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Updated 6/20/02

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Photo of a group of firefighters

The Making of a Hero
by Amanda Gallagher

Not long ago, children thought a hero wore a mask and cape and leapt comic book buildings in a single bound. Others wore baseball and football jerseys, slamming home runs out of Wrigley Field or kicking 60-yard field goals.

Today’s heroes fight for freedom in a military uniform. And today’s heroes ride in fire trucks and ambulances. These heroes aren’t bathed in a stadium spotlight, performing to the din of cheering fans. They work in quiet firehouses, patiently lifting weights, reading books or joking with friends until the siren sounds.

"When that tone goes off, it’s like letting the animals out of the cage. Everybody is hyped up, on the fire truck and ready to go," said Brian Worley, a fire apparatus operator with the San Antonio Fire Department (SAFD) and a paramedic student in the Health Science Center’s department of emergency medical technology.

Photo of firefighters working to save a victim

Six SAFD paramedics ”rescue“ a mock victim from the industrial crawl space under the Dental School. The training is part of the EMS recertification process all firefighters undergo every four years.

He and the 1,550 other firefighters in San Antonio make up the new breed of American hero: the rescue workers who can and will save our lives without a second’s thought. They emerged into the forefront of Americana after Sept. 11. But these heroes weren’t created after the tragedy. They were created for it.

"These are the kind of people who like to solve problems, who like to help people. Certainly, they are very selfless," said Donald J. Gordon, M.D., Ph.D., chairman of the department of emergency medical technology. "They’re cool under pressure, they like to analyze situations and they’re highly intelligent."

Dr. Gordon heads the largest emergency medical technology program in the state of Texas and one of the largest in the country. The program trains more than 3,300 students each year, including the U.S. Military Special Forces. More than 120 Army Rangers, Navy Seals and elite Air Force pararescue teams graduate from the program annually.

Students learn swift water and vertical rescues. They pull patients out of stairwells and darkened tunnels. They ride in ambulances, saving real victims in life or death situations. The program offers EMT, EMT-Intermediate and EMT-Paramedic courses in conjunction with the SAFD and the U.S. military. It is also the only program in Texas offering a bachelor of science degree in emergency health sciences. Basically, it’s "hero-school." But don’t tell that to some of its finest students and graduates.

"Guys are in it for the love of the work," Worley said. "It sounds silly, but a lot of pleasure in my work is just the self-satisfaction knowing I’m helping somebody. It’s a real basic-level thing."

While the Health Science Center will give Worley the technical skills he needs to perform his job, it is only the final step in the making of a hero.

Worley, like all other students, has something unusual in him — a keen sense of adventure and a seemingly innate commitment to serving his community. Perhaps it comes from his father, Steve. Steve Worley is the deputy fire chief of the SAFD, and a graduate of the Health Science Center’s fourth paramedic class. The Worleys are among dozens of relatives who trained at the Health Science Center before entering the fire department. But the older Worley says he and his family aren’t heroes.

"We’re ordinary people," Steve Worley said. "We’re just trained to do a job."

But what a job it is. "It’s like a roller coaster ride," Brian Worley said. "You can have a shift where you feel every emotion you could feel, every anxiety you could experience. You walk through burning buildings where you can’t see anything, can’t feel anything except through your thick gloves and you don’t hear anything except all the fire trucks and motors outside. It’s all this intensity and then it’s like reading a really good book and tearing off the last page without looking at it — you leave your patient at the hospital, and unless it’s in the news, you never really know what happens."

But, Worley said, "when you win, you win big." And that makes a lifetime of difference for the rest of us.

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