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Firefighters share what they wish civilians, politicians knew

Dec 15, 2023


America’s firefighters battle hazardous conditions and long work days to keep Americans safe every day. Yet in crisis after crisis, through raging wildfires and terrorist attacks, these heroes continue to show up, fully committed to some of the most dangerous work in the country.

In this 37-minute episode of America Speaks, firefighters discuss their most memorable experiences, what they wish civilians and politicians knew about their work, and many stories of tragedy and triumph that they’re willing to share. Their responses take us from the trauma of 9/11 to the shock of George Floyd’s murder and the COVID-19 pandemic.

When we created American speaks, it was done with a simple thought in mind, to bring the real authentic voice of the American people, to people just like you. And to give a voice to people who have not been heard until now. This special episode of America speaks right here on straight arrow news is dedicated to the people who run into buildings when everyone else is running away to the people who come to work day after day, sometimes for 12, or even 16 hours at a time to serve and protect others, often at tremendous personal sacrifice in themselves and their families. America’s firefighters are America’s unsung heroes, from California to Connecticut, they are called upon to keep their community safe, not just from fires, but from just about every personal hazard one could imagine. And for the next 30 minutes, you’re going to hear their voices, their stories, and their commitment to the communities they serve. The men and women who we too often take for granted, are about to take center stage. So let’s get started.
It is an honor and a genuine privilege to be able to conduct a session with people who I consider to be living breathing heroes for our country. And I know that this you probably don’t appreciate what I say that you don’t want to that you feel like you’re doing your job that this is your responsibility of most people run away from places that you run into and some grateful for what you do. So what first question and dusty I’m gonna start with you.
What is it about firefighting that attracted you? Why do you want to do a job that puts you in jeopardy
of because you get to help people, and we get to do some really cool stuff. Alex from Kansas.
I saw the impact that had on my aging grandmother, and I appreciated it. And I feel like I have the guts to help and some don’t. So why did
you explain you said it had an impact on your grandmother? Why? Yeah, she was sick with ALS. And so she was deteriorating, they had a call out 911. And the fire department came out to pick her up a few times. So I saw the impact that it had on her and they had a smile on their face every time and so that was impressionable to me. So I thought that’s something that I would like to do and give back to the people, my neighbors.
Robert from Florida.
Yeah, my younger brother’s a firefighter. So I got to kind of be around that a little bit. I started to like, what I saw the opportunity to help others when they’re at their worst. And now it’s we kind of come a become a family thing. My son does it as well. So
makes it even better potential. How does it make you feel when your own flesh and blood is doing the same career that you had? It makes you really, really proud. You know, he’s been putting others above himself. And I think that’s a great, great quality to have.
That I would you answer that?
Well, for me specifically, I’ve been fortunate to serve the community that I grew up in, and I actually serve in the firehouse that serves the district where my parents grew up and where I, where my parents lived. And where I grew up as a kid. I came back here to Reno, Nevada, and
to raise my family and everything after after I was done with my military career. So I’ve been fortunate to serve the community that I grew up in. So I I am one of the luckiest people you’ll ever meet. I actually like my brother Tom, from Nevada, I get a chance to serve the community I grew up in. And there was a retired firefighter that approached me and said, My gosh, you wouldn’t need to be a firefighter Ma, she needs a he’s a Vietnam that. And I got the GI sob you know, I’m 510 and you know,
good size.
But it was just really great to be able to serve my community, be a role model, and actually be in a place that is doing great things with a lot of really wonderful resources.
As cool. Couple more Ross from Minnesota.
Good evening, you know, I kind of fell into it. I started going to medical school, and I found out quickly that it wasn’t really for me. I was a firefighter for a couple years before that. And that’s what just really brought me joy and happiness. And I went back into it. I’ve been a medic for most of my career, just recently a firefighter again, but for me, it’s making the connections with the community. It’s just those connections that I make every day whether it’s an EMS call or a fire call. It brings great joy and meaning to me and and I think I feel like I’m able to help somebody each and every day and at least bring a little bit of joy to their to their lives and otherwise stressful situation.
Sheldon, every firefighter I talked to had a special moment that stood out in their career, a moment they would never ever forget. Not surprisingly, many of them went back to 911. And all of them spoke of a tragedy that hopefully no viewer of this program will ever have to experience.
