Check-In Profile: Joe Conzo, Jr. - First Responder
As long as there have been people in hazardous situations, there have been a small number who choose to run towards danger when lives may be in jeopardy. The term “First Responder” turned up in the mid-to-late 90s according to Dictionary.com, but clearly became part of common language with the attacks on September 11, 2001. Every American knows exactly where they were and what they were doing in that moment.
I was in the Bronx at a new job and had to find my way back Manhattan to pick up my daughter from school, walking the last five miles. She was fine, as were the people in my immediate family, thank goodness. My cousin Joe Conzo, Jr. was an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) in the South Bronx at the time. Since the subways were shut down the next day, I rode my bike by his station house on my way home from work. Given the location, it never occurred to me that he might have been downtown. The smile on his face when he saw me was genuine as he was clearly amazed to see me. That smile melted away when I asked how he was doing and the horror of the previous day’s events flooded back, filling both of our eyes with tears.
Joe Conzo’s personal and professional journey since that day has been remarkable and inspirational, with his successes rooted in the love of his family, his resilience, and his unbreakable spirit. I reached out to him as the Vice President of the Uniformed EMTs, Paramedics & Fire Inspectors, FDNY, Local 2507 so he could share a bit about the life of a First Responder and how connecting and communicating with others helps them cope with the incredible stress of this complicated, dangerous, and ultimately very fulfilling profession.
What drew you to becoming an Emergency Medical Technician, and thus a First Responder?
Well, helping people is in my blood. My first job out of high school was working as a clerk in Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx, and that was where that I saw EMT’s in action for the first time. I thought to myself, “How cool is that to actually save people’s lives every day?!” That moment was life changing. Not long after that I enlisted in the Army and became a Licensed Practical Nurse. When I was discharged, those skills were easily transferable to the role of EMT. I have been doing this for over twenty years now.
What is a day in the life of an EMT like? The routine starts out simple: You get to work, check out your equipment to make sure everything is in working order, and then go to your briefing. After that, you don’t know what is going to happen on a given day.
Quiet days mean helping the elderly or kids deal with relatively minor injuries. The hard days could mean anything—shootings, stabbings, MVA’s (Motor Vehicle Accidents) and more. It is tough and unpredictable out there.
Tell us about your best moments… Delivering my first baby! It was almost like being there when my son was born. Women have been giving birth for thousands of years, so my job really is to help keep them [and their families] calm and make sure that things go smoothly.
Sometimes I will talk or joke around saying “You know Joseph Anthony is very nice name for a boy.” That usually brings out a smile. Beyond that, it is seeing folks on the street that I have helped years later and they will say “Remember me? You saved my life!” Then they tell me about what happened to them and about their recovery. That really is great.
What were the toughest times? I had to perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on a baby. His parents had a party and drank too much. They brought the baby to bed with them and the father rolled over on him… [Long pause as Joe recalled the incident]. The baby didn’t make it. That was very tough because it was the very first time I actually tried to do mouth-to-mouth in the field.
The other toughest moment was September 11, 2001.* I didn’t really think about it at the time, but there is a picture of me and my partner rushing downtown in our ambulance while everyone else is fleeing in the opposite direction. That is what First Responders do, right? Firemen, Police, EMT’s, all of us do what we have to do.
* - Joe and his partner received the call and rushed down to the World Trade Center site. He was in the lobby of the first tower when the second one collapsed. Both were rescued by NYC Firefighters minutes before that building also came down.
How do you and your fellow EMT’s deal with stress? More than anything else, we rely on each other. Older veterans school the newer recruits, sharing experiences and showing them the ropes. There are also counseling services available which we encourage our members to take advantage of. This is critically important when dealing with the dangers and uncertainty of this job.
Talk to us about personal connections, communications, and support systems… Connecting with others starts with people you know and trust. For me, that starts with my wife. We have been together for 17 years and she knows what this life is all about.
Next are partners because we work so closely together and understand what goes on out there, and that is really important. Friends and family really don’t know what it is like because they simply don’t have the experiences we do. That is one of the reasons that partners become so close. It also is a factor in why the divorce rate among First Responders (Fire/Police/EMT’s, et al) tends to be higher than the general public.
One more thing: I was open to counseling after September 11th because of my own life experiences. I know that I cannot carry the entire load alone and sometimes one must reach out to professionals.
Any closing thoughts? Becoming an EMT is a calling. You certainly aren’t getting into it for the money or the benefits. You’re not going to get rich doing this, but the experience of helping others every day is priceless. There is nothing like delivering a baby in the back of a car, or when there is a breach birth with the baby’s arm hanging out, or performing CPR on an elderly person, and for you do what you were trained to do to help them survive. These are feelings that very few people experience. If you can accept that, you are the richest person in the world.
In addition to his role as a New York City EMT, Joe Conzo, Jr. is a celebrated photographer who chronicled the birth of hip-hop. Find more of his creative work here.