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Column: A lot happens before that 911 call for help

As a 30-year journalist I can pinpoint the night – 26 years ago – when my feelings for firefighters grew into, let’s call it, true “respect.”

I was the crime and fire reporter for the Lake Havasu City Herald. My fire-department-issued beeper (remember those?) went off at about 1 a.m. An inebriated speed-boat driver did not know about the island in the lake and hit it.

After being startled awake in the living room where I had dozed off, I grabbed my shoes and camera, and went to the scene. (I didn’t get the shoes on until I pulled up to see the carnage.) Just as I was finishing there, the beeper went off again: simple (if there is such a thing) house fire across town.

Already up and out, I figured I’d cover it too.

A short time later, at about 3:30 a.m., and on my way home, two cars hit head-on just north of the city on Highway 95. One person involved was seriously hurt, three others injured. I went.

After that call came the final one of this all-night affair: a house fire involving a car, ammo and propane stored in the garage; the firemen foamed the inside of the garage before flames got to that part of the structure (it looked like a winter wonderland) preventing explosions.

It happened all in one night, and mostly the same crews responding to call after call.

We were all pooped – them, of course, more than me.

I remember they were surprised I was there. Reporters there didn’t often get out at night – photos are not great (because of the darkness); yet, it made for a good story, “Four rescue calls, five hurt; all is well now,” the headline read.

It was not lost on me that they dealt with four different situations, all with flawless professionalism, one after the other. They did what was needed like it was old-hat – as though they’d “been there, done that” before.

I learned it comes down to training. First-responders don’t sit around just waiting for calls, they practice for nights like that. When they arrive, the crew knows what needs to be done.

That brings me to what happened in Prescott this past week: the Arizona Wildfire & Incident Management Academy, held annually at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. This year it involved about 700 students (80 percent from Arizona).

They learned leadership, chain saws, public information, logistics, and fire behavior analysis, among other topics. Field exercises put their skills to the test, which also provided benefits to some neighborhoods in the form of creating defensible space.

Another benefit? How about the $1 million impact of these people staying here by way of meals and lodging, at least.

For me, all of this is why I like to let readers know when fire crews are training. It sends the message they’re on the job and getting ready for the calls.

Unfortunately, many readers do not see it that way. They look upon public safety as they do water – they worry only when water does not come from the tap. Firefighters are unseen, until needed – often out of sight, out of mind.

Think sometime about what’s behind the scenes, folks. Call it continuing education, like what a doctor or teacher pursues. I am thankful they do it!