Tuesday, August 4, 2015

10 Year Letter

Dear Robby,

You turned 10 years old a few weeks ago! I cannot believe that you have already been on this planet for a whole decade. I can remember so many things about those first ten years and sometimes it seems like just yesterday you were stumbling around the living room on your chubby little legs saying, “Bahbo!” (rainbow) at the top of your lungs. It has been a long time since I sat down and wrote you a letter, so this may be a longer letter than most.

You had a lot of fun decorating this cake. You used some of your Star Wars action figures and made the epic battle scene. When we took them off, fudge icing was stuck all over them and C3PO looked like he pooped all over himself.

You just finished the 4th grade and it was one of the best years for you at school in a long time. You are younger than most of your classmates and that has caused some problems in the past. You’re always a little bit behind them in social and emotional development. You started riding the bus to and from school at the end of this year. You were so thrilled that we finally gave you some independence and freedom. (I cried a little behind the front door the first few times you went off alone and never looked back.) You are quicker to anger, quicker to love, quicker to trust and quicker to laugh than most of them too. Those things have nothing to do with your age. Those are the McDowell traits that will serve you well and make you special. We won’t dwell on the other McDowell traits just yet. This year, you seemed to have closed the age gap a little more. Your second grade teacher, Mr. Johnson, told us that this would happen in a few years. You started the 4th grade feeling like a misfit and ended it knowing that who are is not only acceptable, it’s awesome.

You still love basketball, Harry Potter, Minecraft and Star Wars. Your imagination is astounding. You have been taking coronet lessons for just over a year now. You really have an aptitude for music and I try not to push you too hard for fear that you will rebel and stop playing. When I take out my clarinet and we play together are some of the best memories for me this past year. Music has helped me so much throughout my life and I really love sharing that with you and seeing things for the first time again through you. You’ve started sharing some of your favorite music with me too this year. I will play you “Rock Lobster” by the B52s and then you’ll play me “Sugar” by Maroon 5 and laugh at how I dance.  

So far, 2015 has been a tough year for our family. In January, Meemaw moved in with us and our normal routines were erased and replaced with anything but normal. She is so different from Grandma so I was worried how you two might get along. You’ve had Grandma less than a mile away for many years now and spend a lot of time at her house on the weekends. Again, you have surprised me with your unconditional love for Meemaw, even though she has been nothing like the Grandma you adore. You two have found your own things in common and have connected. She scratches your back for minutes every night when you come to hug her goodnight.

One Team went out of business this year. You have been going to One Team since Kindergarten and this has been a tough transition. You don’t understand why they stopped being there for you after school and during the summer. Sometimes adult reasons creep into the world of children where everything is possible and you always do ”Better Than Your Best”. Your hero, Coach Amazing, was dealing with these adult realities and some of his frustration came out as being overly harsh on you. You never told me he was treating you badly at Winter Camp. Another Coach had to fill me in. Your loyalty to him is another McDowell trait. It broke my heart to see the realization on your face that a hero was really only human after all. I am sorry you had to learn this reality this year too. Never forget that all the coaches talked and agreed that of all the hundreds of One Team kids over the years, you were their unanimous favorite.

In school, they showed your class “THE VIDEO” about puberty. You came home and announced that it was the worst day of your life. You got a “stupid” booklet and a stick of deodorant. We knew the video was coming and went to a screening of it months before you saw it. Robby, it was a stupid and outdated video. Your Dad and I trapped you in the car to have a puberty talk before you saw it hoping to ease the embarrassment. I drove, you sat behind me so we could never have eye contact and Dad started in. He would hit the highlights and then look at me for clues to what he was forgetting. Mouthing “wet dreams” to your Dad in the Dairy Queen drive-thru is something I will never forget.

In February, Dad got diagnosed with melanoma and had a large tumor removed from his foot. It has taken him 5 months to start walking again, if only on a limited basis. We didn’t tell you that dad had cancer until we got the results of the lymph node biopsy they did to see if it had spread. We didn’t know what to tell you. We didn’t want you to worry about something that we worried about. When the biopsy came back negative, we told you that what they removed was cancer and that the surgeon had gotten it all out. We told you everything was going to be fine and tried our best to believe just that.

