As the 5 p.m. crew of first responders settled in for its shift at the Rockville Volunteer Fire Department, the 20 men and women sat in front of large-screen TV, eating chili and watching the NFL playoffs. They joked and laughed as people who work closely often do.
Nearby, EMT Aaron Abramson had his eyes on a different screen.
“That’s where our calls come in,” he said. “We also have a light tower that lights up, and speakers. So we always know when there’s a call. “
Abramson grew up in the area, attending Quince Orchard High School in Gaithersburg. He started volunteering four years ago after becoming “infatuated” with the lights and sounds of the emergency vehicles coming and going from the firehouse near where he lived growing up.
Abramson is one of 170 volunteers in the department, about 40 of whom are Jewish, according to the loose count of many of the Jewish first responders. Crews like the one that gathered Saturday night fight fires and respond to medical crises. Their shared experiences — danger, dealing with life’s emergencies and deaths — have brought them close, making them a second family even outside the walls of the fire house. They are colleagues and best friends and like a family, they pull together in good times and bad.
As he opened one of the many compartments on the side of a fire truck, Abramson noted that the vehicle is a toolbox on wheels. He pulled out the Jaws of Life — a big hydraulic tool used to help free people trapped in wrecked cars.
“This truck runs every kind of call from a medical call to a gas leak to a fire,” he said. “This is kind of the backbone of the fire service. The most common call is —”
An ambulance call came over the loudspeaker.
“I’ve got to take this,” he said, returning moments later after learning that another unit had was already on its way.
A passion from a young age
EMS Capt. Avital Graves, 31, began volunteering with the department 15 years ago. Her interest in becoming a paramedic took off when she was a 16-year old student at Charles E Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, inspired to get involved by the stories of other student volunteer firefighters and EMTs in her sports medicine class. She also said at the time she had a career goal of becoming a doctor, and volunteering as an EMT seemed to be a good introduction.
About six years later, she said she had an emotional awakening a while working with a crew she was not normally assigned to.
“It was the Rockville-Aspen Hill area, and the first responders who normally are in that area said, ‘We get this woman all the time. She’s a pain in the butt.’”
Graves said the crew went to the woman’s apartment, where the woman said she was having trouble breathing. She said she needed to use her breathing apparatus while being transported to the hospital; it was different from the one on the ambulance.
“We took her outside, and she was just so anxious and worked up about not being able to breathe,” Graves said. “She has this breathing equipment attached to her and everything. And the other guys didn’t even get that she was scared. They didn’t even acknowledge that she was terrified.”
Suddenly Graves began to feel more vulnerable than usual during a routine emergency call.
“What if my mom called 911?” she said. “It felt so real to me, and so painful.”
Graves felt a need to calm the woman, the way she’d want someone to do the same for her mother in a crisis. “I spent the rest of the transport holding her hand.”
The bats and bars
Ross Davis, a 22-year old Jewish firefighter from Rockville, said he too has noticed the camaraderie in the six years he has volunteered with the department.
“I joined the fire station not really knowing anyone,” he said. “So I was kind of overwhelmed at first. But you get to know everyone on your shift. People in the department help you get acclimated to the culture. After a while you get to be friends here and then friends outside of here, which really brings it together.”
They pull 12-hour shifts at least once a week, sometimes longer and sometimes more often.
Catholic upbringing aside, Capt. James Seavey, 31, casually included words from Jewish rituals as he noted that the firefighters don’t miss each other’s religious ceremonies.
“The bats, the bars, the confirmations, the bris. It’s one thing after the next,” he said. “It’s where you gotta be, what you gotta wear, how you gotta act. We’ve gotten it down to a science.”
Seavey said that spending so much time together attending to emergencies has helped turn them into a family.
“R.J. [Capt. Robert James] and I had three phone calls today while we weren’t here,” he said. “I hung out with three other people from the firehouse. Two came by my house and one I met for lunch. We lean on each other for advice, professional and personal needs. … We’re just closer because of the things we deal with on the street and in the firehouse.”
In a room called the “fishbowl” for its big windows, each volunteer in the department has a mailbox. The mailboxes were full last Saturday except for the one marked “Cohen.”
Volunteer firefighter Sander Cohen was killed Dec. 8 while helping a motorist on I-270. He was 33 and his sudden death in the line of duty has the firehouse family still shaken, almost a month later.
Seavey and James were two of his best friends. The room grew subdued when his name entered the conversation.
“We’re managing, but it’s nothing we’ve been through before,” said Seavey.
Seavey and James — who’s also not Jewish — said they took solace in listening to a eulogy at Cohen’s funeral given by Rabbi Shlomo Buxbaum of Aish HaTorah of Greater Washington. Afterward, they spoke with Buxbaum and decided to start attending the rabbi’s weekly study sessions.
“We’ve been closer with him then with any clergy we’ve ever dealt with before,” Seavey said.
“He resonated with all of us, and so he said, ‘Let’s get together.’”
“When it comes to Rabbi Buxbaum, he had a closeness with Sander, and that’s the way we can have a closeness with Sander,” James said.
“My girlfriend, who is Jewish, thinks it’s pretty funny that I’m going to a rabbi once a week,” Seavey said.
“She looked at me and said, ‘That’d be like me going to meet with a priest every month.’”
Graves joined the department about the time Cohen did. The two grew up across the street from each other in
Rockville, but became friends only once they started working together.
Her spirits are lifted by looking outside and knowing the firehouse family is with Cohen’s family.
“These past few weeks, it’s been really reassuring that I’ve seen a fire truck, or a member’s car nearby,” she said.
During the week, Graves works as director of admissions for the home services agency Premier Homecare. But her volunteer job is still her passion.
“I love doing this,” she said. “And I want to be in a place in my life where I can do this.”