Stair climbers save a life — training becomes the real thing


By Bruce Burdett

There is no good moment to go into cardiac arrest but for one Fall River woman the timing was about as fortunate as it gets.

She had no sooner hit the floor of the lobby at Fall River's Riverview Towers than a Westport firefighter/EMT burst through the front door. He was quickly followed by four other Westport rescuers, all well-versed in dealing with such medical emergencies.

They had driven to Riverview to make use of its 19-floor staircase — it's a place they had trained several times for the Fight for Air Climb just held in Providence.

When they arrived, Westport Firefighter Bob Porawski got out of their vehicle so that he could open the locked lobby door and let the rest of the group in.

"As I walked up and looked through the window I saw a woman in the lobby," he said. "But an instant later she was gone. That was strange."

But as he walked through the door he saw her again — now on the floor, unconscious.

"She was not breathing, unresponsive," he said. He, joined seconds later by the rest of the Westport crew (Lt. Dan Ledoux and firefighter/EMTs Tony Ward, Keith Nickelson, and Chris Caswell), tried to wake her up and began CPR.

Mr. Porawski, who does part-time work with a Fall River fire/rescue crew, happened to have their number on his cell phone and called for an ambulance — "and we need an AED (automated external defibrillator), he told the dispatcher.

First to arrive was a Fall River police officer bearing an AED.

"She was still unresponsive … and we wound up shocking her (with the AED)," he said. They also started an IV line.

"Then one of the guys found a pulse."

A Fall River ambulance arrived, and by the time the elderly woman was aboard, "she was already talking. She was still pretty out of it but she was definitely conscious."

Days later, a Fall River fire crew went to Riverview Towers to do some stair-climb training of their own and encountered that same woman.

"Are you the guys who saved my life?" she asked them.

No, those were Westport firefighters, she was told.

"Well please thank them for me," she replied. "They saved me."

If timing is everything for a person who has gone into cardiac arrest — "and it absolutely is, this woman hit the lottery," Mr. Porawski said. "She literally collapsed at the very moment a whole team of EMts was walking in the door. That doesn't happen every day, it doesn't always work out that way for us but when it does there's no feeling like it."


Providence Fight for Air

Those same firefighters, along with sixth firefighter/EMT Thurston Weston, competed in the American Lung Association's Feb. 22 Fight for Air Climb up the 25-story Omni Hotel in Providence.

Like fire crews from around the region, they raced with 50-plus pounds worth of full turnout gear including air packs.

Even with the training we've done, it is "pretty brutal … I was completely gassed at the top, we all were. It is a race so you don't want to have anything left at the finish."

Mr. Porawski figures the team finished about in the middle of the firefighting-teams pack, a field that included some big teams from city departments. Keith Nickelson got credit for the Westport team's best time — 3 minutes and 52 seconds — but the times of all six Westport entries were not much more than a minute apart.

His own time might have been a bit better, Mr. Porawski said, had he not seen a stair climb sign at the 23rd floor and gone through the door there — only to discover he had a couple of floors to go. "That's my excuse," he laughed.

Training for the Westport crew continues.

On the calendar this year are a Tough Mudder, Tough Scrambler, and a Warrior Dash along with a bike race or two.

As part of their intent to add a degree of difficulty each time, they're hoping to lug a 120-pound manikin along  when the do their next Tough Scrambler — "if they let us."

They do all this, Mr. Porawski said, because it's a way to keep interest and enthusiasm up for the training that must be done.

Physically fit firefighters and rescuers are able to think more clearly, "do their jobs better if they are good shape for what can be really exhausting work," Mr. Porawski said.


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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.