When the winds kicked up as Hurricane Irma made its way up Florida’s west coast, rescue workers watched helplessly as the 911 calls piled up on a computer screen.
They weren’t allowed to respond. Winds were so high that emergency services in many areas were suspended to protect the rescuers.
“It just stinks. You’re sitting here not be able to do your job,” said Billy Johnston, a firefighter paramedic with St. Petersburg Fire Rescue. “And we got into this job to help people.”
“It’s a helpless feeling, but we have to look out for our safety. If we go out, we potentially create another emergency, and people have to come and help us,” added his colleague David Owens, a firefighter EMT.
Pinellas County, which includes St. Petersburg, suspended its response to 911 calls at around 8:30 Sunday night, when sustained winds exceeded 40 miles per hour, according to Kevin Baxter, a spokesman for the county.
Conditions varied, and some fire departments in the northern part of the county did respond to some emergency calls Sunday night, he added.
In St. Petersburg, rescue workers stopped responding to calls at around 6:30 Sunday night, according to firefighter EMT Tim Kocer.
At that time, there were about 80 first responders gathered in the St. Petersburg Fire Rescue master station.
While the workers were prohibited from responding to calls, they were able to see a list of the incoming calls on their computer screen.
Several stand out in their minds. For example, Owens said there were four cardiac arrests all at one time, and there was also a 12-year-old who was having trouble breathing.
“I had to walk away from the computer because of the nature of the calls and not being able to do anything about them,” said Jonathan Martino, a firefighter paramedic. “It definitely feels pretty bad. People are hurt right now,”
The rescue team made an exception for the boy, who was having an asthma attack. He lived in the same neighborhood as the fire station, and shortly after midnight, first responders brought him to Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg.
“The child’s health was our number one priority,” said Lt. Steven Lawrence, a spokesman for St. Petersburg Fire Rescue.
As the storm raged Sunday night, the St. Petersburg first responders slept in shifts. Those who were awake reviewed protocols, watched the Seahawks-Packers football game, and played cards and dominoes. Occasionally they ventured out onto a balcony with a roof to experience the wind and rain firsthand.
But they couldn’t do what they wanted to do most: help people.
“We’re chomping at the bit,” said Thomas Enright, a firefighter paramedic.
During the storm, many rescuers nervously called and texted their spouses, anxious to make sure they were safe.
“I was calling and texting my wife and she didn’t answer and I was freaking out,” said Martino, whose wife was at home with their 2-month-old and 4-year-old children. It turned out they’d lost power and needed to charge her phone.
Early Monday morning, as the winds subsided, rescue workers began responding to calls.
What happened next shows the danger of their jobs.
At 6:40 a.m., a St. Petersburg fire crew was responding to a call about a fire started by downed power lines. As they drove in the dark, they couldn’t see power lines hanging low because of the storm.
The lines hit the windshield and an officer sustained an eye injury from broken glass.
The officer was treated and released from St. Petersburg General Hospital.