The Sitdown: Raul Ochoa, Chicago Firefighter (Chicago Sun Times Interview with Lt. Raul Ochoa)

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Photo courtesy of Chicago Sun Times

Chicago Sun Times –

“I didn’t grow up in a neighborhood with firefighters. I didn’t know any. 

A guy I knew from high school, his father was a lieutenant on the fire department, but it wasn’t until I saw that they were hiring [in 1995] that I showed any interest.

There were 35,000 applications returnedand around 25,000 actually showed up for the job. So the chances were slim. 

I was lucky enough to get called in the second class, which was a year later.

I thought initially you wouldn’t get tossed into the fire right away, but no. As soon as you hit the street, you’re doing the job. 

The first few calls you get are your most nerve-wracking. After that, you kind of get comfortable. And even though your adrenaline still pumps when you see that fire or you see that call that you have to be on, you’re able to overcome it and just perform, do the job, do what’s necessary.

I remember my first fire. We were a single-engine company. I had been on the street probably for three months. I started out in a slower area. We had done quite a bit of other work like car accidents and train derailments and hazardous materials. Plenty of medical runs. But I hadn’t seen that first fire yet.

So three months into it I catch my first fire. Flames, heavy smoke, single engine. We’re waiting for that [other] truck to make it in and ventilate for us.

[It’s] pitch black, we came around the corner and all you see is red.

[There’s] a lot of adrenaline, a lot of excitement. You want to perform. You don’t want to make mistakes, and you just want to get the job done. And once it’s over, you’re on a high for at least a couple days. You did your work. You feel like you earned your paycheck.

You can have some good fires and then you just come up short on another fire, where you feel fatigued and you can’t work any longer; you’re looking for relief. 

Every day that you can come here and go back home to your family — that’s a good day. 

Back in 2002, I was at a high-rise fire. And when we forced entry, we were on the 14th floor. The wind was pretty strong that day, and it was a wind-driven fire that roared down the hallway. There were about eight of us on that landing, and I was at the front. I was the one that forced entry. So when we [did], there was someone behind the door. We were trying to get this person out the door. Well, the fire roared down the hallway like a torch, and we basically had to abandon the floor, otherwise more of us would have gotten seriously injured and some of us might have not made it out.

I had second- and third-degree [steam] burns from roughly just above the knee to halfway up the thigh on both legs and ended up getting skin grafts and ended up being in the hospital for 10 days, off the job for about three months. That was probably the worst day on the fire department.

When I went back to work, the first fire I saw after that, there was a little bit of having to get over that mental aspect of what had happened. 

I like to think that in many aspects it helped me, because now I knew what could happen, so I was able to look for the signs of danger. Whereas in the past, it was nothing I ever thought about. 

A lot of times you find someone and they don’t make it. But there’ve been times when I’ve brought people down ladders or I’ve gone into a unit where there’s heavy smoke but the fire’s elsewhere and you’re able to bring them out to safety. 

I’ve seen people under trains. I’ve seen people in horrible accidents. I’ve seen drowning victims. So I’ve seen a lot of sorrow.

In a way, you get desensitized to it.

Before I was married and before I had kids, I would see stuff [involving kids] and it didn’t impact me as it does now, because now I have a 6-year-old and a 4-year-old. So if I do see a child — and I have seen children, unfortunately, not make it out of some fires — I think back to my kids.

I remember the first time I did CPR on somebody. I would always ask, “Did they make it?” And I was surprised that they didn’t make it. But that’s just the way the job is, that’s the way life is. You’re not going to be able to save everybody.

I truly love coming to work. If you can do a job and you don’t feel like it’s work, I think you’ll live a pretty good life.”

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