Minneapolis firefighter, author writes about EMS, trauma and the toll on first responders
Capt. Jeremy Norton shares that EMS is the majority of work firefighters face
By Chris Hewitt
MINNEAPOLIS — Like all firefighters, Capt. Jeremy Norton sees lots of bad stuff. Unlike most, he wrote a book about it.
Norton is uniquely trained for both jobs. He heads Station 17 in south Minneapolis, but one of his previous jobs was teaching creative writing at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis.
Norton, 56, said he’s worked for years on various versions of “Trauma Sponges: Dispatches From the Scarred Heart of Emergency Response.” The 23-year veteran of the Minneapolis Fire Department was grappling with which parts of the story to tell.
It remains a multifaceted book, but one theme became solidified as he wrote about memorable calls: Firefighters don’t get enough help coping with the distress they and other first responders face.
That’s everywhere in “Trauma Sponges,” which is out now and which he discussed while off-duty at the station, frequently interrupted by alerts and sirens. This conversation was edited for clarity and concision.
Q: One revelation of the book is that fighting fires is only about 20% of your job. Am I the only one floored by that?
A: Part of my writing was trying to explain to my in-laws and to citizens who call 911 at 3 in the morning for a minor malady and object to finding a fire truck outside their house. When I started, a friend who got me interested had told me a lot about the job, but I didn’t understand what it entailed. As I was trying to learn it, I was also trying to explain, “Yeah, we fight fires, but this medical component is the majority of our work.”
Q: So “Trauma Sponges” might be useful for would-be colleagues as well as anyone interested in the department?
A: A lot of firefighters carry a degree of traumatic stress because they don’t expect they’ll see as much grief, loss and suffering on the [emergency medical services] side as we do. It’s lots of deep emotional paper cuts they have not prepared us for. But the other part of the book is that there’s no way to prepare you for it.
Q: You discuss how trauma led to macho toxicity in the largely male workplace. Does that improve as people understand the work better?
A: There are so many unhealthy coping mechanisms inherent in this. The Vietnam generation, a lot of them were broken men who coped as best they could through some of the meanness you find in stations: drinking, drugs, other maladaptive behaviors. So, in a sense, I’m writing for younger firefighters.
Q: What kind of reaction to the book are you expecting?
A: It’s a dense book. I have literary aspirations if not pretensions and I get a lot of grief already for my verbosity. My license plate is PROLIX [“wordy”]. I’m a nerd. A lot of people will read it and see what I’m trying to say, but some are not going to like my fundamental arguments. But it’s the naïve thing of me saying, “I’m genuine, I tried to be fair and I can back up every argument.”
Q: Were you worried there’s too much going on in the book?
A: I want people to understand the health care system better. I want people to understand what’s happening in our society. I want my coworkers to think more about why poor people are calling us for their health care. I want all of these things.
Q: You mention your daughters often in the book. They’re in their 20s, now, and I imagine the book was an eye opener for them?
A: From when they were young, I would spin it as bad-life-choice stories I saw at work. They were 5 and 3, getting bedtime stories about bad human decisions. I would try to give them a better holistic understanding about why people might be out on the streets, why we show up, why we work to find them a better place.
Q: You’ve said the hardest part to write was the section about systemic problems in public safety. Why?
A: I have not seen people making connections between the 911 call system, how emergency responders take the info they are getting, how we engage with who we are sent to investigate, our limited options when we arrive and the lack of follow-up. Of any self-proclaimed first-world country, our police kill more civilians, particularly who are not threatening, than anyone else. That became galvanizing. Looking at the end results of the riots [after George Floyd’s murder], the lack of change — I still think we don’t understand what happened.
Q: What do you mean?
A: It’s still poorly understood, which leads to this lack of a “they.” Who is supposed to reform the system: Our strong mayor? Our Legislature? The police? Who is supposed to investigate so it doesn’t happen again?
Q: The book details near-misses around George Floyd’s murder: What if your crew, which was called to the scene, arrived slightly earlier? What if Derek Chauvin hadn’t taken over the scene?
A: Having been on these calls and watched the bodycam footage so many times, which is horrific, the idea of ascribing malice [to the officers] misses the point. There’s the fundamental racial bias of our culture. This was what happens when a structural failure occurs. For once, it wasn’t a gunshot in a panic, but it was the junior officers not being empowered to speak up to the senior officer. It’s everyone on autopilot, which works well until it doesn’t.
Q: Is there a way “Trauma Sponges” is about grappling with death?
A: It becomes a challenge to be with a family who is shocked their 98-year-old matriarch stopped breathing. That’s something I would love to find ways to start better conversations about. Even the medical profession is reluctant to have conversations about death.
Q: Has the job taught you about confronting death?
A: It’s hard, seeing the denial, seeing the missed opportunities to accept that our time is finite. If you believe in an afterlife, great, but our time here is finite. Let’s celebrate that.
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