Since Dad isn’t able to work, I have been working more and spending less time with you. I have missed our Tuesday afternoons. I learned a few years back that I have to ask you detailed questions about your day to not get a “fine” response. You always opened up on those Tuesday afternoons and I felt connected to your life and what was going on in your world. When we have talked about me working more now, you have always understood why I wasn’t there, and I thank you for that. I want you to know that all along though, I knew you were missing me, scared Dad would die and thinking about how unfair all of this was. I am thinking all those things too, Robby, but you need someone to tell you everything is going to be okay and show you how to keep moving forward in faith. I am trying really hard every day to do just that. I guess only time will tell if I was successful.

Your music teacher commented on your report card that “Robby likes to talk. A lot…” She knows you well. You talk to everyone! Your classmates, our neighbors, the other shoppers in the grocery store, the mailman, our adult friends, store clerks…it doesn’t matter who you talk to. You share information and always engage people in conversation. I’m plotting how to pay you back for telling a city council member how much I love the movie “Fifty Shades of Grey”. I still think that this quality will help you to be a brilliant trial attorney some day. Frequently, you just go off on a jag and you are just talking and not even relaying information or aware that someone else is there with you. You just talk and talk and talk. This can go as long as 30 minutes at a time. When you do this with me and realize that I am still in the room and not listening anymore, you usually stop and say, “I’ll stop talking now. I know I talk too much, sorry.” Don’t ever stop talking to me, Robby. Talking is how you share what you think, feel and express love. Your voice is one that I will always want to hear.


Monday, April 30, 2012

What a Pickle - My Ride Along

As a Community Resource Team member of the Fire Services Delivery Investigation Project, I had an opportunity to do a "ride along" with the Vancouver Fire Department's Station 5 on Friday. After I dropped Robby off at school I arrived at Station 5 around 9:30 am. I was greeted by the four firefighters on "B" shift who staff Truck 5. I knew one of these men because he was one of the firefighters hired with the SAFER grant - one of the "SAFER 13". He took my purse and lunchbox and carried them upstairs while the other firefighters gave me a yellow vest to wear that said "Vancouver Fire Department Observer". They filled me in on their morning (they start their shift at 7am). They had already had a few calls, including one motor vehicle accident (MVA) fatality. Normally, station 5 is one of two stations that is staffed with both a firetruck and an engine. The crew of Engine 5 were away with the Heavy Rescue Unit also housed at station 5 (but not staffed). They were at a water training until later in the day, so all station 5 area calls would be handled by Truck 5. I was told we were heading off right away to go to Winco to get groceries for that night's dinner. They had been there earlier and had to drop everything and go on a call. We climbed into Truck 5 to head off to the store.

A fire truck has a different role at a fire than a fire engine. To really over-simplify it, a fire engine carries the water and a fire truck carries the ladders and tools. There are only two fire trucks in service in Vancouver; one at station 5 and the other at station 1, downtown. A truck is needed at every fire. Both trucks and engines take emergency medical service (EMS) calls. Vancouver Fire Department (VFD) currently staffs 3 firefighters on an engine and 4 firefighters on a truck. The truck needs a tillerman (driver in the back of the truck). Both Portland and Seattle staff 4 firefighters on an engine. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) recommends 4 firefighters per apparatus. VFD staffs well below the averages for the west coast and does not meet the national guidelines for staffing. (I'm not going to go off on that tangent here though. If you want more information on staffing levels Google NFPA 1710.)

I sat behind the driver of the truck. Next to me, in back, was the SAFER 13 recruit, riding shotgun was the Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) and the tillerman was in the back of the truck. In the truck, each person has a headset with a mic so everyone can communicate. On the ride to the grocery store, I learned that the City does not pay for food for the firefighters. The usual routine is each firefighter brings breakfast and lunch from home and they each put money in the "kitty" and buy groceries for their dinner, which they prepare at the fire station. It's not uncommon for them to be in the grocery store and have people come up to them, look in their shopping cart and say, "So, what's the City buying you guys for dinner tonight." When we went in the store, they wordlessly split up to do the shopping. I tagged along with one group as they recovered all the dropped items they had shopped for earlier. We met up with the other group, who had recovered their abandoned shopping cart. Tonight's menu was beans, coleslaw and smoked pork shoulder - to be served in mason jars. That's right, mason jars. The idea came from a food challenge seen on TV. I knew they were making a special meal on my account, and I couldn't wait for dinner.

