While a lot of folks are counting out the days before Thanksgiving by sharing day-by-day what they’re thankful for, I’ve decided to summarize the past few weeks here as they have been some of the most challenging and rewarding times I’ve ever had in my life. Here’s to giving, receiving and thanks:
GIVING: Just a few weeks ago I was deployed with seven of my cohorts on the Western New York Incident Management Team (IMT) to assist in the response and recovery efforts related to the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy blowing through Long Island and New York City.
RECEIVING: As we were traveling through New York City on our way to our final destination at the Nassau County Emergency Operations Center (EOC) we were informed that they had absolutely no means of housing our eight-person team. There were no hotel rooms available within an hour or more of our work site and despite bringing cots and bedding with us, there was ‘no room at any inn.’
Thank God I have friends in the fire service throughout the state and country as it took just one phone call to Rob Leonard, a good friend and brother firefighter with the Syosset Volunteer Fire Department and public relations committee chair with FASNY, to find us a place to rest our heads. Despite being without power and heat at his own home, Rob connected us with their chief and commissioners to clear the way for us to bunk at their nicely appointed Woodbury Firehouse.
THANKS: Due to the widespread lodging shortage, Syosset accommodated us for the first three nights of our deployment. Warm beds and hot showers were a welcome relief at the end of the 14-18 hour days we were working. Without them we would have literally been left out in the cold. For their generosity, hospitality and brotherhood in the face of their own challenges – we THANK them.
GIVING: We were paired with an IMT from Minnesota and amongst other assignments, tasked with managing a receiving and distribution site for disaster relief supplies. I witnessed firsthand some of the worst hit areas in Queens, Brooklyn, Rockaway and other parts of Nassau and Suffolk Counties. Photos and TV stories don’t do justice to the devastation, the magnitude of the relief effort or the power of the human spirit as we saw example after example of the less fortunate stepping up to help the even less fortunate of those who were affected by this mega-storm.
Although we were officially operating there as part of New York State’s IMT, part of our personal mission was to ‘give back’ to those who had come from that end of the state when the small village of Gowanda NY was hit with a 100-year flood in 2009. Gowanda is situated in the southeastern portion of our Erie County with the largest part of the village being located in Cattaraugus County.
The incident required a large-scale activation of the New York State Fire Mutual Aid and Mobilization Plan which brought resources from almost every end of our state. The brotherhood of the fire service showed through brightly in the days and weeks that followed. Our being there for our fellow New Yorkers during Hurricane Sandy was just a small opportunity for us to pay it forward for all the assistance we received a few years back.
RECEIVING: A few days into our deployment my wife texted me to tell me that Jack, one of my best friends, was raking all the leaves in our yard and mowing the lawn with a push mower as my tractor was in the shop for repairs. That’s no small task as I have over an acre of open grass area. Jack is one of the hardest working people I know and he is always the first in line to help out anyone in need. Laurie yelled at him to stop but he just replied with: “He would do the same for me.”
THANKS: I was humbled by this seemingly small act and reminded of how fortunate I am to have people like Jack in my life, a good man and a great friend. I’m thankful for him and the other close friends we have to rely on, even when I’m not around, and even without being asked. That’s real friendship.
RECEIVING: I had been away from home for six days when the ringing of my cell phone jarred me awake in the middle of the night at the Syosset firehouse. On the other end was my wife Laurie telling me that our son Alex had just been in a horrific car accident and he was in our county’s trauma center. It was a parent’s worst nightmare.
She was by herself in the waiting room and no one had come out to update her on his condition. I made a phone call and got an emergency room nurse to come out and fill her in.
Knowing I was away on deployment, he was attempting to surprise his mom by coming home from college. What a surprise it was. For still unknown reasons, Alex’s car apparently slipped off a deep shoulder on the right side of the road, causing it to then jack hard to the left. His car reportedly went through a utility pole, off a tree, rolled several times and came to rest at the bottom of a ravine.
First arriving responders found him standing next to his overturned car, covered in blood, glass and gasoline – with live power lines down around him. His car was mangled and twisted, much of its outer skin torn right off, the front passenger seat twisted off its frame and the trunk and backseat unrecognizable. He was so drenched in gasoline that they could not fly him to the trauma center and he had to be transported by ground under the care of EMTs from the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation Volunteer Fire Department (CIRVFD).
By all accounts of those at the crash scene, he should not have survived.
Quite amazingly, his injuries were nothing compared to what the car had suffered. Ten hours later he was discharged from the hospital with a few stitches in his head, some under his chin, a few cuts on his back and the worst of it was that his eyelid had to be sewn up with dissolvable stitches on the inside. His eye was swollen, his face had suffered some road rash and he had a burn on his arm from an unknown origin. Other than those relatively superficial cuts, abrasions and bruises – he escaped unscathed. He didn’t break a single bone. A CT Scan confirmed there was no head injury and a later follow-up with an eye surgeon determined there was no damage to his eye itself.
