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Applying lessons learned at mothers knee

Gresham's firefighter of the year continues tradition of service he learned at home
by: Jim Clark Pat McAbery is Gresham's firefighter of the year.

Gresham's Firefighter of the Year didn't choose his profession. It chose him.

'My mom was an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) with Hoodland Fire District when EMTs were just beginning,' said Pat McAbery, firefighter/paramedic with Gresham Fire and Emergency Services. 'I went on my first calls with her when I was 7 years old. My dad drove because where mom went, dad went and you couldn't leave a 7-year-old home alone. It was just what we had going on.'

McAbery, 46, has an 'Aw, gee, shucks' sort of attitude about being chosen as Firefighter of the Year, preferring to think he's just part of the team. A soft-spoken man with an easy smile and dry humor, McAbery expressed surprise that his 20 years of flying under the department's radar had earned him such an honor.

'All I thought was there's got to be somebody better than me,' he said, laughing. 'There are so many mind blowing skills and abilities in this department, so this has been very humbling.'

Born in Gresham, McAbery was raised in Rhododendron. Given his upbringing, it came as no surprise to his family when he joined the Explorer program with Hoodland Fire at age 16. He eagerly learned what was offered and marked the time until he was eligible to become a full-fledged volunteer firefighter when he turned 18.

In 1986, he went to work for Alpine Ambulance, which later became Buck Ambulance. Next to volunteer responders, the Portland-based ambulance company was the only emergency service available to rural mountain residents, but was dispatched from Northeast Portland.

'There was nothing but EMT volunteers at the time,' McAbery said. 'Phone booths around town had lists of phone numbers to call if you had a medical emergency, but my mom carried a first aid kit in the car. (Volunteers) were just told to go somewhere and what the problem was. At first, they had Motorola radios and eventually pagers, but at first, they had no way to communicate. We were always the first on scene because the ambulance had to come so far.'

McAbery earned his EMT certification during his years with the ambulance company and in 1992, he joined Gresham Fire as a firefighter/paramedic. Content in his current position, McAbery declines to seek higher rank because he finds his best inspiration for learning to be among his coworkers.

'The folks that I work with are so amazing,' he said. 'I get so much more from everybody else - their skills, knowledge, experience. There is so much to the fire business, and it's amazing to see the teamwork that goes into it.'

McAbery spoke of two recent emergency calls, both involving pedestrians and MAX light-rail trains. Moving the train would have caused further injury, or death, to the individuals. The problem was how to cautiously protect and extricate them.

'One of the guys suggested putting them on a backboard, tying a rope to the board and sliding them out like they were on a dolly under a car,' McAbery said. 'It worked perfectly and that's why this job is a lot more than what can be learned in a classroom. You can get 10 guys at a scene and somebody may come up with a way to help the situation that we hadn't thought of before. That's what makes it worthwhile.'

McAbery began volunteering 18 years ago with Gresham Fire's Explorer Post No. 788. The program is aimed at teens, ages 15-20, who are interested in future careers in the fire services. They receive training in basic firefighter skills, hazardous materials and ways to avoid blood-borne pathogens. After passing a skills test, Explorers are eligible to ride along with firefighters and assist with actual emergency calls.

McAbery's dedication to the Explorer program was a recurring theme among nominations by his peers for Firefighter of the Year, said Battalion Chief Jason McGowan. At one count, it was estimated nearly 10 percent of the department's staff had completed the program under McAbery's supervision.

'Pat takes great pride in the Explorer program,' McGowan said. 'He has helped numerous young people get into the fire service by giving them guidance and providing a positive influence. He absolutely lights up when he gets to tell someone about one of his 'kids' who got a job somewhere. He truly finds success in the success of others. That is the definition of a leader.'

McAbery, however, views the program as a way to mentor and instill his passion for the fire service in others. And as a former Explorer himself, who better to understand that real-life application is the best teacher.

'We give them a ton of basic skills and hands-on experience,' he said. 'They will get the book learning in college, but the reports we get from them tells us they appreciate having the hands-on experience. It prepared them better.'

McAbery still lives in the area where it all began. He and wife, Gretchen, are raising their two children in his grandparents' house, across the road from his childhood home in Rhododendron. His mother, now retired, and his sister went on to become emergency room nurses, so it could be said McAbery was simply following in the family business all those years ago.

'As a whole family, it is just what we did,' he said. 'We didn't panic. But it did make me comfortable in the profession, I think.'