Ohler, who was born in New Mexico, worked as an EMT and firefighter in Utah before moving to Houston six years ago. He is stationed at the West University Place Fire Department.
I’m not going to lie: I enjoy fighting fire. There’s an adrenaline rush—it’s exhilarating. I hate to say it, because property is being destroyed, and it is horrible when someone is displaced or when people or animals lose their lives. But in the midst of battle, I’m having a good time.
People look at us firefighters and paramedics and think we’re crazy. “Why would you give up your whole day to sit there and hope you make a call at two o’clock in the morning for someone?” But that’s the whole motivation. You have to have an altruistic nature, to want to help people. I thrive on that good feeling, to know that I made a difference in a person’s life today.
I started by getting my EMT basic training in 1997 and volunteering with Ute Tribe Ambulance, in northeast Utah. It is a fairly big reservation, and we were the only ambulance, so sometimes it would take an hour to respond to a call. We’d be on dirt roads, with people waiting for us who were really hurt, and it’s an awful feeling, because you’re it—you’re all they’ve got. Rural emergency work is tough. In 1998 I got certified for firefighting at the Utah Fire and Rescue Academy, and after volunteering for a year as a firefighter, I got a degree in fire science and then went to paramedic school. It’s a giant leap from basic to paramedic. You’re trained to do some advanced stuff, from cardiac support and tracheotomies—like you see on TV shows—to pediatric advanced life support.
I’ve been at West University Place for six years. The speed of West U. is a lot slower than other city stations—certainly slower than the Provo Fire Department, where I moved from, or some of Houston’s units, whose guys run twenty to thirty calls a day. You report to duty for your 48-hour shift at six-thirty a.m. You get your assignment of what apparatus—fire engine or ambulance—you’re going to be on, then put your gear on the truck and start checking all the equipment. Then come the daily duties: maintenance, cleaning, shopping for lunch, and waiting for calls. The station operates like a family. You hang out, play practical jokes on each other, end up forming lifelong friendships. And when you get a call, you rely on that camaraderie. You need to like each other and know what each person is capable of in order to make a call go safely. Between the engine and ambulance, we probably average five calls a day.
Sometimes when we get a call, like for a small car fire, we know it will be a good time. It’s easy. Other times, like with a high-rise, the first thought is “Holy crap. I hope I don’t die.” Fighting a fire is not like in the movies; they’ve got it all wrong. For one thing, when you’re inside a burning structure, you can hardly see. It’s thick, thick smoke, and it’s hot, and you just kind of stumble your way around and try to find the fire and the people in there. We have an organized way of doing that—we move in a certain pattern, and our priorities are to rescue, contain the fire, and ventilate the building, in that order—but every scene is chaotic. Period. It’s always chaos, and I’ve never met a firefighter who was fearless. We’ve all been in a situation where we’re not sure we’re going to go home.
I went to a hellacious house fire in Houston one time with several other crews. We started making our way into the structure, and as soon as we crossed the doorway, it was just intense heat. It immediately put us to the floor, and we had zero visibility. As we were going up the staircase, I happened to look back to grab the hose, and I noticed the fire was now licking around the staircase and coming up behind us. That’s a bad situation. You never want fire between you and the exit. And that’s when I crapped out. We were about twenty minutes into it, battling, humping hose, and I was just so tired. My arms were almost not usable anymore. The fire was still roaring at me, and I had to pass the nozzle to another guy. That’s when I started having serious thoughts of “This isn’t going well. I hope this works out.” And that’s scary.
In time you learn to conquer the fear. If you can control your anxiety, you function better, because you can think clearly. When I first started EMS, I was scared all the time. There’s no amount of training that can prepare you to react to each situation. You just have to plunge into it. And after you see a few bad things, you start to go, “Okay. That was okay. I did all right.” And you build on that. After a while, once you’ve seen a hundred dead people, you learn not to think about it too much. But some tragedies you never get over, especially ones involving kids. Or big ugly car accidents—I’ve always hated those. There are things you just can’t unsee, calls that bother me to this day. They kind of haunt me almost, calls that were so horrific or gruesome that those images never leave your mind.
And then there are the calls where you do get there in time. The CPR saves are always fantastic. They’re so rare too. The survival rate of out-of-hospital cardiac arrests is 1 or 2 percent; it’s awful. But we had a guy, a citizen here in West U., who suffered a heart attack. He wasn’t feeling well in the morning, and his wife was driving him to the hospital. They had made it about two blocks from the house when he went unconscious. We busted down there, pulled him out of the car, and did CPR. We shocked him and got him back; he started breathing. You have four to six minutes before you get irreversible brain damage, but we got there within that window. We transported him to the hospital, and they fixed his heart up. A week later the guy comes into the station and says, “Hey, thanks for saving my life.” He shook our hands and took a picture with us. I was like, “Dude. I saw you dead last week. And here you are, talking to me.”