The ethnic diversity of Fairfax County in Northern Virginia, just south of Washington, D.C., is reflected in its civic institutions – its schools, health services, police force, town councils. Today on New American Voices you’ll meet two firefighters who are part of the ethnic mosaic of the county. Thirty-year-old Song Kuy Yi has been with the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue department for nine and a half years. He says it’s been a uniquely rewarding career.
“I really enjoy working with people and helping people. We have a great group of people here that have the same kind of background, that like working with people and helping people, and that’s the high I get. Like going to a sick person, or a person that’s hurt, and when you give them a helping hand they say ‘thank you very much’, any wage or anything like that [doesn’t matter], that ‘thank you’ will be gratifying enough.”
Mr. Yi points out that in addition to fighting fires, the job involves a variety of rescue operations.
“We’re called the fire department, but fires we might get maybe once a week. Normally the majority of our calls are medical calls, or vehicle accidents, vehicle fires, a lot of public services. The medical calls that we get will be like chest pains, seizures, diabetic emergencies... We also go to elementary schools and do show and tells and public safety awareness and stuff like that.”
Song Kuy Yi did not set out to be a firefighter. In college he studied the administration of justice, and considered a career in the FBI or the CIA. But in his second year of college his father died, leaving him as his mother’s sole supporter. At a friend’s suggestion he applied for a job with the fire and rescue squad, and after passing a battery of physical and psychological tests, was accepted into the five-month-long training program. Song Kuy Yi remembers his first actual fire fighting job after graduating.
“About a month out of the Academy we had a big fire, and I was, you know, a rookie, I didn’t have much experience, I was actually in the building and I could actually see fire and smoke, and it really made me take a step back. Going through the Academy you saw training fires, but to see an actual fire in an uncontrolled situation, that was really exciting.”
Although he has lived most of his life in the United States – Song Kuy Yi immigrated to this country with his parents when he was seven years old – he maintains contact with the Korean community in northern Virginia.
“There is a huge influx of Koreans here, and I also go to a Korean-American church, and through church, through college friends, I do keep in touch with other Korean Americans. My mom’s a widow, and she lives with me right now, and the food that I eat when I go home is Korean, the language that I speak with my mother is Korean, and so – some of the customs, and stuff like that, you still retain a little bit of Korean culture.”
Mr. Yi says the fact that he is Korean-American played virtually no role in his career with the Fairfax fire and rescue squad.
“In the beginning, - I think I was like maybe the second or third Asian in the fire and rescue department – I could feel a little bit of discrimination on the part of some people, but overall, you know, I felt very welcome, and throughout the years I’ve just been really welcomed, and I feel that my race has no bearing in my work”.
One of Song Kuy Yi’s colleagues in the the Fairfax Fire and Rescue Department is Panamanian-born Luis Rollins. After a 14-year career as a fire fighter in the Panama Canal Zone. Mr. Rollins and his family emigrated to the United States in 1989. They first settled in the southern state of North Carolina, and then moved to Fairfax County in Virginia. Mr. Rollins, a burly man with ebony skin and a roguish grin, says that like Mr.Yi, he encountered few obstacles because of his race.
“Not here in Fairfax, not here in Virginia. I did down in North Carolina, and that’s probably one of the things that prompted me to come here. There were some people who had off-track ideas as to how people were or are, you know. One of the things I heard a lot was, ‘Well, you have an accent’. And I’d say, ‘Well, you have one too. Where are you from?’ I’d always ask, and they’d say, ‘Well, I’m from the North, from New York, from Boston, from the South’ and I’d say, ‘Well, it’s a diverse world we live in. Hey, imagine if all flowers were the same color, it would be a monotonous world to live in! So, diversity is a great thing. It adds to our enjoyment’.”
Luis Rollins, who worked in a Panamanian medical clinic before becoming a firefighter, now specializes in the emergency medical aid that the Fairfax fire and rescue team provides. In describing what he likes most about his job, Mr. Rollins echoes Song Kuy Yi.
“It’s the fact that you serve the public, you help the public. You educate the public also as to what needs to be done to be safe and to avoid, you know, unnecessary stress in their lives. And by that I mean, you know, there’s people who fall ill, there’s car accidents, which we see a lot, and different other things aside from fires.”
The fire and rescue team at Fairfax County station Number 35, to which Song Kuy Yi and Luis Rollins belong, has members who are are white, black, Asian, immigrant, native-born, men and women. But according to Mr. Rollins, they all share some fundamental qualities.
“Dedication. The person needs to be dedicated to this. It’s not just a job. It takes someone who is a little off-wit, and by that I mean, you know, not everybody wants to be running into an environment that is hazardous to their health. We do it, and we enjoy it, but we’re prepared somewhat for what we’re doing. Every day is different, every situation is different, every event is different, but we really enjoy what we do. And basically because we’re helping people. We don’t want to see anybody in distress. We wish nothing like this would ever happen in their lives, you know, they get sick, or their home burns up, or they have an accident. But at the very end of it, at the end of the day you can always say, ‘Whew, that was a job well done’.”
English Feature #7-38243 Broadcast January 19, 2004