“What If It Had Been My Kids?”

by Budd Dunson, NREMT
Fire Chief, Mineral Springs (AR) Fire and Rescue

I am a volunteer. I don’t say no often enough. I also get started on a project and want to finish it. I want to do the best job I can. This is my nightly prayer, “God, make me the best Fire Chief/EMT/Emergency manager I can be.” I have learned a few lessons over the years, but the hardest one I ever had to learn were my limits and those of other people.

Ten years ago, I lost a good firefighter. Not to fire or physical injuries, but to a devastating emotional injury. I was assistant chief at the time and the chief and I were out of town for a county Chiefs’ Association meeting. Our department was toned to a trailer fire and we heard the tones and traffic. Everything seemed like a normal response with a good save. Then we heard, “where is the baby”? Radio traffic became frantic and the chief and I left to go to the scene. It was a hurried twenty mile drive and the radio was going crazy with talk of a missing baby.

We finally arrived on scene. Because the chief had two small children of his own, he turned to me and said, “I can’t handle it, you take it.” I became Incident Commander (IC) and we began a methodical search for the missing baby. I went to the young mother, did my best to calm her, and asked where the baby had last been seen. After getting her calm enough to talk, she told me the bedroom on “A” side. This was the side with the most damage.

I took an experienced firefighter with me who was heavily trained and experienced. After just a couple of minutes, we located the body. The coroner was called and arrived. The same firefighter and I recovered the body, placed her in a body bag, and carried her to the coroner’s vehicle. I had called a pastor to deal with the mother and offered her my condolences. The chief gave the order to begin the roll up. I noticed one of my young firefighters was missing. He wasn’t in the building, he wasn’t rolling hose, or on the truck. We began to question bystanders. One of them said he saw him running “that way” and pointed. The missing firefighter’s house was about a mile away I called his wife and she told me, “yes, he is here but he is not talking or anything; he is acting strange”.

What I wasn’t thinking about was the fact that this young man had two small children. As soon as we had the trucks in the station, the chief, a past chief, and I went to his house. His wife had been crying and he sat in his recliner covered by a quilt trembling and saying, “What if it had been my kids? Why didn’t I save her?”

angels fire

About the Photo: One of the Worst School Fires In U.S. History – On December 1, 1958, a fire broke out in the basement of Our Lady of the Angels catholic school in Chicago, educational home to approximately 1,600 students in Kindergarten through 8th grade. 92 children and 3 nuns died.

We visited for an hour or so and set up a Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD). I began to pay special attention to the young man, but after the CISD, he never returned to the fire house. He called and told me I was his friend and could I come get his gear?

I lost a good firefighter, but worse, I let him go on through life with these mental scars. We offered any kind of help that he or his wife felt he needed, but all offers were refused.

Fast forward 15 years. I was called to serve as IC at a flash flood with an unknown number of dead or missing. For three days, we worked in 100 plus degree heat. I had a good support staff and even through the interagency squabbles we did a good job. Until day three when we received the following radio traffic: “This is team Charlie. I don’t know where I am and have a man down with chest pain.”

The next 45 minutes were the longest of my life. A mayday was declared. The team that had been assigned to work each side of Charlie started toward them. Team Bravo made up of forestry service employees and an EMT found them first. Ambulances were already on scene and were attempting to make their way to the closest access road; a medical helicopter was called, but couldn’t find the landing zone.

I remember putting down my water bottle and stepping onto the blazing hot highway and trying to spot the chopper. Two minutes or ten hours later, I remember crying, thinking I killed a rescuer. I began to lose my balance. Somehow, I made it off the highway thinking I’ve got to get this radio to Jack, who was part of the unified command. I was stumbling, crying, and couldn’t see real well. Suddenly, a lady appeared. I will always remember her asking if I needed some help. I said I have to get this radio to Jack. I just got a man killed. I didn’t know at the time that this angel who was half carrying my 250 pounds was Jack’s wife and a deputy herself as well as a nurse. Between Jack and his wife, they got me in the cool, began to rehydrate me, and checked on the man I had “killed.” By this time, he was aboard the chopper and doing fine. That was the second hard lesson: you can only do so much.

At one of the CISD session, an EMT came up to me and said “Budd, I was in an ambulance all day with a dead little boy. I had to open the body bag six times for different people. Please tell them to never make anyone do that again.” I made a vow that whenever I speak or write that I would honor that request.

Chiefs, remember your firefighters and what might be happening to them emotionally. You do not want any more victims than you already have.

About the Author: Budd Dunson has been married for 28 years to Sharon, the most understanding wife ever. They have two daughters and twin grandsons. Budd is the deputy Emergency Manager/Fire services coordinator for Howard County, Arkansas. He is the Chief of Mineral Springs Fire and Rescue and has been for eight years. He has had the privilege of following in the footsteps of the former two chiefs. Budd has a degree in religious education and is a fire instructor with over 1000 training hours from the Arkansas Fire Academy. Budd says he “thought I was going into the Ministry but God had different Plans. I am probably the only person alive who actually enjoys studying ICS”. In his spare time, he works full time as the safety and environmental manager for a large towing company and truck repair business.