Torn as to whether to jump on a plane and come home or stay and continue our important work, it was my amazing wife who convinced me to stay in Long Island. As she has to do every time there’s an emergency at home – and I’ve left home because there’s an emergency somewhere else – she handled it.
Two days later, Alex returned to his college classes. The stitches have been removed and his face has healed considerably. He feels lucky to be alive and is thankful for that.
THANKS: I often share my belief that those making the real sacrifices are not those who get up in the middle of the night and not those who leave the dinner table, but those who are left behind when we go to do what we love. Laurie is a living example of that. As is the nature of our business, I’m often needed somewhere else when she needs me most. I half-jokingly tell folks that the only thing she can consistently rely on me for – is to be unreliable. Yes, she is a saint.
I responded to a house fire with the CIRVFD the other night and took the opportunity to thank them for taking care of my son. The EMT-in-charge at the accident said he had asked my son his name while treating him in the back of the ambulance, and he responded with: “Alex Schmittendorf. And yes… Tiger is my father.” We laughed. I guess he gets that a lot.
I’m thankful that my son is alive and well and that I have a loving family and a growing list of friends who are there when you need them most. Those aren’t things you can put a price tag on, not even for a Black Friday Sale.
GIVING: There’s not much more that I love more than being a firefighter – and there’s not much I love about being a firefighter more than being the first-in nozzle man. We responded to a reported house fire this morning in our neighboring automatic aid district. As part of a four-man crew on our first-due engine, I grabbed the nozzle and the first few lengths of hose from the cross-lay, waiting for my partner to pick up the rest of the hose load before walking away from the engine. We stretched the line towards the front door of the house as the engine crew from the first-arriving home company put water on the fire in the attached garage, the apparent starting point.
We masked up at the front door and went inside. Looking through the thermal imager, the officer indicated that we had fire at the ceiling to our left and I opened the line briefly. We moved deeper in and quickly pushed the extending fire back towards the garage. Shutting down again, we transitioned to overhaul operations, pulling the drywall and insulation from the high peaked ceiling to expose any remaining fire. We ventilated the remainder of the first floor by opening windows and closing doors behind us. Simultaneously, we started to remove the resident’s personal effects from the kitchen and dining room areas to avoid further damage. Part of our crew went into the finished basement to check for extension and laid salvage tarps in any areas where water was leaking down through the ceiling.
What would normally be reveled as a quick stop on an intensive fire was overshadowed by the fact that the homeowner was a member of the home fire company where the fire occurred. There’s nothing to relish, nothing to celebrate in a good stop – when the affected are one of your own.
Her niece and nephew were home at the time of the fire and narrowly escaped, THANKS to working smoke detectors. She arrived home a short while later with a look of dismay at the extent of the damage to her home.
My partner and our officer consumed our air bottles and went to rehab as assigned. Sitting out at the street and taking the whole scene in for the first time, I was filled with a sense of sadness for someone who works so hard to help others.
When their chief came over to thank us for our hard work, I spontaneously took all the money I had out of my pocket and handed it to him. I suggested he pass a helmet around to the other firefighters on scene and take up a collection for his member who had lost almost everything. He took my suggestion by the horns and together we raised hundreds of dollars for her and her family, right there on the spot. That took away a little of the sting of the sadness of the day and also helped me put things in perspective.
THANKS: Through the seemingly minor challenges of our downstate deployment, the indescribable devastation of a major disaster, my son’s unbelievable survival of a seemingly un-survivable accident, other harsh challenges we’ve faced at home over the past year, and the sad reality of fire coming home to one of our own – I am once again reminded of the fact that no matter how bad of a day I think I’m having, I am always guaranteed that someone else is having a worse day than I am.
It also reminds me of how I blessed I am to have a career doing what I love, to work with a dedicated and fun group of professionals, to be surrounded by people I love and who love me, and to ‘receive’ the opportunity to give Thanks and Giving every day.
When I donned my helmet right before I went into that house fire this morning, I remembered my three-part risk management plan, to go home to the three names written under the back lid: Laurie, Kathleen and Alex.
Happy Thanksgiving everyone. May you have as much to be thankful for as I do.
Also on Tiger Schmittendorf …
- Train Your Replacement. Bob did. Paul does. – January 23, 2013
- My Friend. My Brother. Denny Allen. – December 17, 2011
- Video Killed the Recruitment Star – February 20, 2012
- Joining Forces – March 7, 2012