Does anyone have a particularly bad moments, a particularly challenging moment where you had to overcome?
And how did you do it?
Anybody here,
I came across a body. In the fire of one of the my fellow firefighters, it was his father actually had burned to death on fire. So that was a difficult situation, I came down and saw him on them in front of the building and had to keep him from going inside the building, basically. Anyone else do
glad you tragedy for me in Minnesota, the murder of George Floyd hit close to home here and really impacted how public safety viewed and administered in the state of Minnesota, especially in the metro. And it impacted me greatly, and almost made me leave the field. And in the end, I decided that my experience and my story that I was able to make a larger impact by staying in the fire service than then then bowing out under all the pressure that everybody was under
was that anyone else impacted by 911?
Both Tom and Marcia, can you explain how 911 affect you your service?
For me, specifically reinforced the reason why I went into public safety. 17 years old, still in high school, I enlisted in the Army Reserve, then was fortunate enough to get hired by my local fire department. And then, you know, basically, two short years later, after I started, the academy was September 11. Then
for B seat, you know, coming out of the military and public service, what I saw was that the fire service changed that day. And it made a significant jump into something that we weren’t used to dealing with, which was Homeland Security and terrorism. And that event just reinforced the reason why I wanted public service,
more ship,
an hour and a half for both Boston and New York. And when I was at the Academy in the year 2000, it was easy for us to just take a quick trip and visit big dogs.
The busiest companies, the craziest stories, the biggest guys, the
the smallest amount of patients, because they all just wanted to go hard all the time. And
just short bit after that, to have this tragedy. And to know that, you know, some companies were lost some of the names that people see, and some of them were actually familiar to us. And then here in West Hartford, we had buses going to funerals all the time. And
it it just makes you feel how small and how big this universe is all at the same time. And
I think the effect went really deep. When you see those names
that you recognize and they’re not there, they’re gone there, you’re not going to hear those stories anymore. And you’re not gonna you’re not going to have those big, big table and
it makes us all feel very vulnerable, very human. And it also makes you realize that everyone is willing to sacrifice as much as they can for somebody else, and it’s a very selfless job. So it’s the best career from being for as long as it has been and and it just it just
it was a big deal.
Right here in New York. Yes, sir.
Did not 11 have an impact on you?
Yeah. Like Marsha said, I knew some of the guys
I that day. They actually at the Fire Academy, a lot of New York City firefighters come up to teach at the Fire Academy in upstate New York.
I was remembered sitting or I remember I was working that day. And someone came downstairs was Washington floor and they’re like playing just ran into the World Trade Center. And in western fantasy, the second one going to the World Trade Center. So that
hurt me for you know, took me for a loop just to know that those guys are going to be going in there and then the thing that
like I didn’t think
They would collapse. Like, I just assumed that they would get everybody out that they could and the fire out. And to know that, you know, an hour, hour and a half later,
they both collapse was was difficult for all of us.
So it
it affected, I think every firefighter that day, in some form no matter where they are, it affected everybody.
And I invite any of you, please,
this is a good opportunity to tell your story if you have one. Yeah, I was on duty. On September 11, I was
driving to a ladder truck out of South Central in Erie. And
we saw didn’t see the first plane hit, we saw the second plane hit my lieutenant said, Things aren’t looking good. Let’s walk to the grocery store gets supplies. Because we don’t know if we’re going to be able to get get back out depending on what happens the rest of the time.
So it was the first time that in the history of the fire department that the stations were told, lock your doors don’t go don’t answer the door, don’t go out unless you’re dispatched on a call. And then probably
it’s like the the next month or so I found out that Tom Gardner, one of the hazmat
guys in New York City.
He was killed in the collapse. And Tom taught me at the hazmat operations class in Virginia, probably three months before that. So that kind of struck a nerve with me. And
obviously, many other people probably knew him as well.
Is there anyone else who has a story of
sacrifice or pain in the job that you do?
That’s a weird question, man.
I mean, every day is a sacrifice. You know,
it’s a great job.
Do a great job. But it every every day is a sacrifice. I mean, you put your life on the line, I’ve got kids, and I put my life on the line every day I go to work. So you know, for me, I think it is yeah, it’s a sacrifice.
