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“If it wasn’t for 911 calls, I’d be out of a job.” Julie is a firefighter-medic, and when she puts it like that, it becomes more plain than most of us like to think that she makes a living off of other people’s distress. If that sounds morbid, well, at least it’s not unique. Lawyers, doctors, mechanics, police officers, dentists, plumbers — all these folks and many more of us earn money from the suffering of others: injury, crime, divorce, pain, breakdown, property damage, threat, rancor, violence, illness. It is a ghoulish equation, but Julie offers one way to add humanity to the calculation.

Even before she reached her teens, Julie was the kind of attentive, responsible kid that every parent wanted as a babysitter. At the neighborhood pool, she was hyper-aware of where all the little children were, gently guiding them away from dangerous situations, and no one was surprised that she became a lifeguard when she was old enough. Some people were surprised when, at 19, she became the youngest firefighter in the county. Julie is a slim, self-effacing young woman, devoid of bravado; she does not shove “hero” in your face.

But in high school, when she first began exploring possible careers, she was sure of two things: she wanted to do something that would help people, and she did not want to go to college. Julie had no interest in taking on more classes and studying and exams; she was never motivated to excel in them. She eventually decided she wanted to try to become part of an ambulance crew, but for that she would need training as an emergency medical technician. Rather than enroll in a local college for this training, Julie found a better (and cheaper) way: she volunteered for the local volunteer fire department, which offered its own EMT training for free to its volunteers. Of course, as an untrained civilian at the start, Julie could not volunteer to perform any firefighting duties, so the volunteer work she provided in exchange for EMT training consisted of calling out numbers at the bingo games through which the volunteer fire department raised most of its operating revenues.

It was through her exposure to the fire department during volunteering and EMT training that Julie decided to aim not just to serve on an ambulance but to become a full-fledged firefighter. Fortunately, with the EMT certification she received, she was quickly accepted into the county firefighter training program. As she worked her way through the ranks of recruit and probationary firefighter, Julie realized that she loved this job, and that she wanted to do as much as she could within it. Most firefighters choose one of three specialty areas — emergency medical services (EMS), technical rescue operations team (TROT), or hazardous materials (Hazmat) — in which to receive special training and certifications, so they can take on more duties and advance in their careers. It is not required; some firefighters decide not to take on any such training. Julie decided to pursue both EMS and TROT certifications. This unusual combination requires more than 300 hours of classroom time and testing every year — not what Julie had in mind coming out of high school, but now she is motivated to excel. Her goal is to become part of the Urban Search and Rescue team (USAR) — the team that travels around the country and the world to assist when catastrophes like earthquakes strike.

You might conclude that Julie is most stimulated by the heroic aspects of the job — dragging people from burning buildings or saving the lives of auto accident victims — and she acknowledges that that is the case for some firefighters. “They kind of groan when we get called out for ‘smells and bells’ instead of a significant event like a house fire” — “smells and bells” being firefighter slang for calls when a civilian thinks something might be wrong — because they smell something funny or an alarm keeps going off — but doesn’t know what it is. But for Julie, these calls are sometimes the most meaningful. “Put yourself in the shoes of that elderly lady who thinks she smells smoke, and she doesn’t have any relatives nearby she can ask to check it out. You might think her call is so minor, compared to a building engulfed in flames. But to her, it might be the most important thing in her day.”

Besides, sometimes these calls give Julie a chance to do something better than saving someone from distress: preventing the distress from happening at all. “Maybe they are smelling smoke because there’s a bad outlet that needs rewiring, and we can find that for them before it actually catches fire. Sometimes we’ll get called out to help an older person who has fallen in their home — no injuries, they just can’t get themselves back up. I’ll look around at how the furniture is arranged. Maybe there’s a rug that they keep tripping on that we can move, or maybe we can rearrange things a bit so that there’s always a handhold within reach — the back of a chair or a dresser or table. To me, that’s the best kind of a call. When you can step into someone’s life and figure out a way to keep something bad from happening.”

Sure, there is something exciting about saving someone from disaster, whether it threatens life, liberty, property, or financial well-being. But, as Julie notes, there is something even more deeply satisfying about preventing such disasters from ever happening. Disasters are big and easy; they grab our attention, and it is obvious when our skills are needed. Prevention is not so flamboyant, because, without an immediate, flashy problem at hand, it can be hard to know which of our skills to offer. Prevention often requires putting yourself in the shoes of the person you might need to help — stepping into that person’s life and figuring out what they probably don’t know they need from you. It can be more work, but isn’t it more heroic to eliminate suffering entirely than to try to minimize it once it begins?