We got the groceries back to the station and unloaded them. Prep started immediately. The meat went on the smoker and the veggies for the coleslaw were being cut when a call came in. A MVA with a medically questionable driver. I accomplished my goal of getting my ass up in the truck and not making anyone wait on me and we were off. Here was my view, as I sat in the back:

Next, the most startling realization of my day. So many people do not move to the right when an emergency vehicle is coming up behind them. I don't know if they had the music on so loud in the car (although there is no way the average car stereo can compete with the loud horns and sirens on that truck) or if they just didn't give a shit, but numerous cars did not pull over. In fact, we were passed TWICE. The next time you see those flashing lights and hear the horns and sirens, PLEASE, imagine they are on their way to save your child or mother and pull the car over to the right. The firefighters didn't get upset, didn't curse (although I think I did) but kept their cool and maneuvered that truck through traffic as safely as possible.

I had been told that I was not to get out of the truck at an accident scene, but this case allowed me to safely exit the truck onto a sidewalk and stay far enough away from traffic and the scene, so I got the clear to get out and observe. Again, the wordless teamwork of the firefighters took me by surprise. Each one instantly assessed the situation and went to work. All four of them were amazing. I know they train for situations and have gone out on numerous calls together, but it was still just amazing. It was like watching the infield of the 1974 Dodgers at the World Series - teamwork. The people involved in the accident even seemed to sense the calmness of this team and became calmer almost instantly.

Back at the station, I was being given a tour of the station when another call came in. When we returned, the tour resumed and I got to see where the firefighters sleep and shower.

 All I am going to say about this being where our firefighters sleep every three days is this:
 1. Google images of prison cells. 2. Compare.

Here's a shot of the three shower stalls that the seven firefighters share. The one on the right is out of order. There is a large crack in the bottom and it leaks below. The one in the center is operational. The one on the left is already occupied. Wanna see inside?

That's a lot of insects on the bottom the shower. Some of them could fly. They were coming out of the shower head.

I also toured the shop and saw where the firefighters do maintenance and simply repairs on their many tools.
After the tour, I thought about how the firefighters had given me the tour. Not once did anyone complain or go out of their way to point out something substandard. In fact, I was feeling rather like a royal shit for pointing out things I thought to be substandard. I would never dream of walking into a friend's house and  trashing their bedroom or the fact that they needed so many repairs. That's exactly what I had done though.  This was not just a fire station paid for with tax dollars. This was their house.

Then, it was off to see the recruit practice CPR with the assistance of a machine that analyzes when to stop compressions and shock the patient if necessary. The recruit even let me have a turn at chest compressions on the dummy and cal the shots. (He did a great job!)

There's a legend in the VFD of the "ride along curse". I guess many times, when there is a ride along, there are minimal or no calls. Several times I heard about a ride along where there were below normal calls and thirty minutes after the ride along was over a major fire call came in. The curse was elsewhere on Friday. As soon as we got back to the station, another call would come in. I went on EMS calls and MVA calls. There were no fire calls, although there was a commercial fire alarm call. Another unit was at the location and we ended up just monitoring the call until it was cleared.

After one EMS call, before we got back in the truck, they announced to the SAFER 13 recruit that they were "going on a call" at a 4 story building with smoke showing and a report of a person trapped on the 4th floor. They got in full gear, air and all and got in the truck. When we pulled back into station 5, there was a little smoke coming from the training tower. Before we were called out on our last call, they had set up a smoke machine and place a 180 pound dummy on the 4th floor for a training exercise. The recruit and a captain went into the structure in full gear while the other captain and our tillerman got the ladder ready to raise to the roof of the training tower. It was amazing to see each one perform their specific duties to get the ladder ready and raised as well as getting the necessary tools out and ready to go up the ladder to the roof.
Here's a shot of the tiller \]man going up the ladder.

The last photo is how far the tillerman got up the ladder before the next call came in. I am still awed at how quickly the ladder was down, tools away and we were pulling out of the station to get to the call. When we got back to the station, the ladder wasn't raised, but the captain and the recruit bolted up the tower in full gear to train the recruit on search and rescue. We got to go up behind them and see them carrying the heavy dummy down the four flights of stairs. We lingered at the top and I got to see how the thermal imaging tool is used to spot victims in a dark, smokey space.

We headed back to firehouse and dinner prep started. Engine 5 was back from training with the Heavy Rescue Unit and they got a call. I got to ride along with Engine 5 and her crew of three. It was an EMS call so I got to see how three responders worked vs four responders. It was very different riding in an engine. The truck rides more like a Hummer and the engine more like a sport coupe. One thing was the same - people just don't get the hell out of the way when an emergency vehicle is coming down the road.

