Winlock resident Carrie Pennington (left) presents a Fire Service Medal of Honor to Bill Sherlach (middle), husband of Mary Sherlach, one of six educators killed during the Sandy Hook Massacre in 2012. Lewis County Fire District 15 had awarded the medals posthumously to all six and Pennington, a volunteer EMT with District 15, traveled with husband Randy Pennington (right), a District 15 commissioner, to Newtown in May of 2013 to present the medals during a special ceremony. Carrie Pennington has since resigned as an EMT and said the trip to Newtown was among the more significant moments of her three-decade career.
For the last 33 years, Winlock resident Carrie Pennington has been serving her community as a volunteer EMT and, as of the end of last month, decided it was time to retire.
First serving with Winlock Ambulance Service, then with Lewis County Fire District 15, Pennington said three decades of being in the brotherhood of emergency responders has been difficult to say goodbye to.
"I think the thing I'll probably miss the most is just the camaraderie, the family, the people," said Pennington, who sat down with Town Crier to reflect on her last 33 years of service.
When Pennington began volunteering in 1981, it was with the privately-run Winlock Ambulance Service, owned by Brown's Mortuary, who charged a regular subscription to those seeking potential ambulance service.
At the time, Pennington said all ambulances in Lewis County were privately-held and had no paramedic support, adding most of the calls were for severe injuries such as heart attacks, strokes and vehicle collisions, if residents bothered calling 911 at all.
"20 years ago, we had to fight people to get them to call an ambulance," she said, stating it wasn't until the last 15 years or so when patients began calling more frequently for non-life-threatening injuries.
By the middle of 1982, St. Helens Hospital, located in Chehalis, started the county's first paramedic system called St. Helens Medic One. The role of an EMT then began to resemble more of a support personnel for serious calls, she said, but volunteers still needed to be well-trained and ready to respond at the drop of a hat.
As her first year turned into nine, Winlock Ambulance Service found itself insolvent and was absorbed by Lewis County Fire District 15, based in Winlock. Pennington said her duties as an EMT resumed, though within a new uniform, while the job continued to bring about some of the most significant moments in her life.
"I actually got to deliver a baby in the back of an ambulance," she said, stating the experience held the excitement of greeting a new life coupled with the fear of something going wrong, which thankfully didn't happen. "It was the neatest thing to do, to be part of bringing somebody into the world."
Her service as an EMT also allowed her to meet the man who would become her husband. When St. Helens Medic One was established, one of the four original paramedics was a young army veteran named Randy Pennington. Carrie Pennington wistfully recalled how the two were married within a year of first meeting, stating she and her husband has become "about as bosom buddy as we can get."
She said she's also seen the harsher side of an EMT's life.
"The hardest call, I guess you could say, would be doing CPR on my own mother," she said, recalling how a call had come in about her mother being unresponsive and, unfortunately, she could not be revived.
Calls regarding children or family members of medics are typically the most difficult to respond to, she said, with the emotional wellbeing of a crew becoming just as important as their physical readiness.
"If you have a healthy respect for human life, it should affect you to watch somebody die, or to watch somebody almost die," she said.
Pennington stated it has been her faith that has allowed her to endure, stating her perspective is one that says she is "a pair of hands and a brain, but I'm not the ultimate decision-maker."
As a group, she said firefighters from all over the area have been sure to support each other, in times of crisis or otherwise, stating the sense of brotherhood within a fire department is unlike any other she has seen.
"You can go anywhere in the United States and, if you have a fire department patch on... they treat you like you're part of their family," she said, recounting a recent experience of such acceptance when she and Randy traveled to Newtown, Conn., in 2013 to participate in a ceremony honoring victims of the Sandy Hook shooting.
District 15 had resolved to award six educators killed during the massacre with the Fire Service Medal of Honor after reading how they died defending their students, and posthumously inducted them as volunteers within the district.
Pennington and her husband flew personally to Newtown that May to present the medals and she said, when they encountered local fire service members, they were greeted with open arms.
Though members of the departments were not eager to discuss the attack, being so fresh in the community's minds, they were glad, said Pennington, to treat she and her husband to whatever hospitality they could, even in the midst of their heartache.
"It had been six months, I don't think that community had really begun to heal," she said of the visit. "Nobody wanted to let any of them be forgotten."
Pennington said, among her own agency and with EMTs all over the country, people deal with tragic events differently, and those who find themselves unable to respond at all know it's probably time to step down.
As far as her departure from District 15, Pennington said it was simply a matter of acknowledging her own limitations as a 33-year veteran, stating, between limited capacity in her back and knees and two major work-related surgeries, it was time to hang up her uniform.
"We're very glad to see her retiring on her own terms," said District Captain Kevin Anderson, stating Pennington had become the go-to EMT for knowledge and experience. "It's a very large pair of boots that we're going to have to fill."
As Pennington departs, she said she hopes potential volunteers for the district, both as EMTs and firefighters, will consider how fulfilling service among emergency responders can be, stating those who think they do not have it in them to serve may be capable of more than they realize.
"If you want to do something that's rewarding, and you want to actually do something that helps your community, that is something you can do," she said, stating many career opportunities exist for young persons who volunteer with a fire district.
Pennington leaves Winlock with two EMT staff members and five more volunteers expected to complete training in the coming months. Having been with the district for so long, and with Randy serving as a commissioner for District 15, she said she expects to drop in at least from time to time.
"I think they'll let me back in the door every once in a while," she said.