I wanted to give these heroic men and women the chance to speak to us directly the people who benefit from their sacrifice, and tell us something we really need to know. They didn’t disappoint. Let’s listen.
Do civilians understand the role that you play? Anybody
out to an extent out or out, either white or white, when they see ghosts go into calls and Reisner or red lights and hitting the sirens and everything else. But at the same time, it’s like, you know, they don’t know where they don’t know, if we go into a medical fall, or we’re going to a structure fire or we’re going to an entrapment in someone’s bodies hanging out with a car, you know, they just know that they need to get out of our way and half the time. They don’t even get out of our way. They are like a deer in headlights with our sirens blaring.
It should raise a very good question. What’s your greatest frustration
or hassle that you have that you want people to know about?
As Prime immediate portrayal of the job, I think that yell, Fire and EMS has been horribly mis marketed both to people who are looking to come into the career as well as to the public and what they what their expectations are, or what they imagine the job to be. And it’s just, you know, there’s times where sure it is it is a little bit like Hollywood. But in depending on where you work, whether it’s a big urban center, or it’s rural.
You know, sometimes it’s just a regular day at the office going to work and not much happens. It’s pretty mundane.
Nobody else
I think one of the frustrations that we’re in and I don’t know if it’s everyone all over the country is having the same problem while you’re in California, but staff out there huge problem.
I’m getting some feedback.
So we have people working 1216 days in a row and work in a busy little city in the Bay Area. And
it you know, this job is death by 1000 cuts. You know, it’s it’s not like you know, police officers will have an officer involved shooting and that’ll really affect our mental health. But, you know, we just get it all day every day with little things that pile up. And
you know, I think, you know, not having public support. When we you know, when we go to city council meetings and talk about staffing and not having people get behind us, you know, I mean, we’ve had a couple people just comic
Back up, you know, this has been about a year of really difficult, long stretches, and people are getting divorced. And I agree with that, you know, spouses are losing their job. And, you know, I think that’s, you know, the mental health issues
that we can’t tie to one simple incident. And, and public support for staffing, I think is where we’ll come from here.
I think we’re gonna have big problems with recruitment. And when we were already having problems getting people to sign out for the job, people will not want to work two days remote, you know, they don’t want to work at the fire hose and go into burning buildings and freezing cold and that type of stuff. So I think we’re going to have a real challenge. I think it’s important to recognize that after September 11, the the public and the media kind of put the fire service on a pedestal because they saw how much we’re willing to sacrifice on on that day. And then you had the recession hit. And you’ve had budget cuts and layoffs, staffing issues. And then we were just literally climbing out of that when COVID hit and then now you’re in essential employee, but you’re an essential employee that can’t go home and you’re innocent, and you’re an essential employee that was exposed to a pandemic, and some of our co workers got sick, our families got sick. And you know, some some of the people in my department we were on duty for 1617 days in a row, going through three different phases of COVID running through our fire department. And here we are today talking about staffing issues and recruitment issues. You know, I think that a lot. Yeah, here we are back again to I don’t think truly the public knows what we do on a daily basis or the dynamic of our job. What does the public not know about your life, about your job, about your responsibilities that they should know, that will both help you and help them dusty. In Oregon, one of our frustrations is
recently within last few years, they passed measure 110 which is decriminalizes drugs. So prior to that, we went on overdoses here and there since that we’ve gone on overdoses fairly consistently. And I’ve given more Narcan in the last three years in all the previous years combined.
Just because of legislation that’s passed, which then leads to more deaths, which I’ve seen more people younger than me, die, unfortunately, due to this, because there’s now no mechanism for the state to help get these people the help that they need. Because there’s no penalties. These people continue to have
overdose, there’s Narcan everywhere, which saves lives. But still people do die. And
we see a lot more deaths than I think people recognize. On the streets, I don’t think they realize that we give up. Depending on the shifts, we work, we give up a third of our lives, at least to do this job. You’re away from our families all the time. And we see stuff that you’re not meant to see just like those that are at war, see stuff they’re not supposed to see, we see some of that stuff too. But I went out and talked to people with devices that I always try to tell them is this is not a job, it is a lifestyle, it will affect every part of your life. And you have to be prepared for that. You can’t go see death and destruction and just leave it there is going to affect your home life is going to affect the way you think about face and the greatest thing that it does. It shows you who you are as the parts that you laid out in a rollover. Are you tough mentally? Is there work that needs to be done?
