Colo. firefighter returns to duty after serious injury
After being thrown 30 feet in the air in June, Tom Albert has returned to light duty
By Mitchell Byars
The Daily Camera
BOULDER, Colo. — It was supposed to be a routine training session for Tom Albert, who has been fighting fires for 25 years.
Albert and other members of Boulder Fire Rescue were near the area of 17th Street and King Avenue on June 13 to do some wildland fire training.
"We were just going through what we would do in case there was a real fire," Albert said.
But what started out as just a drill turned into a real-life emergency when an accident with a fire hose threw Albert into the air, causing life-altering injuries that Albert has been battling since that day.
Albert returned to light duty last week, but his road to recovery is still a long one.
"I still have a long way to go injury-wise before I can do what I was doing the day before the accident," Albert said. "I'm probably not going to be back until April or May of next year."
But in the meantime, Albert has gotten some financial help as he continues to battle back from his injuries. Albert was one of 20 first-responders and 911 operators across the country to receive a $20,000 donation from OnStar, a subsidiary of General Motors that provides in-vehicle security and communications.
OnStar celebrated its 20th anniversary in September, and the company wanted to mark the milestone by giving back to the first responders who assisted so many of their customers in emergencies.
"We thought the best way to celebrate would be to give back to the public safety community which has been key to saving the lives of our subscribers over the past 20 years," said Catherine Bishop, the senior manager for OnStar. "We just felt so wonderfully about being able to give back to the public safety community and the under-appreciated public servants who we all rely on in our time of need. It's our privilege to give back."
Bishop said the company looked through applicants to find first responders who had been injured either in the line of duty or while training.
"In many cases, we found the nominees were battling their way back against a lot of odds," Bishop said.
Albert, who was nominated by a lieutenant in his department, fit the description perfectly.
On the day he was injured, Albert was helping to run hoses between two fire engines as crews prepared to train for wildfires. But for some reason, the hose that ran between the two engines wasn't long enough as one of the engines drove toward a water source.
"It became a tug of war between the two engines," Albert said. "When it reached its max capacity, it broke loose from behind me and the recoil from all that came at me like a rubber band."
The hose hit Albert in the back, launching him into the air higher than the engine and about 30 feet away. He said he doesn't remember much about being hit by the hose, but he remembers that when he came to a stop on the ground he knew it was serious.
"I don't remember the going through the air part," he said. "I just remember tumbling on the ground and figuring out I was hurt pretty bad."
After surgery and months of gruelling physical therapy, Albert finally returned to work on Oct. 6. He still can't do any real physical work, but his doctors have allowed him to do some light desk work and brush up on his online training.
"They all said that putting in a few hours of a day at the office would be good for me mentally," Albert said. "I'm trying to get back into the game mentally to get my brain firing and thinking about firefighting."
He's still far from returning to full firefighting, and he is still only spending a few hours a week back in the office in between physical therapy sessions. And he still has setbacks here and there, as he was told at a recent session to take a few days off after some medical issues arose. But Albert is determined to come all the way back.
"I can't wait to get back to full duty," he said. "I enjoy working with the citizens of Boulder, and I just miss that community, but this is the start."
Albert said the $20,000 will help with medical bills as well as help offset the amount of unpaid leave his wife has had to take to help him through his recovery.
"This is really going to help subsidize her salary that's been missing, which will help us get the bills paid," he said. "I can't thank them enough for picking me. I'm very fortunate and very grateful."
Bishop said they chose Albert partially to remind people that, even when training, first responders are putting their lives and careers on the line.
"It was a horrific circumstance with the training exercise," she said. "It really reiterates that danger is not only confronting these heroes on the road, but when they are doing training. We wanted to acknowledge just the overall risk of the job."
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