Sterling Strickland wasn’t in a very good mood when he and his family went to eat at a restaurant in Gainesville about a month ago.
As a coach for his daughter’s softball team, he was still reeling from the loss of the game that afternoon.
But then a man sitting in a booth nearby began to choke. And Strickland’s training as a firefighter and paramedic kicked in.
“I was just sort of immediately thrust into it, had no prep time,” Strickland said. “I got him out of the booth, got him on the ground, treated him, got the food and stuff out of his mouth. Then he started into the seizure and I let that run its course. There’s not much I can do for that. Then he started coming around. About the time the ambulance got (to) him, he was much better.”
Right-place-right-time situations like this don’t happen often. It was a first for Strickland.
Strickland, 44, is a firefighter-paramedic for Hall County Fire Services. He works at Station No. 2 in Clermont and has for most of his 22-year career. Strickland, along with many of the other firefighters and paramedics at the station, grew up in the small North Hall community.
Firefighters having a lifelong connection to the community they serve helps many patients feel more comfortable when they’re in emergency situations, Strickland said.
All in a day’s work
Work days begin at 8 a.m. and last for 24 hours. The firefighters get 48 hours off after their shift.
During the course of the day, emergency responders can answer calls running the gamut from routine medical concerns to a person suffering a life-threatening wound or working in a burning building.
According to Hall County Fire Services, more than 23,000 emergency calls were answered in the county in 2013. Lt. Chris Hulsey, station officer, said Station No. 2 answered 762 of those calls.
“We get calls all the time,” Hulsey said. “Sometimes you don’t get there in time and sometimes it’s a call you’re not going to make any difference in anyway. But when you finally do and you make a difference, that makes you feel a little better.”
While the job is stressful and unpredictable, Strickland said he can’t imagine doing anything else.
“If I had to go sit in a job, in a manufacturing plant and did the same job for eight hours a day I would probably be a miserable individual,” Strickland said. “I work better like this. I don’t come in to an inbox full of papers that I didn’t get to yesterday. When the call is over, it’s over. That is, to me, one of the biggest beauties of this job. I’m convinced that in today’s society, I’d be the ‘ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) kid.’ Now, I get to put all of my focus on this one thing for ‘x number’ of minutes and drop the patient off and do my report. Then it’s done and I’m on to the next one. ‘In the moment’ is the best way to describe what we do.”
Job benefits and detractors
Two large banners reading “thank you” hang on a bulletin board inside the station. People from the community regularly bring cards and sweet treats to the station to thank responders.
“We’ve got this one woman who brings by cakes, I swear they’re still hot out of the oven,” Strickland said.
Though their work is generally appreciated and rewarding, there are some days the paramedics would rather not relive.
Strickland said his worst day on the job was March 20, 1998. The day a tornado ran through the area and hit North Hall High School. Thirteen fatalities happened that day along with $13.5 million in damage in Hall and White counties.
The tornado, with winds whipping up to 206 mph, pummeled Lanier Elementary School off Thompson Bridge Road in North Hall before hitting North Hall High. The storm ripped apart the career technology wing, leveled a greenhouse attached to the school and demolished several trailers used for classrooms.
Strickland was in the first ambulance to arrive at the high school. An accompanying fire truck was badly damaged in the tornado.
“It was totally different because it was something you’re trained to do, but it was like ‘We’re here and I don’t know when and if we’re going to have any help,’” Strickland said. “Resources were totally overwhelmed. At the time I think we had nine ambulances, but at the time we really needed about 90. It was truly overwhelming.”
Strickland said he heard stories of people helping injured and trapped people after the fact.
“There were good stories,” he said. “But as a general rule, we didn’t get to be involved in the good stories. We were there for the bad ones. So you hear after the fact that these guys helped these guys and they were helping people out of this house and the community did so great, wonderful. Our part wasn’t that fluffy.”
Processing bad days and good days
After the tornado, Strickland said he had to take some time off to mentally process the event.
“That was the first time throughout my career that I was like ‘I’m truly affected here,’” Strickland said. “I just had to regroup and get back at it. I had to take a little bit of time off and step away for a little bit and then I was good.”
Strickland has a more difficult time pinpointing the best day of his career. He lists off on his fingers his favorite stories of patients who survived car accidents, cardiac arrests and other illnesses.
He remembers being called years ago to help a 16-year-old girl who was ejected from her vehicle. She lived and came back to the station to thank them. Strickland smiled and said ‘she’s probably old enough now to have kids of her own. You like to think that maybe we did all right.”
“There is no doubt, it’s the most rewarding experience in the world to know that they were that close to possible death and now they’re alive and appreciate what you do,” Strickland said.