The siren sounded, and I was out of bed in a flash, pulling my pants on over my pajamas, reaching for my shirt, and heading for the door. A volunteer fireman learns to respond quickly to that sound and to take shortcuts to get to the firehouse and into the suit and boots that will be necessary to fight a fire or, in the years that I served, to hop into the rescue truck to provide emergency medical assistance.
Only this time, my wife interrupted my preparations with the loud question, “Where are you going?” Then I realized my mistake. We were in a motel in the middle of Pennsylvania, sharing the room with a couple of close friends, and headed toward a friend’s ordination in Massachusetts. We were five hundred miles from our hometown, five hundred miles from the town where I had joined the fire and rescue squad.
I would not make it in time to help. No, the siren call belonged to someone else, not to me. In the confusion of automatic responses, the full realization actually took a few moments.
When I finally withdrew from that volunteer responsibility, it also took a while to unlearn that response that had become a part of my body. As important as it is to have people ready to respond immediately to provide help, the duty and its adrenalin rush take a toll on the responder and those who are close. People need to learn to be ready; people also need to learn not to be ready.