And and how you connect with other people because it will affect the relationships that you have with other people? I want three more formal review that tell me what does the public not understand about your life? About your responsibilities? What do you want them to know about your service? Tom? Go ahead.
Yeah, I think one of the things that the public doesn’t recognize is that we are the Swiss Army knife of our community. You know, we’re medical professionals or fire professionals, ber. In some cases, you know, everything from
we’re everything from social workers up the chain, you know, on a daily basis. So our job is challenging and just can’t wrap your hands around one facet of our of our profession, because we’re faced with everything daily basis, by jurisdiction, if it doesn’t go to the police department or public works, it comes to the fire department. And a lot of the cases some of the stuff that should go to the Police Department of Public Works still comes from the fire department. So I think one of the things it’s hard to recognize too, is that firefighters bring order to chaos. That’s what we do on a daily basis. Well
There’s chaos in the firestation chaos of a community or in some cases, we’ve had, you know, chaos in your own family because of either havior health issues or dealing with
divorce or separations or issues with your kids. Alex, Europe, what does the public understand? Yeah, I feel like the public needs to understand and learn the purpose of 911. I know in our community, people call 911. And they, for the wrong reasons, right. It’s not for an emergency. We all have regulars in our area. And oftentimes, they’re calling us to pick up their mountain to help them change the channel, that TV, while they’re asking us to refill their soda, or they’re asking us to help wipe their rear end because they can’t or because they don’t have, you know, they don’t call a family member. So that I think there’s a difference between needing medical assistance and taking advantage of the system. And in our community, we see unfortunately, that happen quite a bit. What does the public not get what you do, Robert, I think they they don’t understand the trauma that we see day in, day out the most terrible things you can think of, and I’ve heard several people mention it, the toll it not only takes on us and how it changes us, mentally, and sometimes physically, even. But it also affects our families, because we become different. And so that, that it changes our whole lives. And I think a lot of the things that make us good at this job, are the things that make it very difficult for us to have relationships outside of this job. You know, I could go have a beer with every single one of you that were willing to, and we could swap stories that would be nearly identical to the ones that we’ve all lived through. And I think that’s the community that we built. And that’s why we’re so effective. I’d take you know, any 234, you guys, and I’d go into a fire with anyone and I know we’d get the job done, and we do a great job. But again, the the way that we filter out emotions, the way that we need to stay calm under pressure, it’s very difficult in some of my personal relationships, about things that are important to other individuals to have those conversations with them in a way that’s meaningful for them. And to piggyback a little bit on what Alex and Tom were saying, We are the Swiss Army Knife in everything that we want to do every call that we go on where we want to be helpful. Oftentimes, we’re limited by things like budgetary constraints, or policies set by, you know, individuals that are outside of the fire department control. And that can be a source of real frustration, because there’s nothing, there’s no emergency that you can call a firefighter to that they will go and do their best and bring that order to the chaos. But sometimes there’s things that you simply cannot do, because you don’t have the manpower because you don’t have the equipment, because you don’t have the personnel the teams in place. And that is a very chief source of frustration for a lot of the individuals that I work with. And I don’t have a good answer as to what we can do to overcome those challenges. Before I ended the conversation, I wanted to give our firefighters the chance to talk directly to our elected leaders on the local, state and national level, their advice and guidance, both pointed and important. This time, let’s not just listen, let’s learn. So we can actually do the people who run your governments in the local and state level. What do they need to know that they don’t, for you to do your job better?
Well, I think in California, where was kind of lucky, our governor actually
has passed some bills that are very supportive of firefighters, I think, at the more local level, we build some good relationships with, you know, the local elected officials, but you know, we’re public servants and, and, you know, we’re willing to do just about anything,
but we need the resources to do that safely. And, and, like, you know, was just mentioned, making decisions about how to staff or what apparatus, you know, need to be at what station that can’t come from outside the Foreign Service that needs to come from the people who are doing the job. And so, a seat at the table in the decision making process is key to doing our jobs well and doing it safely. Or I saw your daughter walk into your friend very briefly. How old is she?
She’s eight years old and you might see her again in a different form. She has a twin sister.
It’s funny. Are they nearby?
