters are the first to show up to an emergency – a car accident, for example. But have you ever wondered why that is? Derrek says it’s because in order to be a firefighter, you have to be a jack of all trades. You have to know how to fight a fire, yes, but you are also required to have a certain level of paramedic training.
“The fire department is always the first one to be called,” Derrek says. “For everything.”
He continues to run down a broad list of situations a firefighter has to be prepared for. He mentions busted pipes, women in labor, fires, gas spills, floods, tornadoes. He even includes animals on his list.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to remove an animal from a home,” says Derrek. “I’ve had to remove a lot of snakes from homes. And possums.”
I can hear him start to find humor in what he is saying and almost a sense of disbelief at some of the things he has had to do as a firefighter.
“Possums?” I question. I start to laugh then and so does he. “Why isn’t animal control called for something like that?”
“Because… firefighters are called first for everything,” he states again.
How do firefighters learn so many things? While Derrek says there is a lot of learning on the job, there is also a great deal of training.
“You cannot expect to be proficient without training,” says Derrek. “People misunderstand, thinking firemen just sit around when there isn’t an emergency happening. But there’s a lot more to it.”
I learn that all firefighters are trained in many areas, including:
- EMS training from Basic EMT to Paramedic
- Technical rescue
- Delivering babies
- Home inspections or smoke dector installation
- Proper installation of car seats
But I also learn about the day-to-day life of a firefighter and rescue paramedic. They have to perform safety checks on the fire trucks and equipment to ensure everything is working properly for when an emergency does occur. They have to ensure expiration dates are good on all paramedic supplies. They have to clean their station from top to bottom, inside and out. They are also expected to perform business checks around town to make sure things are up to code and even have to check and paint fire hydrants in their precinct a couple times a year. It’s organized structure, almost military.
Along with all of their daily duties and safety checks, they also have to work out every day in order to stay physically fit and do their job successfully.
“Your equipment can weigh anywhere between 50 and 75 pounds, plus whatever you are having to carry (hoses, tools, paramedic supplies, victims),” says Derrek. “You have to be in shape.”
He’s done so many things over the course of his career as a firefighter. Things that most would never imagine doing. He’s delivered babies. He’s rappelled down bridges to save the lives of those trapped in overturned cars. He’s done very scary things that you have to be incredibly brave and highly trained to handle.
I ask Derrek if he has had any moments on the job where he was truly scared.
“Oh yeah!” is his answer.
With such an immediate response, I settle in for some interesting stories.
“It was the first fire of the year 2000 on January 1. A little after midnight,” Derrek starts. “We went in. I found the victim. Got her out. As soon as I got her out, the building collapsed.”
My eyes widen at his words. That kind of situation isn’t just scary; it was an incredibly close call. An escape of death or severe injury.
Derrek continues on with another emergency call he was on that is just as alarming.
“We were in a house fire where the house held a lot of ammunition. We didn’t know it until it started going off. It was like dangerous popcorn.”
He can tell I am somewhat alarmed by the events by the gasp I let out. And he instantly reassures me that,
“It sounds a lot worse than it was.”
His reassurance reaffirms the strength and mask of bravery that firefighters must often face on the job. Luckily, when working as a firefighter, you have a team behind you at all times. There’s proof in this by how Derrek tells his stories. How he uses the word “we” when talking about fighting a fire, propelling over the side of a bridge for a rescue or performing paramedic procedures on a victim.
This “we” he refers to is his unit, his team.
“It’s a brotherhood, a camaraderie,” says Derrek. “It’s a family.”
He continues to say, “It’s good to know that all these people have your back. You bond through hardships, whether yours or another’s. You take care of each other.”
For many firefighters, the profession is one that often runs in the family. You’ll hear things like, “I’m a firefighter, my father was a firefighter, and so was my grandfather.” But for Derrek, the tradition has started with him. While Derrek’s firefighting teammates have become like family to him, his son decided to follow in his footsteps and become a firefighter too.
“You always want your child to have more than you did, so when he told me he wanted to become a firefighter, I wasn’t expecting it,” says Derrek. “But then I thought about what I do…” He pauses, thinking his words over. “…I love my job. It’s rewarding on a level you don’t fully realize. I never went to work. If you do something you love, you never work a day in your life. I loved every minute of it.” He goes back to talking about his son being a firefighter and says, “I’m proud of him.”
After 20+ years as a firefighter and rescue paramedic, Derrek will retire at the end of January 2018.