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‘We carry the images, sounds and smells around us for the rest of our lives’

Following the hardest of calls, we hope to always circle back to the positive impacts that we have when we are able to make that save


Assistant Chief Allison Taylor and her son, Parker.

Photo/Courtesy of Allison Taylor

By Allison Taylor

I hear the tones and see in the CAD notes that a 14-year-old is a suspected fatality – suicide. Although it’s not in my response district, we’re a small town and it’s still terrifying to hear. This is the second suicide of the day – the first was an adult.

My 18-year-old son, Parker, is not only a volunteer with my fire department, but he also volunteers with our county rescue squad. In our county, the rescue squad is responsible for bagging and transporting fatalities to the morgue. My son responded to both calls that day.

Until my son joined the squad, I didn’t pay quite as much attention to the body pickups. But now, I know he’s being exposed to those images at such a young age. It’s bad enough for those of us who are older and have fewer years to live with what we have seen. However, I’m also proud that he feels called to serve the community.

Bagging and transporting is a necessary service and not one that everyone is mentally capable of handling, especially under more traumatic circumstances such as these. And it’s not just the images but also the sights and sounds of the grieving family members. In the case of this child, the mother was on site, in an incredibly emotional state, understandably. That’s a lot to take in for anyone, even as a first responder. Whether young or old, new or seasoned, it’s never an easy task. It’s a glimpse into the extremely vulnerable side of the death of a loved one, especially one lost way too soon. An example of the horrific tragedy that we see on this job.

After the child’s body pickup, our rescue squad and police department held a critical incident stress debriefing, with mental health professionals called in from neighboring counties. I am happy that mental health is being taken seriously, that resources are offered, and that there is a mutual understanding of the challenges in seeing what we see.

When Parker returned home, I wanted to give him a hug, but he had fluid on his clothing and instead needed to shower. I struggled to sleep that night, with my thoughts churning around the adult from earlier in the day, the child and his family, and what my son must now add to his mental processing. Plus, there’s the flood of my own memories that floated to the surface.

I think we can all agree that we join emergency services to help people, and many times, we do. However, we still must carry the images, sounds and smells around us. For the rest of our lives. As much I as love the opportunity to volunteer alongside my son in fire and rescue, it also is concerning to see these exposures so early in life. I find solace in knowing that even for these challenging types of calls, the services that first responders provide are a necessity and an asset to our community. And, we are still helping, even if not in a way that makes anyone feel good.

Following these calls, life must go on, as we still have new calls to take. We may try to compartmentalize or bury what we see on those bad calls, yet we must also try to remember to celebrate the good calls. As we pass houses that we’ve responded to, scars in the road, hear certain sounds or notice specific smells, we live with the never-fading memories of our past calls. We hope to always circle back to the positive impacts that we have when we are able to make that save.

For those who do struggle, my hope is that you will never forget that you are not alone. There are resources available, and professionals who are trained to help us navigate what we do. Seek out those leaders who are always willing to lend a hand and an open ear. Ask a peer or supervisor for assistance in connecting with local support services. And, if you see someone struggling, be kind and patient. Offer to walk with them through a path to getting help. There is no shame in struggling when we are exposed to the ugly side of life and death. There is an entire community of first responders who have also walked in those shoes, and who want to help others on their journey. We owe it to those like my son who have many years ahead to carry the burden of what we do, and to those who have started well before us.

About the author

Assistant Chief Allison Taylor is a volunteer with North Transylvania Fire Rescue in Pisgah Forest, N.C. In addition to being the assistant chief, Taylor is also the vice chair and treasurer of the department’s board of directors. Her certifications include Firefighter II, Wildland Firefighter, Technical Rescue, Technical Rescue: Machinery & Agriculture, Land Search Team Field Member, FLSE, and Instructor II. Her son, Parker Taylor, is certified as Firefighter II and Technical Rescue, and is about to complete his Wildland Firefighter certification.