They’re not. They’re not within arm’s reach. When you
she you. She says good night to you.
You know the responsibilities that you have?
When you go to work?
And you leave the house?
Do you think about them at all?
As we
I’m gonna I’m going to tell you a story about that as a matter of fact. So I have, I spent 20 years on the line and for the last three years, I’ve been in the fire marshal’s office.
my girls are eight, so about five years old.
My girls, one of my girls said to me, when I got promoted into the fire marshal’s office, she said to me, so mommy, you’re going to be here in the beginning, the end, and in the middle, you go to work. I was doing 24 and 48 and 72 hour shifts. And she knew even at five years old,
that there’s a complete difference. And my brothers and sisters who are on the line right now we’re doing shift work. We’re doing 20 fours we’re doing 40 eights who are we’re crushing it because they have to because they’re, you know, they’re forced for overtime. God bless you.
One of the reasons it’s because of those my twin girls that
I wanted to stay in my union. But But I go into the fire marshal’s office twofold. And one is so that I can be a better mom and be more more present mom.
And it was it was really
amazing, you know, that even at such a young and tender age that they even saw the difference in my work schedule. And that mean a world that I mean, that means the world to eat?
What do the politicians on the state and local level not understand about your job? Now they understand about your responsibilities? How can they help you do your job better? Damn, they, they just don’t understand the amount and type of culture we go to. They just don’t. I still have people here that St. We only run fire calls and we run a first response system with a private ambulance service. We’re a class one department, they deal and understand that we run those types of calls, the hot water calls the dogs, the cat, the
people get stuck and tricycles they just don’t know what it takes. So our fundings affected, so we’re getting funded as a fire department. And you’re not getting the extra resource you need for the sprint vehicles that we’re starting to run to keep up with the EMS you’re not getting extra resources to cover. Because we’re constantly having to put people in paramedic class and EMT class to keep up because we’re losing those people to aeromedical services or our hospitals, the hospitals are draining our paramedics right now to the point to where it’s almost unsustainable. We’re putting people in paramedic class, we’re putting 10 in a semester, and we’re retaining, we’re retaining two or three. So what the politicians on my level don’t understand is the amount of things we’re doing. There’s there’s a disconnect there between getting the funding and and having a plotted department.
You know, when we ask for trucks, and we we asked for things, we tend to get them. But I just don’t think we’re asking enough. And I don’t think that the leadership here has enough guidance from like, let’s just say the union guidance to try to help with the funders and what would you get what we can’t, because we do everything, we’re a catch all we come in and we solve problems. I mean, it’s just like he said while ago, you know, those with the Swiss Army knife, that is the that is probably the best analogy of what we’re doing. And we need help getting that funding to be able to, to do the work we need to do to pay the people that we need to pay. Because we’re not just getting fired emergency service. We’re giving everything we’re helping people in and out of the bed. We’re helping people change air filters. We’re helping old people get their garbage up and down the street, sometimes every scene
and then and then Mike. Yes, one thing I’d like to add about is about staffing for us. It’s staffing in that thing. I know this is across the across the country, but I’m flourishing online. I’ve heard before Well, we give you guys good trucks, we give you guys good equipment. We give you guys all this stuff that you know, I’ve never seen a fire truck that can put out a fire alone. So, you know, even a million dollar truck won’t do it. So I think for us it’s a more focus on the staffing. Really across across the country. Okay, arriving in Europe.
Yeah, I think what what they don’t understand is that we’re,
we’re, we’re going to we’re going to do the job. Um, you know, whether that’s here in Arizona fighting a brush fire that last, you know, 18 hours when it’s 120 degrees outside or
or, or, or stepping into a pandemic, where you’re running 1015 20 COVID calls a day and you have no idea really what even, you know, there, you know, there’s someone on your crew that probably doesn’t know what COVID stands for. And, you know, we’re going to do that job and the toll that it takes on us I’m in, in addition to being a local officer with my,
in my local, I’m also the State Cancer coordinator for the professional firefighters of Arizona, and I get about three or four new cancer cases a week of justice people in the state that reached out to me, um, you know, and I know, there are people out there suffering also and, and these members are out there, you know, getting their claims denied and fighting and, and,
you know, build the laws and the resources that are available to,
to us are just different, we’re playing by a different set of rules. And they moved the goalposts on us. You know, we got one of the most ironclad presumptive legislations here in the state of Arizona. And we still have two cases last week, I had two qualifying members, one of which is he’s not going to make it, you know, get their claim denied. So these these stressors that that happened to us from these long campaign fires in and COVID and all the other stuff, they manifest in distress, sleep deprivation and other things, when we’re not doing the, it just translates into other diseases, divorce, everything like that. So, you know, the the money that they could spend now can prevent some of that stuff. By supporting us through legislation and financially they can, they can help prevent that stuff, you know, we help prevent, you know, I think everybody on this call has probably, you know, not to sound like a braggart, but we probably all saved dozens of lives in some way or another, whether medically or in a fire. And they can do that to us by by supporting us with with these measures. So that’s, that’s my piece.
