Standing in the Middle

“I hope to inspire.” That’s DC Firefighters Burn Foundation’s newest board member Joe Morgan’s goal. A poignant response since Joe inspired the creation of the Foundation.

An overtime opportunity on Memorial Weekend in 1999 changed Joe’s life. He’d worked his regular shift and then was offered the opportunity to come back later that evening. Joe, always looking out for his family, seized the chance to earn extra money. He went home and had an amazing day with then-girlfriend, Kim. As he was getting ready to head back to the station, Kim asked him not to go–a strange sense of foreboding darkening their lovely day. But Joe had been a firefighter for nine years without incident, and he was slated to be the technician driver. Easy night…he’d see her in the morning.

Joe arrived at 6:30pm to relieve the day crew. A more senior firefighter was staying on to drive the truck, so Joe took the position of back step. Close to midnight, the crew was returning from a routine motor accident when they were called to respond to a house fire.

“When you’ve been a firefighter for a while, you begin to recognize the signs of a bad one,” Joe notes. “And when someone runs out into the street to get the attention of the fire truck, you know it’s bad.”

Joe and two other firefighters brought the hose into the house and began searching for the fire through thick smoke. When they reached the back of the house where they could better assess, heat and fire bellowed up from the basement stairwell, as if channeling up a chimney. The blast hit the first firefighter full force from behind, leapt over Joe and hit the leading firefighter. With the room poised to flash over, Joe summoned his training, staved off panic and followed the hose out of the house. With the layout clearly in his mind, despite traversing most of it blindly he was able to direct other crew to where to find the other firefighters.

With second and third degree burns on 65% of his body, Joe would spend the next two and half months in the hospital. The fire drew significant media attention along with concern from other firefighters across the city. Joe’s firehouse brothers set up a watch outside the ward to monitor visitor traffic and allow Joe and his family to focus on healing, recovery and the emotional and physical loss they were experiencing. Volunteers were stationed around the clock.

“The DC Firefighters Burn Foundation didn’t exist at that time,” says Jason Woods, founder. “Joe’s experience and our guys’ response to it, inspired the creation of the Foundation as we recognized how we can support our fellow firefighters and their families as they journey through survivorship.”

The Foundation paid for Joe and Kim to attend the World Burn Congress in 2010, a transformative conference for survivors, and later as a speaker to the burn survivor retreat in Crested Butte. “These two experiences connected me with the burn community,” says Joe. “Before, I only ever saw burn survivors in the hospital but these gatherings were full of them. I even had to travel all the way to Colorado to find out there was a burn survivor right in my own church.” 

Joe has spent the last two decades sharing his story of resilience, hope and safety with burn survivors, first responders and organizations and most recently at the World Burn Congress. Joe hopes to inspire people to continue to support survivors and to understand how much it is needed, especially when patients are out of the hospital and trying to put their lives back together.

“I was the firefighter doing the rescuing, then I was a burn survivor needing support,” Joe reflects. “Now, I stand in the middle.”