Zac Unger

In the beginning it was all pole, all the time. When the bell went off, I’d come flying out of my bunk and hit the pole running, sprint to the rig and … wait. It didn’t take me long to realize that most of the old-timers always take the stairs. The truth is that the pole is hard on the body. It burns your arms on the way down and jams your knees when the floor arrives. Not to mention that in half-sleep I often fail to get a good grip or else let go a little early and hit the ground harder than I care to. I still generally take the pole, but mostly because I feel like a firefighter should, and since people always ask, I’d hate to let them down. When I tell people about the stair option, they’re often surprised that we even have stairs. I guess they think that we shinny back up the pole after a run.

If it were not for alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drugs, I might be out of a job. Every day I have the potential for wild excitement, but more often I’m called out to help someone who has fallen afoul of his or her particular vice. I get to use the Jaws of Life to tear cars apart because most car accidents are set in motion at a bar. Shootings and stabbings are the result of drug deals gone bad or boozy arguments. And I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to ask someone to put out their cigarette so I can give them oxygen for their asthma attack.

Yesterday I saw the twin extremes of the drug problem. We got called out to Oakland’s fanciest downtown hotel. Usually we go there because the desk staff wants us to roust a drunk who’s fallen asleep near the front door. But this time a security guard led us through the lobby and into the elevator. He turned his key next to the “penthouse” button, and when we got to the top, the doors opened to what I imagine Robert Downey Jr.’s life must look like. The suite was a mess: Broken bottles of liquor were lying in the sink, a bloody pillowcase was on the floor, and the whole place smelled of vomit and pizza. Two supermodel types with vacant expressions were lounging on a couch, and I couldn’t help but wonder what was going wrong in their lives that they had ended up like this, in Oakland of all places. The object of our attention was a man of about 35, with very nice (but freshly soiled) slacks and enough oil in his hair to solve the power crisis. He was sitting on the bathroom floor, leaning up against the toilet with his head rolled back. When I checked him I saw that he was breathing maybe twice a minute, and his pupils were pinpoint small—classic signs of heroin overdose. I pride myself on my diagnostic skills, but the needle still dangling out of his arm wasn’t a bad clue either.

Heroin overdose is an easy one. I put a short tube in his mouth, just long enough to tickle the back of his throat and deliver some oxygen. One injection of Narcan to his shoulder, and there was nothing to do but breathe for him and wait. Narcan goes straight to the chemical receptors where heroin is received and blocks them out. True to form, in about two minutes our playboy started waking up, gagging on the tube, and cussing us out for stealing his high. Another satisfied customer.

About an hour after that call we were sent to a grimy, urine-smelling park three blocks from the hotel, a place used exclusively by dealers and homeless people. A young guy was lying on a park bench, and somebody told us that he’d been “stuck in the ass.” It didn’t look too bad. Just your average ass stabbing, I guess. I took some gauze and tape and started to apply pressure, but he swatted my hand away and started whispering to a guy standing next to him. I tried again: same result, more whispering. One of the beauties of being a firefighter is that I am emphatically not a cop. It doesn’t much matter to me who stabbed who or who’s been selling what. I told the guy as much, and also that if I didn’t get a chance to stop the bleeding and start an IV soon, he’d really be in trouble. A little more whispering, and the truth emerged. It turned out that his butt was not just an injured body part, but also a rich warehouse of tiny Ziploc baggies full of crack. He wanted to make sure they were secure before he went to the hospital or to jail. I told him to do whatever he wanted, as long as I could get to work soon. So he lowered himself to the ground, knelt in front of the bench, and offered his bleeding rear up to his friend. I gave the friend a pair of gloves and, like it was the most normal thing in the world, he went to work extricating the booty. Problem solved. The friend disappeared into the night, and the patient was compliant as could be. We did what we needed to, loaded him up onto the ambulance, and sent him on his merry way.

One paramedic I know had business cards printed that read, “Removing the sick and injured from the public eye since 1987.” We’re just another link in the massive social-welfare machine, fighting an uphill battle against urban decay. Occasionally we respond to the mansions in the hills, but the flatlands are our bread and butter. In an odd way, this never-ending struggle against poverty and despair is heartening. We are the closest thing to universal health care that may ever exist in this country. No matter your income, education, or tragic history, call 911 and in three minutes four highly skilled firefighters in a gleaming, half-million-dollar engine will pull up at your door. A lot of people call us because they can’t afford a cab to the hospital. A lot of people go to the hospital just because they want a hot meal and some attention. It doesn’t matter, we don’t make judgments. They call, we respond.