This is perfect. Mike, how many hours a week do you typically work?
We’re scheduled to work 70 to 72 A week 144 Pay Period. But typically those guys are working 9696 a week? By a show of hands? Who typically works 50 hours a week or more? Raise your hands if you do. That’s almost all of you, who worked 60 hours a week or more?
I don’t think people know this. No, Lordy, no. People are idiots. offense to people.
four or five. I’m working. I’m here for five. So I’m here for 120 hours right now. Well, that’s your heart. How much of that is overtime?
It’s mandatory. It’s all mandatory overtime. Wow. By data, the mandatory. That’s what I don’t think people understand is it’s not it’s not, it’s not overtime, it’s that you show up to work and your employer tells you that you cannot leave, you know, it’s great. If you know in advance, you know that, hey, I’m gonna have to suck it up again and work, you know, four or five days, but there’s days where I will go into work, I will plan to leave at 730 in the morning. And at 715. I’m told that I cannot leave what’s up man, Manning to staff the trucks. And so I’m now there for another 24. And that can happen again. And that can happen again. And that can happen again in perpetuity, because that’s the job and that’s who we are. And I think that is difficult to explain to anybody. Mike, what’s the political people in that cat about what you do and what do you need? Beautiful thing for me is in my fed fire guys, so they really the Capitol Hill really doesn’t get it? I don’t believe they give it about any any of us.
Why Do you solemnly Why do you feel that way? Well, you know, I work on the world’s largest naval base. We have about 65,000 people a day on base. You know, aircraft carrier holds about 5003 of those important there’s 15k people right there, and countless other buildings and ships.
I got inside my district, there’s one it’s at 1315 trucks or so. I have board that are operational. We have mechanics that say drive a truck. It’s you know, it’s blown coolant out of a out of the radiator line. Just shut it off. When you get to the call. He said how do you put a fire out? No, Paul, just figure it out. We had guys riding around and we’re a career professional department. We had guys run around and pickup trucks and no knocks on any volunteers but it’s very volunteer esque you know? And we’re with
The Federal Government were the supposed to be the tip of the spear Right? Or the bottom of the spear.
We all struggle struggle with staffing we’ve struggled or to COVID. So been 2017 18 We’ve been struggling staffing, guys are working two to three extra months a year, some three months, guys are by choice. They like money. I don’t like my family. I’m actually December 3 resigning from this position and going to another agency to get away from the staffing crisis.
It’s miserable, miserable, if I would say that my mental health. So I told you earlier. I hadn’t started becoming a fireman during the military post 911. I’ve been doing it since I was 19 years old. I’m 37. And my mental health has been the worst. This year. The worst? Absolutely horrible. brink of divorce, sprinkle losing my children. Life’s wild, you know. And now all the while your fire chief goes out every night eats is a stick to our car and drinks his wine, rub shoulders with whoever he rubbed shoulders with. And it’s pretty much just big news. And that’s that’s how I feel. It’s almost my members feel. And I’m not so politically correct with my my verbiage but usually to the point.
So they need they need to understand that we’re people doing extraordinary things with very little to nothing most of our own money. I use my own money to come to work by moving my own paper towels, my own cleaning supplies. Because budget crisis. We’re in crisis mode all the time.
And that is my soapbox.
Every year around holiday time, I try to thank my local firefighters personally for all that they do for us every day of the year. I hope you’ll do the same. Well that’s it for this week. I’m Dr. Frank Luntz and from all of us, it’s trade our news. We thank you for listening and watching. Good bye for now.

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