I saw the flashing lights up ahead, beyond my turn: an ambulance and a fire truck. I craned my neck to see what had happened, but the emergency vehicles blocked any view of details. I parked at my bank and got out of the car, walking carefully on the ice in high heels as I hefted Sofia in the car seat carrier. As I stepped onto the sidewalk, I heard the spine-chilling sound of sirens approaching, heading toward the incident that was now out of sight. Pausing, I turned toward the highway. Police car? Another ambulance? I wavered, hesitant to go about my business when an emergency was occurring just down the road.
Reluctantly, I pulled my focus away from the sirens and turned back toward the building. As I did, I noticed several people in the parking lot. All were doing normal people things. Walking with a cup of coffee to their cars. Wrestling children into car seats. Talking to a friend while maneuvering along the icy sidewalks. Chatting on a phone. One man glanced curiously at me, his expression indicating mild concern. Nobody looked toward the sirens; it was my own interest, not the life-and-death drama nearby, that was causing puzzlement.
I find this attitude hard to adapt to. When I was growing up, I lived in a small town — a really small town. Three hundred people, approximately, including the one hundred or so distributed across three communes that made up the core of the town’s only regularly-attended church. At a guess, I’d say a quarter of the men and most of the high school boys (and a couple of girls) in the commune, as well as quite a few from the rest of the village, were members of the volunteer fire department. Others were paramedics and ambulance drivers. Whenever these volunteers weren’t at work, a pager would ride belts and jacket pockets. It wasn’t terribly unusual for a church service, communal meal, or morning devotions to be interrupted by the high-pitched jabbering beeps of several pagers in chorus, followed by a staticky announcement of the location and nature of the emergency. The room would go still as everyone froze to hear what was happening. And then, mass exodus ensued as people rushed for jackets, grabbed keys, and hurried to cars, some to man the fire truck or ambulance, others to go directly to the scene of accident.
The volunteers in the commune’s high school obtained permission to carry pagers in class because the fire department was so short-staffed. Depending on volunteers for the entire staff, except the chief (at that point, my youngest uncle; he now trains other emergency responders), meant that it was hard to hold on to able-bodied members, so the high school kids added valuable bodies to the ranks. The first few times the pagers went off in class, the students on the department exchanged excited, slightly smug grins as they made a dash for the door. Skipping class for an exciting event — what could be better? But those expressions of anticipation and glee didn’t last through too many calls. Soon they were replaced by a businesslike squaring of the shoulders and a hint of grimness around the mouth and eyes. Once you’ve helped cut another human’s mangled remains out of a crushed car, or sprayed down flames on a derailed train and semi truck containing a charred corpse and a beheaded man, you realize that this isn’t a party. This is harsh, gritty reality. My friends were in the front ranks of the battle against highway hazards. Each pager signal was the starting bell of a race to save a life.
And always, the pager signals were followed by the sound of sirens. Those sirens were personal. They were meaningful. We could tell the difference between the ambulance siren and the fire truck. If police sirens were added, that was an added layer of gravity. If we heard a siren go by, we’d instantly start analyzing: What direction was it going? Which vehicle was it? We’d mentally list the people we knew who were ill, or pregnant, or doing a dangerous task. At times, the sound of sirens was a signal to pick up the phone and start making calls. Hello, Julie, I heard the ambulance. Sounded like it was going north. Is Nana okay? Or, Is Connie having the baby? Do you need a ride to the hospital? Or maybe, I just saw the ambulance turn into West Farm’s driveway. Is someone hurt? You couldn’t hear a siren and remain detached. Every siren meant that someone you knew and loved could be in danger — either having had an accident, or responding to a dangerous emergency.
It’s been years since I left the commune and village to join the rest of the world. Now, when sirens go by, the victims and drivers are unknown to me. It’s no longer personal. But I can’t act as if nothing is happening. I can’t avoid the knowledge that a siren might mean someone is dying, or hurt, or in fear of their lives. When I hear a siren, I turn and look. Even though I can’t take action, I can pause for a moment to send a thought of support for the emergency response team, for the people who might be in need of help, and for the people I love at home who are still volunteering their time and bodies to help others.
I realize most people haven’t had the experience I have. But just for a day, do me a favor. When you hear a siren, pause and think about the people involved. Take just a moment to be human, to react to the sound of danger. Just for a few seconds, stop and send your thoughts out to the men and women risking their lives to drive ambulances and fire trucks. They could use the good energy.