Life (And Death) In The Fast Lane – Part 1

Dennis L. Rubin introduces a series of articles on firefighter safety by recounting a real-life “emotional roller coaster ride.”


At 2:29 A.M. on March 13, 2001, my home telephone rang at the same time the shrill tone of the pager urged my attention. What was so important that both electronic devices had to be used to get the fire chief out of bed? Photo courtesy of Norfolk Fire-Rescue Two Norfolk, VA...


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At 2:29 A.M. on March 13, 2001, my home telephone rang at the same time the shrill tone of the pager urged my attention. What was so important that both electronic devices had to be used to get the fire chief out of bed?

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Photo courtesy of Norfolk Fire-Rescue
Two Norfolk, VA, firefighters survived after being struck by a car while they were working at the scene of a car fire on an interstate highway. The author's account of a real-life "emotional roller coaster ride" that followed the accident sets the stage for this new series of articles on firefighter safety.

I had no doubt that something big (major incident of some type) was brewing. In the previous seven years, I could not recall having this one-two punch hit me in the middle of sleep hours; it was a little like being back on shift. The dispatcher on the telephone was professional in tone and very much to the point. "Fire 1!" (the department's radio designation for the chief). "Yes," I responded to her voice. The dispatcher continued, "Two firefighters have been struck on Interstate 64 and they have been trauma alerted to the hospital."

The pager message seemed to want to confirm what the voice just told me and I tried not to believe either messenger. The digital words confirmed what could become the chief's worst nightmare and fear. The words were undeniable and haunting - "Two members struck by an auto on I-64. They are enroute to Norfolk General at this time." As I was rapidly getting dressed to report to the emergency room, the phone rang for a second time that hectic early morning. This time the voice on the other end of the line was familiar, but was just as blunt as the first person who had called minutes earlier.

One of the on-duty battalion fire chiefs, Marsha Hawkins, was calling me to make sure that I got the very important news and to provide me with an update of the status of our two members. She told me that Firefighter Nick Nelson was in critical condition and may not survive the hour. The other member, Firefighter Milton Odem, was banged up a bit, but would be just fine after a short recovery period.

As my heart was pounding through my chest, I responded to the hospital. It seemed like an eternity before I arrived there to be with my wounded firefighter and brother Nick Nelson. For the past two days, he had attended a command safety seminar at the Fire Training Center with me. Nelson was an excellent firefighter and good (same hometown) friends with one of my aides, Lieutenant (now Captain) John DiBacco (see page 115). Losing him would be extra difficult to deal with for the department and me.

At The Hospital

The scenes in the ER were just what I expected for a trauma alert situation that I have come to know all to well in my 31 years of service. I could only describe the trauma treatment area as organized chaos or perhaps emergency medical poetry to the trained eye. About a dozen of Tidewater Virginia's best doctors and nurses were attending to and surrounding Nelson when I walked into the treatment bay.

My thoughts wandered into what actions I needed to take right away to be of best help to my critically injured warrior. My first thoughts were to start notifications of his family, to make sure that our union president and our governing body were aware of this tragic situation. I remembered that a lot of work had to be completed to protect Nelson's public safety officer death benefits to ensure that his family would be taken care of financially. It was difficult to believe that our department was going to lose an outstanding young member in the line of duty in such a needless way, while I was at the helm. Simply heartbreaking, maybe this was just a nightmare (a very bad dream)!

As I fought my way up to his bedside to say goodbye to a fellow firefighter that I had just met at a command conference, my chest grew tight and breathing became difficult. When I jockeyed into position for an unobstructed view, I realized that he was not on a ventilator (which I was sure that had to be in place by now). That was a surprise. Next, I noticed that he was moving his legs and my thoughts changed just a little; maybe there was a glimpse of hope for him to make it through this tragedy.

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