It Is No Secret! We Are Only Human

by Salvatore “Sal”Rapacciuolo

My name is Salvatore. I am a 27 year old Firefighter/EMT. I started in the fire service when I was 11 years old. I moved up through the ranks, holding many leadership positions in many departments. I have delivered life as well as seen life end. I have seen incredibly good and incredibly horrible things and I have PTSD.

I was asked to share my story in hopes of helping other first responders take that first step forward to get help before it is too late. I am one of the lucky ones. I do not drown my sorrows in alcohol or drugs. I can assure you it may not be alcohol or drugs, but we all have our inner demons.

Sal Rapacciuolo
Sal Rapacciuolo

If that was not enough to spark your interest, let me set the hook for you; doing CPR on a fellow firefighter – a brother – is something I never ever want to experience again. The sad reality is, I still do this job every day with no guarantees. There is no guarantee that one day, maybe today or tomorrow, one of my brothers that I sip coffee with at the breakfast table every morning will not be bent over me doing chest compressions while praying because he knows my wife is going to grow old without a husband and my future children without a father. That is my fear because it is exactly what I thought when I was in the same situation.

I recently watched an online news clip from NBC Chicago in which members of surrounding Fire Departments were interviewed and the topic was The Firefighters Dark Secret? I yelled at the computer screen, “What the hell is the matter with you? Dark secret?” It is no secret! We are only human.

It is our own ignorance that makes our fellow brothers and sisters afraid to talk about their emotions. As a first responder family, we should encourage each other to seek help when needed. The public sees what we do on a daily basis, but yet we paint this persona that it is no big deal because we are supposed to be tough.

Bridgeport, Connecticut 2010. I live it every day when two heroes – two fellow brothers – two amazing human beings, went into cardiac arrest while fighting a house fire. The Lieutenant slumped over in the stairwell was found when the evacuation tones were set off. His partner was found when the Rapid Intervention Team came upon him tangled up in hose between a couch and a wall. Wait, let’s take a step back.

My name is Salvatore and I come from a very strong line of firefighters, you know the tough truckie type with the big city attitude. Boy did every bone, every morsel of my body want to follow in their footsteps. My earliest memories as a child were at the firehouse with my dad and the guys. At 11 years old, I joined the explorer program. I remember getting gear tossed to me and the Captain saying, “Here kid, try this on.” I swam in it with the biggest smile on my face because I felt like my dad, I felt like a firefighter.

I remember my first fire; the pencil thin stream of fire that followed the crease in the wall towards the ceiling and within a matter of seconds was roaring over our heads. I never felt more alive.

My first code; it was actually a peaceful one. I was riding third in the ambulance and went to an in-home hospice, to verify for the family that the gentlemen had passed. So peaceful in his bed, he rested with his family around him. Tears ran down their face, but they were at peace knowing their loved one was no longer in pain and the stress of wondering when he will pass was finally over. I foolishly thought they would all be like that and boy was I in for a big surprise. Little did I know, I was a black cloud.

The bad calls: you head out, do your job and come back to the station. Easy, right? Not at all. Walking through the firehouse after those calls is something you never forget. Some guys are on the phone telling their wife and kids they love and miss them and will be home soon knowing that they could be telling a lie. Others disappear to deal with their sorrows alone, with whatever will numb the pain. Those moments are not talked about because the very life of the firehouse has been sucked out of it until the next call comes in and things get back to “normal.”

The unexpected calls, the ones you can never prepare for, stick with you forever. For instance, the call from a medical center concerning a patient who was reported to have difficulty breathing. My partner and I walk in and see a doctor standing in the hallway. “Hello, doctor, did you call 911?” “Yes, I did,” with his back facing me. “She is 7 months old and has rhales” [a rattling sound when you breathe] . The doctor walked away never even making eye contact with me. Well, have I got news for you doctor, the baby is blue and not breathing.

This is a good one. We responded to a woman’s home for a general sick call. I walk in to the house of the address that was given to us. “Ma’am, why did you call 911?” She told me her 6 year old was not feeling well. That’s because her 6 year old had a rifle round through her chest.

At least that mother called 911. Unlike another mother who shot her 8 year old in the head with a 38 caliber handgun while the child slept, and then put one through her own chest.

