In her nearly 20 years at the Wheaton station, Gallagher, 53, has seen hundreds of volunteers come through. She describes what she calls the “double-edged sword” of being a mother and an EMT/firefighter, trying to balance the demands of parenting with a challenging volunteer position that can sometimes be emotional. “On the one hand, it is a good experience because there is nothing that can make you feel more grateful for your own situation in your own life and your own family than coming in on the scene of someone’s worst moment,” she says.
Gallagher recalls the first fatality on one of her calls—an infant. “The child had a congenital heart defect and was scheduled for surgery that week,” says Gallagher, the mother of three. “When we got there, the caregiver was doing CPR. I did assist with the CPR and the oxygen.” Gallagher had the option of going to grief counseling through the state-sponsored Critical Incident Stress Management program, but decided not to. She felt she had enough support from her husband and from a team of co-workers she still relies on today for the camaraderie that has kept her part of the same unit for two decades.
Gallagher’s crew at the Wheaton station ranges from 12 to 20 people per shift, which includes staffing for two ambulances, a medic chase car and the heavy rescue truck. Her Sunday crew has more women volunteers than men. Between calls, she and her teammates train and conduct drills, watch modules (online classes), check and restock equipment, and go over any news or events in the county and in their immediate response area, such as road closures. They’ll sit down for meals, sometimes cooking together in the kitchen, and clean up the station. When her kids were younger, they’d visit during this time and stay to eat whatever was being served. Everything stops when a call comes in—crews have 90 seconds to collect their gear and leave the building.
“We’ve left food on the grill and food on the stove,” Gallagher says. “We say, ‘If you’re the last person out, turn everything off. ’ ”
When the station hosts an open house and people bring their kids, Gallagher tells moms she meets about the volunteer possibilities. “They say, ‘I could never do this,’ ” she says, “and I say, ‘Yes you can.’ ”
Volunteer firefighter and ambulance driver Amy Orndorff considered quitting her job at the Rockville Volunteer Fire Department after she had her first child in August 2016, but then her team threw her a baby shower. They decorated the station with balloons and served her favorite foods. “I felt so loved, and was reminded that the fire department is truly my second family,” she says.
Orndorff, a multiplatform editor at The Washington Post, stopped going on calls when she was six months pregnant and could no longer fit into the front cab to drive the ambulance. She took off six more months after the birth of her son, Simon, and then went back to the station. She had a second child this past September and plans to return to volunteering in March.
Several months after Simon was born, the Rockville resident went on a call for an 8-year-old boy who had autism and was nonverbal. The child was having a seizure. “He was able to communicate that he was really scared. His mom was doing such a great job of comforting. And yet I remember going back to the station and crying, that this little boy was in any sort of pain,” Orndorff says. “My fellow firefighters were like, ‘What is going on?’ I rarely ever cry, but this little kid having problems really upset me.”
Orndorff, 33, recalls being at the wheel of the medic unit—a car that travels with the ambulance in the event further backup is needed—and helping the young boy, who’d been stabilized, at Children’s National Medical Center in the District. “There were crying children everywhere,” she says. “I had just found out I was pregnant with my second child and I had this overwhelming urge, this mothering instinct, to make every kid feel better. These crying babies ripped at my mom heart, though it was probably hormones, too.”
Orndorff says she feels lucky that most of her calls are for adults. But that same vulnerability still sneaks up on her with older patients. “When I treat a drug addict or a homeless person, I think about how they started out small and innocent—just like my son,” she writes in an email. “I’d like to think I’ve always been caring, but becoming a mom has brought it to another level I didn’t realize was possible.”
On a rainy Wednesday evening in March, Emily Rogell sits at the Bethesda-Chevy Chase station, bantering with her crew about the week’s schedule. Her gear—a firefighter’s coat, pants and heavy boots—is positioned neatly next to the truck. And she’s wearing her station boots—shoes with zippers that allow her to make a quick change as soon as a siren sounds. Her husband is home with the twins, and she calls to FaceTime them and say good night before bedtime.
“We all have our outside lives—I’m fortunate that my husband understands it because he’s part of it,” Rogell says. Her twins are now 8. “Abby came downstairs today and asked where I’m going. She asked, ‘Are you going to save people?’ and I told her, ‘If they need it.’ It was kind of cool.” Her twins have been coming to the station since they were 3 months old.
“They get it,” she says. “They know mommy is a firefighter.”
Rebecca Gale is a former reporter for Roll Call whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Slate and Marie Claire. She lives in Chevy Chase.