A lot of emphasis is placed on saving the lives of firefighters during fireground operations. Bunker gear, self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), protective clothing, radios and safety procedures are continually tweaked to ensure that firefighters survive any hazardous environment that could injure or kill them. This is all justifiable and should have importance.
But what about the medical calls that a typical firefighter goes on every day? Is there risk to their lives on medical calls? The answer is a resounding yes!
Many of us were riveted to our TVs when we were alerted that five firefighters in Gwinnett, GA, had been taken hostage by a gunman who called in a fake medical call to lure the firefighters to the scene. The firefighters were freed when SWAT officers stormed the home and killed the hostage-taker.
But the news does not stop there. In mid-April, we learned that a Puxico, MO, man faced several charges after police said he threatened two EMS workers and a sheriff’s deputy. The EMS crew originally responded to the address for a suicidal person. While on the scene, the man grabbed a handgun and pointed it at himself and at the EMS personnel several times before law enforcement arrived. One arriving deputy found an EMS responder behind a tree. The patient was sitting in a chair and grabbed a handgun when he saw the deputy, according to the police report. When the deputy threatened to shoot, the patient put down his gun.
Earlier this year, a pregnant Oklahoma City, OK, paramedic suffered a miscarriage a month after being kicked and kneed in the stomach by a patient. According to court records, after being hooked up to an IV in an ambulance, the patient “became agitated” and started “swinging his legs and arms around” at the paramedic, “striking her in the stomach.” The patient was charged with homicide.
According to a 2005 article in the Boston Herald, it is estimated that 700,000 assaults occur annually against firefighters and paramedics. A study done in 1998 by Vanderbilt University concluded that assaults against firefighters and paramedics occur in about 5% of all EMS calls. Do a Google search and you will see it is a matter of routine that firefighters and paramedics are assaulted while on the job. What is ironic is that firefighters and paramedics are usually seen as the “good guys,” but apparently not everyone sees us that way.
It’s not always violence
What about other methods of being killed or hurt while performing medical work? The most obvious involves driving to the scene, but what about contracting an airborne or bloodborne disease? I have written more than one column in Firehouse® Magazine about firefighters who contracted Hepatitis C from a bodily fluid being splashed on them.
One big concern is dealing with patients who exhibit psychological problems. My experience shows that many of these patients are harmless and not looking for physical confrontations. The problem is that we do not know which patients will go from harmless to agitated.
I have seen many scenes go from tranquil to chaos in seconds. Typically, these patients start by becoming uncooperative and then their eyes begin darting as though they are planning their actions before taking the first step. Sometimes, the person experiencing psychological problems has taken a mind-altering drug. I have seen people who have taken certain types of drugs have extraordinary strength and be able to fight numerous firefighters and police officers at the same time. Eventually, the patients wear down and lose that energy, but it is quite a battle up to that point.
Firefighters are trained to take action in any situation. When confronted with a violent situation, they will take action and try to control the scene. This usually means a firefighter will insert themselves into a situation that sometimes may be violent.
Staging areas are a must for any fire department going into a potentially dangerous situation. This includes scenes of shootings, stabbings and assaults, suicides and psychological calls. Apparatus and ambulances should remain in staging areas until the scene has been secured by police. When I say “secure,” I am not just speaking about the fact that police are on the scene, but they have verified that the scene is safe because they have checked to make sure the scene is safe.
When a scene is safe, that means that any assailants have been taken into custody or the police have verified that they have left the scene. A scene is also safe when the police have verified that there is no activity going on that can harm firefighters. Some fire departments train firefighters to defend themselves if they get into a situation that requires that they protect their safety.
Firefighters just do not die from flames and poisonous gases. We must be vigilant on every call. n