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The call that changed my life occurred on July 24, 2010 around 1:30 in the afternoon. The radio transmission that changed my life and the lives of those who were involved: “Medic Unit respond to the structure fire. Second car in to back up the ambulance on scene for a firefighter in cardiac arrest”. My world stood still. I walked out of the store I was in and got into the ambulance. My partner looked at me in a very calm voice and said, “Sal, just get us there.”

We pulled up to the house, but we could not reach the other ambulance. “Brian, just go brother,” I said in a strong tone over the radio. I was then grabbed by the Chief running the incident, “Rapp, we have another mayday.” I asked where the Lieutenant’s partner was, but the Chief did not say a word, he just looked at me as if he had seen a ghost. We both knew the second mayday was for him.

I picked up the stretcher and started making my way towards the back of the house with another firefighter as my partner set up equipment in the truck. I looked up and saw the fire still blowing out of the third floor window. When we reached the back of the house I completely froze for the first time in my career.

Regardless of how many codes I ran, shootings I handled, jumpers I watched be scraped up off of the ground, nothing can prepare a human being for what I saw. I was looking at a crowd of firefighters standing like frightened angels around our fellow brother who lay lifeless in a puddle of water.

“Shock him!” I heard one of the firefighters yell in a startled voice. At that point, I set my emotions aside and went to work. I did everything I could to block the thoughts of what was actually happening. I was there to do my job and I did it to the absolute best of my ability. I can confidently tell myself that although I may not have been able to save his life, I did not fail. I can at least tell myself that my fellow brother passed away surrounded by people who love, honor, and respect him. He was pulled out the house by his brothers, transported to the hospital by his brothers and pronounced at the hospital with his brothers – his family – by his side.

I suffered for almost a year afterwards, just pushing my anger and emotions off. I chalked it up to the everyday stress of life, until one day it all came flooding out on an innocent party. I lost it over how my fiancé was heating up lunch. Yes, that’s right, I did not like the way she was heating up lunch and I exploded with emotions masked in anger. It was at that point I realized I needed help.

I have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but to me it is not a disorder as I am not broken. I have done and seen things that I thought were unspeakable because I was a tough guy. They were not unspeakable, I was just afraid to speak about them. At 19 years old, I was a Lieutenant on a truck company responsible for guys twice my age, I had to be tough. Well, let me tell you something, tough is having the strength to talk about it; being able to ask for help.

Why can’t we ask for help? We respond to thousands upon thousands of calls a year for other people who need help. I am 27 years old, a kid in some people’s eyes, but let me tell you something I have the strength to stand up and talk about those calls, the kind we should “never take home.” I have been through therapy. I went to treatment facilities where I met some of the most amazing and toughest people from some of the biggest and busiest cities in the United States and I am not ashamed to say I have PTSD nor am I afraid to talk about it.

I am a Firefighter/EMT. I am not a superhero. I cannot forget the things I have done or seen, but there are first responders who think otherwise. Do not let the way you imagine others will react to you stop you from taking that first step forward to get help. I am proud of the things I have done so far in my career and I am proud of myself and the others in the first responder family who get the help they need.

I am proud of the never-ending support I get from fellow Firefighters, Police Officers, EMTs and everyone else who has chosen this honorable career path. People call 911 when they need help and that means they are usually at their worst. While it’s never easy or glorious and filled with sacrifices that most will never understand, I can assure you to us it is worth it.

About the author, in his own words: My name is Salvatore or otherwise known as Rapp or Sal RPapageorgio. I am a 27 year old Firefighter/ EMT. I grew up in the fire service as many of us have and carried on the traditions that were handed down to me. As a child, the fire service was my life, it was my family. I had so many “uncles” I almost lost count. I never gave being a firefighter a second thought; to me it was my world, it was what we did, and who we are. I grew up idealizing my father. There was always something special about watching him push and pull all the levers on the pump panel of the fire truck and watching the hose come alive as water filled it up. There was always an overwhelming sense of pride as I watched the people I love disappear into the smokey doorway of the house that was on fire. I grew up hearing gruesome stores, but also stories of what seemed like miracles. There are some things, some calls that no matter how prepared you think you are will change your life forever.