Every badge has a story to tell

Tammy Bain can be reached at tammy.bain@nptelegraph.com

Interviewing our first responders taught me so much about their lives — and my life

My co-workers have written this before, but it rings truer than ever: we don’t forget tough news days.

I can still see parents hitting their knees on a private road because their 15-year-old son wasn’t going to walk away from his friend’s rolled car. I remember when dispatch called off a medical helicopter and other incoming units for a 16-year-old girl — already confirmed unresponsive — because additional units wouldn’t be necessary.

And I didn’t realize how much I’d remember those days until last month, when I tried to go to sleep an hour after hearing “DOA” on my phone’s scanner app. Though the accident was too far away given the time of night, I knew just what my next day’s assignment was. I’d later learn that man was a friend of both my dad and uncle.

But in the following days and weeks, as June became a month of six vehicle deaths and a number of hospital transports — I’ve lost count of just how many — our newsroom discussion kept coming back to the fact that on scene, we don’t often see what our first responders do.

At the scene of many major accidents, first responders often park a firetruck across the road to block spectators and the media from the worst. That firetruck also protects me from seeing what most of us hope we never have to see. Behind that firetruck are humans with families and lives, who see, and work the worst cases.

So I wanted to sit down with the first responders themselves, and ask what stays with them forever. What they remember when they, too, try and sleep.

Answer after answer shocked me. Instead of containing grisly details of guilt, triumph or tragedy, the guys behind the badges talked about sitting down after a call and talking out what could have been improved, as well as what worked. And after the toughest accidents? They offer support to one another, or just talk it out.

Many firefighters and law enforcement officers turn to their spouses, have a wide variety of hobbies and love on their families at home — without thinking of the latest victims. For saying I hate cliches, maybe I expected too many of them.

I was only in my second interview — with Investigator Charles Nichols for the Sheriff’s Department — that I felt the unintended result of this project. First responders were supposed to tell me their biggest experiences. Instead, they were giving advice, guiding this 20-something reporter through hard stories, whether they realized it or not.

Go home, they said. Be with your family. Turn off the scanner, both physically and mentally. Talk to your loved ones and coworkers about what bothers you, and don’t bottle it up.

On Friday, I felt some nerves about publishing this piece in light of unexpected national events. Would someone take it as a political statement? Should this wait?

But I realized that behind every badge are pieces of advice we can all take with us: Be with your families. Focus on your hobbies. Talk out the scary stuff, but turn off that bad news when needed — both physically and mentally.