When we returned to the fire station dinner was almost ready. The seven firefighters sat down at a long table and invited me to join them in one of the best meals I've had.

Yes, that's a dill pickle sticking up from the mason jar. The company was the only thing better than the food.

After dinner, I said my thanks and goodbyes and headed back to my life. I will never forget the day I shared with those firefighters. Every single person always acted as a true professional and a gentleman. I expected to learn a lot from my ride along. What I didn't expect was my pride and respect for these true heroes to grow even larger.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Crazy Fire Lady (Part 2)

I have re-written this post several times. I have struggled with sharing the story, since it involves other people as well. As you read this, please remember that I can only share this experience from my perspective. I have no intentions of making my judgments yours or harming any one's reputation or character.

When I contacted the Fire Chief to express my concerns, he suggested that I talk to the local firefighters union president. Firefighters are city employees and what I took away from our correspondence was that a conflict of interest existed for city employees to help "fight" a city policy. He also shared that he felt the only thing that could keep the station from closing at this point would be public pleas to our city council.

I met with the Local IAFF president at a Starbucks early one morning after he finished his 24 hour shift at 7am. Another concerned resident of my neighborhood was there to meet him as well. I was not aware he was going to be there, so I was pleased I was not alone in my concerns with closing the fire station.

At this meeting, I learned that the City had also shut down 2 rescue units from another station in town a few months ago. I had no idea that had happened. Like many of us, I didn't pay much attention to my local government or politics. I could have walked past a city council member in the grocery store and not had a clue who it was. I always voted, read the paper but never really concentrated on the local level. I felt ashamed. How could I have not have even heard of this? I guess I could say it takes a lot of time and effort to raise a child, be a good wife and make the mortgage payment every month. I still felt ashamed at my apathy. I suggested we hold a rally in front of the fire station to get some attention to the pending closure. The union president said he could provide a few signs and could alert the news media of the rally. The other resident suggested a petition be circulated. We decided I would organize the rally and he would organize the petition.

I created the Facebook page "Save Fire Station 6 - Vancouver, WA" and listed contact information for the Mayor and City Council and urged people to contact them and attend the rally. (Today, 596 people have "liked" that page and receive updates.) I printed a one page flyer that stated the fire station was being closed due to budget cuts and urged people to contact our mayor and city council members, join our Facebook page and attend the coming rally in front of the fire station. Over 2,500 copies were hand delivered to the homes that Station 6 protected. Momentum increased and eventually we formed a PAC (political action committee) Friends of Fire Station 6. To this day, I still believe that it should not take a PAC to ensure government uses our tax dollars to provide core public safety services. It was an election year though, and getting politicians involved meant getting press and getting the word out to more people.

Now that we had a plan, I started to do some research on our fire department. The more research I did, the more shocked I became. Each new fact about our fire department was more disturbing than the last one. I discovered that our fire department was already staffed at half of what other cities our size in the state are. Insurance rates were virtually guaranteed to go up (as they had 8 years ago) due to the number of firefighters on duty. I learned that our fire department was WELL below the National and State guidelines for response times and staffing. I learned that these were only guidelines so that every local fire department could best determine their own needs and develop a "Standards of Coverage" of their own. I discovered that our fire department had drafted several Standards of Coverage over the years and not a single one had ever been presented to our city council.

"Well, all of that explains it", I thought. The city council members do not know any of these facts. They have never even seen a Standards Of Coverage to know how dismal our fire department is already. If they knew, there is no way they would consider cutting it even more. So, off I went to a city council meeting.

Our city council had (yes, had - a long story) a citizens communication (or CitCom) at the end of every council meeting for citizens to address the council. CitCom is televised to local viewers and although today I can say that I regularly laugh while watching, I was very intimidated at the thought of speaking there the first time. First, you know you are on live television. Aside from the does this shirt make me look fatter or do I have a booger hanging from my nose issues, you are standing at a podium under bright lights and facing 7 people in suits seated behind a long curved desk. I was sitting in the audience waiting for my turn to speak thinking about how I was going to put aside my insecurities and manage to say something half way intelligent so they would listen. The speaker at the podium's subject was tolls and the I-5 bridge crossing. Like I said before, it was a hot topic. Things turned very ugly while he was speaking. A council member began shouting at the speaker as well as the mayor and then she got up and walked out the room. (The video of this became a YouTube hit and eventually this incident was brought before an ethics committee and the council member was stripped of her board seats.) The speaker left the podium and then the mayor grabbed the next card and called my name out to come up and speak. I stood up and said, "Oh yeah, I get to follow that guy" and "Is she coming back?" on my way to the podium. I believe I nervously communicated what I had intended to, but obviously no one was really focused on what I was saying. All thoughts were on the huge bomb that had just exploded. Imagine my shock when I found myself sitting at the next table from the speaker at a local restaurant the next night. I learned a lot eavesdropping on his conversation.

