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Book excerpt: ‘Flash Point: A Firefighter’s Journey Through PTSD’

What happens when the sights, sounds and smells from tragedy become too much to bear


The following excerpt is from the prologue of “Flash Point: A Firefighter’s Journey Through PTSD” by Fire Captain (ret.) Christy Warren. After working for years as a paramedic and firefighter, Warren faces her greatest challenge of all – PTSD. Her path to healing requires her to ask for help and draw on her deepest resources to save one last life: her own.

Warren is speaking at the Convergence 2023 conference in Denver, Oct. 12-15, 2023.

The heat of the afternoon intensified the smell of asphalt as I stepped out of the ambulance onto the two-lane highway. A sea of flashing red lights from several emergency vehicles encased the head-on accident. Firefighters scrambled, setting up equipment to tear open the car to remove the trapped occupants. Police officers asked questions and carefully made measurements, investigating the accident scene to determine what happened. A witness said the driver had drifted right, then overcorrected and crossed the centerline, just in front of a pickup truck traveling fifty-five miles per hour.


The two vehicles collided with enough force to tear her aorta. Her heart may have beat one more time after impact, but there wouldn’t have been any blood to pump. The front end of her car was a mangled pile of crushed engine parts and the passenger compartment reduced to half its original size. The boy in the front seat, her four-year-old son, somehow alive, was the first one to be removed. There was barely room for me to crawl through the passenger side, over the center console, and into the back seat. My task was to handle her twelve-year-old son in the back seat. I had to keep him calm, while firefighters used hydraulic cutters, spreaders, and rams to rip and cut away the metal wreckage trapping him inside.

“Maaoom!” The boy screamed to his silent and still mother. There were no sentences or questions, just screaming.

His femur was broken completely through the skin, but his screams were only for his mother. The more he screamed and fought to get out, the more his femur separated. Amazed he could move his leg at all, I sat in the back seat perpendicular to him and struggled with him as he attempted to crawl through the center console. His royal blue shorts and white socks wicked at the blood.

His mother’s head was tilted to the right at such an angle that her long brown hair lightly spread across my shoulder and my bare arm.

We finally peeled the car away from the boy. He continued to scream for his mom and thrash as we wrestled him onto the backboard and into the leg splint. He was put into an ambulance, while his mom was left behind in the front seat of her car.

The four-year-old ended up in the back of my ambulance. He was wrapped on a kid-size backboard with gauze around his head, his face flattened from hitting the dashboard. Only one of his eyes followed me as I maneuvered next to him.

“Where is my mom? Where is my mom?” he asked over and over, his jaw barely moving, as we sped to the hospital.

When we arrived, we handed off the little boy to the orchestrated chaos of the emergency room. He continued to ask for his mom. I didn’t stay to listen to what they told him, if they told him anything. I just carried the EKG monitor and the oxygen tank back to my office on four wheels.

It would all be removed—the IV, EKG, and EKG patches; the gauze packaging, the plastic caps, and the gloves; the pieces of tape and suction tubing turned red. The blood would be cleaned from the floor of my ambulance where the boy had been. The blood on my uniform pants would come out in the wash.

But the silence from the front seat and the screams from the back seat would remain forever.


Christy Warren early in her career.

I was nineteen years old, an emergency medical technician, working for a private ambulance company. On any given day for the next twenty-five years of my career as a paramedic and a firefighter, whenever I smelled hot asphalt, my skin sensed that woman’s hair on my arm and heard her boy’s screams. No one ever taught me how to calm a twelve-year-old howling for his mother, who sat dead in the seat in front of him. No one prepared me to answer a four-year-old’s questions about where his mom was, when she was so entangled in metal they had no other choice but to leave her body in the car as they towed it away. I convinced myself it was in his best interest to tell him my colleagues were helping her. Later I’d realize it was as much for him as it was for me.

The common expectation when a loved one goes to work or to the grocery store is that they’ll come home. But sometimes they don’t, and that’s when I show up.

I was there, for example, after a father went to buy a gallon of milk and misjudged a turn, wrapping his car around a tree, ending his life. His son became fatherless and his wife a widow.

Day after day, I would run a call like this, listen to screams, and get my hands covered in blood and brains and vomit. After the response was complete and my job was done, I placed the wreckage in a box in my head and went to the next call or decided between tacos or a sandwich for lunch. Just like I’d done with the mother and her two little boys, I put each experience in the box, closed the lid, and continued my job.

Until one day the box got too full, the lid flew open, and the insides blew all over everything.

“Flash Point: A Firefighter’s Journey Through PTSD”
She Writes Press
© June 2023

Christy Warren is a retired fire captain with the Berkeley (California) Fire Department. She has 25 years of service as a professional paramedic, with 17 years as a professional firefighter. Warren was diagnosed with PTSD in 2014 and retired from the fire service in 2016. Since retiring from the fire service, Warren has completed a triathlon and earned a bachelor’s degree in business from Washington State University. She is a volunteer at the West Coast Post Trauma Retreat and works as a substitute teacher at Juvenile Hall in Martinez. Warren hosts the Firefighter Deconstructed podcast, exploring how a career in the fire service can affect firefighters’ mental and emotional health.