According to data from the U.S. Fire Administration, 70 on-duty firefighter fatalities have occurred in the U.S. this year. The job of Fire/EMS responder is in and of itself putting your life in peril for the sake of your fellow man. Yet there is a startling trend on the upswing, headlining the news just this week. This trend is of increasing exposure to hostile and violent situations toward responders who did not know, nor suspect potential violence prior to their arrival on scene. The emotional toll to fellow Fire/EMS responders can be felt locally and around the globe. Let’s open healthful dialogue to address this growing trend and talk about positive, viable solutions.
Consider these recent headlines as examples:
June 18, 2015, Toledo, Ohio, while backing the ambulance unit into Fire House 23 after a scene run a drug fueled assailant attacks two firefighters inside the ambulance then pursued them into the fire house itself.
June 25, 2015, San Diego, California, two firefighters are attacked and stabbed while responding to a medical call in the East Village area, one suffering a collapsed lung from the injury.
September 11, 2015, New Lodge, Belfast, two firefighters are attacked and severely injured while extinguishing an automobile fire.
October 19, 2015, Detroit, Michigan, two paramedics are seriously attacked and stabbed by a box cutter wielding assailant while treating an injured person.
Israel, 2015, to date 70 violent attacks have occurred involving direct assaults on the Israeli Fire Department first responders primarily en route to or on the scene of responses producing bodily injury to Fire/EMS personnel or significant damage to fire apparatus.
Those serving in Fire/EMS service uphold the core values that make our lives enjoyable. Whenever and wherever the scene presents itself, on or off duty, these brave men and women go into action to protect, serve and care for the communities and neighbors around them. Those in service take calculated risks to protect property and lives, using resources with care, presenting themselves as a genuine friend and protector each and every day. In FEMA/EMA we have a saying, “if you see something, say something!” This came as an outcry after the Boston Marathon Bombings but it is also valid when it comes to Fire/EMS safety. We all know how people “peep” out of windows and doors to see what is going on when the fire engine or ambulance comes blaring up to a scene. While “peeping” if you see someone hiding in a shrub or behind a vehicle crouched down and it just doesn’t seem right, sound the warning like the Town Cryer! When you do, you are protecting the persons that protect YOU and YOUR PROPERTY!
If you are in Fire/EMS service or know someone who is, here are some suggestions related to lowering stress with scene safety in mind:
1. Can your organization perform drills specific to hostile/ambush responses? Sadly, as these trends continue to increase globally, perhaps it is time to open healthful dialogue and present opportunities to prepare for the unknown assailant scenario. Consider this, most jurisdictions in the U.S. run Mass Response drills every 3-6 months, these drills are designed to keep responders on their toes and ready for terrorist and other mass injury/casualty responses. With the increase in frequency of attacks on Fire/EMS responders, has it now become time to design a training format to include possible attacks that could mimic everyday responses to normal scene calls?
2. Keep vigilant when assessing the scene for safety. Take a concentrated, deep cleansing breath before you exit the truck and look around as you bolt toward that downed patient. Deep breathing that focuses your attention on your breaths is a proven strategy for slowing down the parasympathetic nervous system; this is the system in charge of disabling our natural “fight or flight” response. Dr. Herbert Benson, Massachusetts General Hospital’s Mind/Body Institute renowned professor of medicine, has well documented research and positive evidence proving this simple act, slow effective breaths, can help us to maintain concentrated focus. Important when adrenaline is charging through your system as you head to a full arrest or a scene involving a child where your focus is understandably totally patient oriented.
3. Talk it out. Opening up purposeful dialogue to introduce alternative mechanisms of response in cases of attack is a great first step to finding workable solutions in the field. This is also a meaningful first step toward reducing stress. When members of staff know their words are not just heard but acted upon, their value increases along with job and life satisfaction. When we read shocking headlines and do nothing to open purposeful dialogue to address the situation, we cannot grow and can feel insecure or unsafe. In the Toledo, Ohio attack firefighters were resourceful and used brooms, mops and other items available within the firehouse to protect them. Would this issue have been more readily negated if pepper spray or use of a Taser were available (after proper training on use of course)? Some would quickly even jump on the firearms band wagon, but in an environment where you are constantly moving, bending and sometimes in precarious positions, accidental discharge of a firearm could more easily happen causing a whole new world of concern.
I am of the firm belief that the longer a challenging problem grows in silence, the bigger the problem becomes – sort of like mold in the back of a refrigerator. The only time some people address mold is when it has made itself “visible” through growth up the side walls of the fridge or through the foul stench of its presence every time the refrigerator door is opened. In a similar sense, every time a member of service is attacked and injured (or worse) the “refrigerator door” of unsafe situations making a difficult job even more a challenge makes its presence known.
This is not just a trending issue; it is a valid concern that perhaps could use some fine tuning and refinement for greater safety of staff. I am not saying every member of Fire/EMS should wear body armor to every scene. Anyone should appreciate that you are already lugging 100 pounds of gear without the respirator on an active fire scene. What I am saying is perhaps we need to find additional measures to keep all members of service safe during responses; particularly in consideration of those who, for whatever reasons, would harm you rather than welcome you. You see, I feel that one member of service being attacked ANYWHERE is too many! I hope this will at least ignite a spark and maybe get some crucial conversations started. If you are in Fire/EMS service and struggling to cope with emotions related to this issue, please know their are resources available for you right here in Central Ohio. Until next time – good health to you!