For Rogell, who grew up in Bethesda and graduated from Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, becoming a volunteer firefighter was something she’d always wanted to do. Over the last 20 years, she’s been on calls involving her neighbor’s daughter, who’d been in a car accident, and her high school chemistry teacher. Most of the calls her rescue squad team answers are minor, such as investigating an odor in a building or responding to accidental fire alarms, stuck elevators or “patient assists,” when someone might need help getting back into bed.
Still, she says, even if it’s minor to her, it’s a big deal to whomever is involved. “We might run the call a hundred times, but it’s never happened to the [person affected] before,” says Rogell, 41, the medical director of the Metropolitan Emergency Animal Clinic in Rockville. “For me, it’s really about being able to make a difference in the community.”
The big calls—the ones everyone sees on TV—are pretty rare, Rogell says, but they can come at any time. She was one of the first responders on the scene of the Amtrak derailment in Kensington in 2002. She’d recently become an EMT and was home for the summer from veterinary school at Virginia Tech. The temperature was in the upper 90s. “The first thing that we did was triage,” says Rogell, who lives in Rockville. “[The] train was off the tracks, upside down. You walk down the tracks asking, ‘Can you get up? Can you walk?’ ” About 100 people on board were injured; six of them seriously. “Then we went back to the people who couldn’t walk and we’d bring a stretcher or stair chair. We just kept walking up and down the tracks, treating and stabilizing.”
Three years later, Rogell responded to a stabbing incident at Nordstrom in Westfield Montgomery mall, where two shoppers had been injured by a woman armed with butcher knives. “I’ve been on some intense calls,” Rogell says, “but I’ve been able to help people when they need it, and help calm them down.”
By 6 p.m. on a Wednesday last winter, Amber Simco had already worked a full day. She had arrived at the National Institutes of Health early in the morning for her job in the office of the chief financial officer. She was home by 4 o’clock to pick up her boys—Jonah, now 8, and Micah, 6—at school and get dinner on the table before leaving for the station.
“Not all my colleagues at work know that I do this. The ones that do are a little bit stunned,” says Simco, 39, a volunteer EMT at the Hillandale Volunteer Fire Department in Silver Spring. “I don’t talk about when my shifts are. I don’t want people assuming I’m not 100 percent there to do my job because I was on the ambulance last night.”
Simco’s father died of pneumonia in 2015, an illness he contracted after treatment for lymphoma. In the midst of her grief, she wanted to find a way to honor his memory. She remembered her own appreciation of the men and women who ran EMT calls as her father’s health was failing. Her father didn’t want his grown children to have to care for him, so when he was ill he’d call an ambulance. “It was so frustrating,” Simco says. She answers calls like that now from people who aren’t feeling well but don’t want to burden their families for a ride to the hospital, and from individuals who are afraid their symptoms could be a sign of a heart attack or stroke. “A light bulb went off in my head,” she says. “I cannot take care of my dad, but I can help other people if they don’t want to go to their kids.”
Simco, who lives in Silver Spring, enrolled in the EMT course in January 2016. Classes were held on Tuesday and Thursday evenings and all day on Sundays, a schedule that was hard on her family. (The county also offers the option of taking classes on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday, or an all-day 10-week course during the summer.) Simco’s husband, Avi Mandell, an astronomer with NASA, handled bedtime duty, packed school lunches and drove the kids to school, since she often had to arrive at NIH by 6 a.m.
Simco describes the classes as a “healing process” in the grieving for her father’s death. As instructors talked about a series of symptoms, she was able to vividly picture her father experiencing them. “It made the lessons sink in a lot more,” she says.
Simco’s family pitched in to help with her hectic schedule. Jonah and Micah tried their best to be cooperative at bedtime. When there was a school event for the boys that both parents had to miss, their sister, Hannah, now 19, went instead. Inspired by her mother, Hannah recently completed her own EMT training, something Simco is proud of. “It’s given her a lot of confidence, and it really shows a sign of development when you can reach out from yourself and start contributing to your community,” she says.
It was after midnight when Simco got home from the station that night last winter. After a shift, she’ll usually recount the night’s runs with her husband, or talk to Hannah if she’s still awake. If she had to take someone to the hospital for something serious, such as an opioid overdose, stroke or seizure, she’ll sometimes have trouble falling asleep.
Veronica Gallagher grew up watching reruns of the TV drama Emergency!, a show about two paramedics. “I thought it was so cool what they did,” she says. “I wanted to be just like them.” After she had her second child in 1999, Gallagher suffered from postpartum depression and didn’t want to leave the house.
“My husband said, ‘Why don’t you find something that you’ve always wanted to do and try and do it?’ ” says Gallagher, who worked as a preschool teacher and nanny before having children. After interviewing for an EMT job, the Kensington resident started taking night and weekend classes, while her husband, a uniformed officer for the Secret Service, could watch the children. After two years as an EMT with the Wheaton Volunteer Rescue Squad, she trained as an ambulance driver, and later as a firefighter. The county covers the cost of firefighter training, which includes battling real fires at the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute in College Park.
Even with an infant, Gallagher pulled overnight shifts at the station, pumping milk and storing it in the refrigerator and sleeping on one of the bunks. She’d bring her own bedding and store it in a locker. “One night we didn’t have any calls after midnight,” she says. “It was the best night’s sleep I’d gotten in seven months.”