Posted by metaphorical on 3 June 2007
I entered the auditorium at LaGuardia Community College only about 5 minutes before the ceremonies were to begin. Standing in my way as I walked over to the aisle was a stocky guy about my age and height. Even from the back, even in a sea of identical dress blues, I recognized my brother-in-law right away. I put my hand on his shoulder. “Hey buddy, you’re blocking the aisle here.” Without turning around he smiled. “Well then you’ll just have to go around like everyone else, won’t you?”
The uniforms aren’t perfectly identical of course. One silver stripe on the cuff is a Lieutenant; two gold stripes is a captain. Even though New York City merged the Emergency Medical Service into the Fire Department, the patches on their shirts are different. And even within EMS, there’s one patch for an EMT and another for a paramedic.
On Friday, 71 young men and women entered the EMS as certified EMTs. Another 28 members of EMS were promoted to Lieutenant—to wear the silver stripe that my brother-in-law has worn for more than three years now, that my sister has worn for almost five.
And 38 EMTs were recognized for completing a grueling 9-month course—full-time, and then some—in paramedic training. It’s the highest non-hospital medical training there is. After the ceremony, a captain told me that his brother, a surgeon, thinks the paramedic training is brutal. My sister was one of them. She will be 50 next month. She’s not the academic I am. (I learned Spanish out of a book, for example; she learned it by living in Hispanic neighborhoods.) She dropped out of college. She had to learn how to take tests, how to study, really, for the first time in her life this year.
Brendan, my brother-in-law, has been a paramedic for well over a decade now. My little sister, Elizabeth—“Bet” to me since grade school, “Betsy” to everyone else—finished her training and passed all her tests last week. She and 37 other EMTs were handed their certificates, shook hands with Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta, and got to sew a Paramedic shirt-patch onto their right sleeve, where the EMT patch had first gone, in my sister’s case, almost fifteen years ago. It wasn’t her first time meeting Scoppetta. He shook her hand and posed when she was promoted to Lieutenant. Shortly before that, in the aftermath of 9/11, she ran into him at the World Trade Center site. She wasn’t there on September 11th, but she worked the site afterward, first looking for survivors, then, for weeks, she and dozens of other EMTs combed the wreckage and catalogued body parts.
EMS-FDNY is a somewhat loveable ugly duckling sibling within the Fire Department, itself an odd family to have been adopted into. Its businesslike uniforms and nonchalant salutes mark it as an organization with the same ideals and dedication, and a similar chain of command, as the military, but with few of its hard edges. Instead of dramatic courts-martial, for example, disputes tend to be settled in humdrum union arbitrations. And you can see the difference pinned to their jackets. Look at the red-and-white lapel pins, for example. Instead of rewarding the storming of a machine gun nest, they represent saved lives. (You can only wear two, but some EMTs have dozens more tucked away in jewelry boxes at home.) There are pink and blue ones that aren’t worn nowadays, for babies delivered. (I asked my sister how many she had done. “Four,” she said. “I hate it. Some guys love doing them though.”) Brendan has five different kinds of pins on his jacket, but my sister has only one. She just doesn’t go in for them.
The only similarity to the military is the important one; the willingness to throw down one’s life. At dinner a few weeks ago, my sister described a training exercise she had to help out with at the academy. The exercise was running into a smoke-filled building and finding your way around. At the academy that day they didn’t bother with the smoke, she said, but the room was pitch-black. “I’m the Lieutenant,” she said. “These four kids are waiting for me, following me. You know what was weird in that exercise? We were the first wave. But we know that in a big disaster, the first couple of waves, we’re just fodder. In maybe the third wave, you have a chance of coming out.” I looked at her. She just shrugged.
After the ceremony, our mother had her pose with Brendan for a photo. I looked again at their lapels, at the one pin they have in common, the only one my sister wears. Just about every uniform in that auditorium at LaGuardia, except for the new recruits, wore that pin. It’s a long, narrow rectangle. The left side is purple and the right side is black. It’s worn by everyone who was a FDNY firefighter or EMT on 9/11. On the left side is just a number, “343,” the number of firefighters who died that day. I couldn’t be more proud of my little sister.
[Some copy edits were made to this article on 24 January 2008.]