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How a Firefighter's Small Action Saved Lives

Meet Me at the Mailbox

I grew up hearing the stories. My grandfather fought fires in Brooklyn as a young volunteer. As a 17-year-old, my father volunteered in a small farming community in the Connecticut River Valley. Then my husband of two years decided to join the local volunteer fire department early in the fall of 1992. He applied to the department, was interviewed, and then accepted as a member. The first time his pager went off was the evening before Thanksgiving. He rushed out the door, and I sat at home waiting for him to return, safe and sound. He returned late that night, tired, smelling of smoke, with a satisfied grin on his face. He had helped someone in need, a complete stranger. If felt good. I asked him what he did at the fire scene.

"I directed traffic around the scene so the firefighters and firetrucks could move around without worrying about being hit by a car." I responded, "I can do that!" So, I did. I submitted my membership application, went through the interview process, and was also accepted as a member of the fire department the following month. The family legacy continued.

For twenty years, I served my community as a volunteer firefighter. Early on I grew accustomed to the comments of "It’s a girl!" and "Aren’t you too small to fight fires?" I proved that I was just as capable as any of the men to handle a firehose, tackle a brush fire, or extract a car crash victim. The National Fire Protection Association estimated that of the 1,115,000 firefighters in the United States in 2018, 745,000 were volunteer firefighters. Of those volunteers, 78,500 firefighters were women. That’s right! Women made up over 10 percent of the volunteer firefighters in the United States, and the number keeps growing.

The smallest actions on our part can change or save a life! My regular job was for the local government offices, and fortunately, I was allowed to leave work for emergency calls in the middle of the day. I even joined our volunteer ambulance squad to assist the sick and injured in our community. Through both the fire department and the ambulance squad, I saw my rural community as it struggled with pain and tragedy through accidents, illnesses, and death. I also witnessed the community as it celebrated finding the lost, survival from crashes, and, joy of joys, new births!

One of my favorite activities was providing fire safety information to local children. The men in my fire department did not enjoy it as much as I did. Every October, our fire department participated in Fire Prevention Week. The school bell would ring, and children would flood out the doors to the parking lot where we had our fire trucks and gear set up. Lessons in "Stop! Drop! and Roll!" and "Meet Me at the Mailbox," and how to operate a hand pump engaged students and teachers alike. We would sing a song with actions for each word and end up rolling on the asphalt or grass to extinguish pretend flames on our clothes. The "Meet Me" exercise had everyone thinking of a spot where the family could meet in case of a house fire. It had to be a safe spot, away from the danger, but accessible by everyone. Most houses in our community had a mailbox at the end of the driveway so it was our most frequently chosen spot. My fellow firefighters stressed the importance of the whole family knowing the phrase, "In case of a house fire, meet me at the mailbox!" Little did I know the impact this effort would have.

On a chilly, March afternoon my department was dispatched to a house fire. The address was for a wooded area at the base of a mountain. After setting tire chocks behind my firetruck’s wheels, so it wouldn’t roll downhill, I turned to survey the scene. A small voice cried out, "It’s the Fire Lady!" Suddenly I was surrounded by a pair of adults and three small children. The youngest kept shouting, "It’s her! The Fire Lady!"

The mother grabbed my arm saying, "Our daughter kept her wits, knew to get all of us out and to gather at the mailbox. She learned it last fall at the firehouse. You saved our lives!" Truly, we must remember that the smallest actions on our part can change or save a life!

About Mary

Mary T. Howard is a retired planner and transportation specialist in the Hudson Valley of New York State. A twenty-year veteran of the volunteer fire service, she continues to offer assistance to her town, serving on government and parish boards. She encourages everyone to find ways to serve the public good with their time and talents. Such activities benefit both the individual and the community.

Copyright 2021, The Old Schoolhouse®. Used with permission. All rights reserved by the author. Originally appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the trade publication for homeschool moms. Read The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine free at www.TOSMagazine.com, or download the free reader apps at www.TOSApps.com for mobile devices. Read the STORY of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine and how it came to be.

Photo credit: © Getty Images/Kara Capaldo

Mary T. Howard is a retired planner and transportation specialist in the Hudson Valley of New York State. A twenty-year veteran of the volunteer fire service, she continues to offer assistance to her town, serving on government and parish boards. She encourages everyone to find ways to serve the public good with their time and talents. Such activities benefit both the individual and the community.

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