Matthew Fuson was on the road, driving home from Texas when I caught up with him over the phone a few days ago. The Nashville-based paramedic spent the previous week in the Houston area, along with 90 other Tennesseans and countless others across America, supporting the rescue effort in the flood-ravaged city.
Fuson was the only LGBT member of the Nashville Fire Department selected to help with rescue efforts in Houston.
"We left out of Nashville on the 30th at 4:30 in the afternoon after a briefing at TEMA [Tennessee Emergency Management Agency] headquarters," he said. "All the people from Tennessee met in Nashville at TEMA headquarters for the briefing, got in our convoy and drove toward Houston. We spent about 18 hours on the road getting into town." A full twenty-four hours after leaving Music City, Fuson and his Nashville-based crew—there were 16 of them, from here and Hendersonville—eventually settled in at Wharton, Texas.
"We slept in tents and cots outside," he said of the living arrangement afforded his team upon their arrival to the staging area. There, they awaited a more immediate deployment which would take them into specific neighborhoods for evacuation or rescue efforts. "We were attached to Texas Task Force 1 which is a FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] deployable team and they had ... basically, shower trailers. There was a church group there that was cooking for us, so we had food, showers, all of that was really nice." At times our conversation trailed off and I could hear on my end muffled voices from around the vehicle, each of them comparing notes as he spoke. "The Southern Baptist Convention is who was there cooking meals for us," he said, a few seconds later. "So other than not having a real place to sleep we were well cared for."
Fuson has a strong, deep voice. Not like Batman or anything, it sounds like what you'd expect from one who works in emergency services. No irony or sarcasm; it's all matter of fact, though he stole a quick laugh shortly after our conversation began, that his team was ribbing him in that moment. (This would be his second media interview since they left town a week ago).
"This is my first actual deployment," he said. "I was put on standby for Katrina. And they ended up taking half the team, so I didn’t end up going to Katrina. So this is my first deployment."
On their first full day in town, the Nashville team sat in staging the entire time, waiting for a local deployment call that never came. "We assisted some of the other Tennessee teams that did get deployed out into some of the neighborhoods," he said, "where they were basically going house to house on ‘welfare checks’ and assisting with evacuating people that are in their residences who had not evacuated yet. Homes were still covered in water, so people who decided they wanted to evacuate out, they were helping them do that, to gather their belongings and get out."
"Our days were long," he said. "We were up early, say 6 o’clock in the morning, 5:30 in the morning, and then finishing out the day about 10 o’clock at night. The second day we were there we went into staging in the morning and we, the Nashville team, we actually did get deployed out into a neighborhood where we were able to go by boat from door to door, checking for residents and assisting the evacuation out of some of these neighborhoods."
Despite the appearance of disorganization, given the first full day spent in staging, waiting, the local team found itself contributing more to the greater effort on subsequent days. "They'd separated the neighborhood off into grids and so each team is assigned a specific grid and we searched those streets within that grid, go to those residents within that grid and were able to report back that ‘the house is clear,’ or ‘there are residents that are gonna shelter in place in this residence’ or ‘this one, they’re evacuating out.’
Of the 16 people selected from the Nashville area, just two are paramedics. Fuson noted the requirement that each team need be self-sufficient. "Basically everyone that came (from the Nashville area) is a fireman with the exception of my partner Stephen and I, we’re paramedics from the EMS division of Nashville Fire," he said. "We were basically chosen because we are swift water trained and then we’re both paramedics so we were brought down on the ambulance in order to supply medical coverage for our Tennessee team to provide medical aid to the 91 people should that be needed."
Regarding those ninety others: "They are all swift water trained. There are two guys who are also mechanics, one is actually a boat mechanic on the side so we have multiple disciplines of expertise with us so you really gotta be self-sufficient should something occur. You gotta be able to repair those issues. So that’s kinda the way the team is made up, with people that are experts in different fields."
By the time you read this, Fuson and the Nashville team will have returned home and, to some extent, back to their normal lives. "Our regular shifts at home were all covered by other personnel," he said. "I’m on one shift, Stephen is on another. The firemen are on different shifts and different pieces of equipment regularly, truck company, rescue company, they’re in different roles. This was a work week for us. I anticipate we will get home later tonight. I’ll be off tomorrow and then I’ll go back to work on my 2 PM shift, so I’ll work Thursday night and Friday night. Just back to life as usual."
Photos provided by Matthew Fuson