Despite the rough start, I continued to go back and speak to the council over then next few months. The vote on the budget that would close the fire station was looming and I had to let them know what was going on. I had to find a "win" for them in keeping that station open. Let me say this though. Even though many people disagree with closing a fire station, most of them are not willing to go before the council and speak. I have talked to so many passionate people who find the process too intimidating or their schedules too busy. Some did go before the council as well, but mostly it was my face they saw before them in those months. At some point, I was afraid if mine was the only voice they heard, I would be viewed as "The Crazy Fire Lady" and the message would get lost.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Crazy Fire Lady (Part One)

Wow. How is it possible I have neglected this blog for so long? Well, it all started last July...

I came home one evening and saw on the local news that they were planning on closing a fire station. "What?", I said to myself. "How could anyone ever even think that that would be the way to save money?" Then, they showed the station and I realized it was MY fire station. The crew from that station had responded so quickly the morning my mom had a heart attack. I saw them all the time in my neighborhood on calls or shopping for groceries right next to me at the Safeway.

Our City Council was having a town hall meeting the following week, so I decided to go and let them know that this was just outrageous. Somewhere in my mind, I thought it had to be a mistake or a political ploy or something. Seriously? Who would balance a budget by closing a fire station? Wouldn't that be political suicide for any politician? Does anyone remember the footage of the World Trade Centers on 9-11? It hasn't even been 10 years since the nation mourned those 343 firefighters who rushed in to save strangers and perished alongside them.

When John and I walked into the school auditorium for the town hall gathering, we were met with a large, angry crowd, most of whom had a "NO TOLLS!" sign in their hand. They were angry it seems because our Mayor had campaigned on a no tolls platform the past November and had just stated that it appeared tolls would be necessary to build a new bridge across the Columbia River into Portland (the I-5 bridge). Well, he won the election over the incumbent and now these folks felt cheated. Every question was about the bridge and tolls. John nudged me and said, "Stand up and talk - even if it isn't about tolls." Thanks to John, I did.

Imagine my shock when 6 of the 7 members of the council spoke to me about "what a hard decision closing the station was but it was necessary to keep other services from being cut completely". Now, I was not only baffled, but royally pissed off. What other service is higher on the list than our firefighters? That night I found out that not only were they planning on closing the fire station, they were going to eliminate 13 firefighter positions and 21 police officers from the force. I left that town hall meeting full of anger, disgust and determination and I didn't even have a clue that my life had just changed forever.

Friday, June 25, 2010

First Day of Kindergarten

Monday was Robby's first day of Kindergarten! Our daycare has an accredited Kindergarten program and Robby moved into that class. This will be Teacher Susan's fourth year teaching Kindergarten and she comes highly recommended. Transistioning him into the new class now will give him a few months to acclamate to new schedule before the curriculm starts in the fall. There will be twenty or fewer kids in his class so he will get a lot of individual attention. He turns five next month, making him one of the younger kids in the class.

Our school district only offers Kindergarten two half days a week and one addtional half day every other week. Driving him to school, then going to work, then picking him up at school and taking him to daycare, then going to work, then picking him up at daycare just doesn't fit into our schedule. At our assigned public school, some Kindergarteners didn't attend one single day last November due to holidays and teacher in service days. I am really disappointed in our school district for cutting Kindergarten to make the budget. I can think of so many things that should be in line for elimination before Kindergarten hours.

Robby woke up so excited and said, "Mama, did you forget today is my first day of Kindergarten?" He has a new backpack his grandma bought him this weekend and is so proud. John and I dropped him off together this morning. His classroom is in a historic old building and so charming and inviting. It's simply a great place to go to school. Robby is LOVING every second of it. He actually was upset when it was time to go home yesterday aternoon.

At his first birthday party I remember thinking that if I didn't give him his cake, he wouldn't be one and I could hold on to my baby just a little longer. I had those same feelings this morning. If we don't get out the door, he won't be a big school kid and I can hang on to my preschooler a little bit longer. It's gone by so fast and these little moments are the big milestones. I want to slow it all down so I can cherish them as long as possible.