Sunday, April 26, 2009

Occupational Hazards

Lt. Ray McCormack of the FDNY made a statement at the recent FDIC conference: the fire service needs a "culture of extinguishment not safety." Some of Lt. McCormack's remarks seem pretty inflammatory, but they're the same thoughts that I've occasionally had. Now, I'm just a volunteer firefighter on the Oregon coast, but if an FDNY lieutenant and a small town volunteer firefighter think the same thought, there must be a few people in the middle that feel the same.

I've been involved
in the fire service for over 8 years and have worked as a full time EMT/Medic for 5. Even in that time, especially considering the post 9/11 period, emergency services are focusing more and more upon "ultimate" responder safety. As Lt. McCormack puts it:
"Attempting to make the job safer by teaching you to place yourself above those in need is wrong and goes against everything the fire service has ever stood for."
When I first started taking my fire service and EMT training, safety was a matter that was pressed upon us heavily. But it was always prefaced with a statement of: we're doing what no one else wants to do or can do. To put it another way: firefighters rush in w
hile others are rushing out. What we do is inherently dangerous.

Police officers wear bullet proof vests and carry guns because they know they can be shot on any given shift. Firefighters wear turnouts and SCBAs because we know we're entering IDLH atmospheres. EMTs work and move around in the back of the m
oving ambulance because we know we have to taken care of our patients.

Safety has to be a concern of every emergency responder, but we all do our jobs understanding that there are certain, unavoidable occupational hazards. Even though a firefighter wears his turnouts and SCBA, he knows he m
ay still die in a fire and even though an officer wears his vest, he knows he could die of a gunshot wound. As a medic, I know that when I'm not wearing my seatbelt in the back of the ambulance, that I could die if we get in an accident. My patient is restrained in the 5-point harness, but I take certain occupational risks to render care to my patient.

But I agree with Lt. McCormack that our evolving culture of safety is beginning to hinder our ability to do our jobs. As a medical professional, I attend conferences and read the professional journals. I'm aware of the crash helmets and restraint systems that are being advertised to the EMS community to make us "safer." Several months ago, my supervisors returned from a conference intent upon equipping us with crash helmets. It really just seems too much.

From the fire service, we're required to purchase SCBAs with PASS alarm devices that automatically engage and are engineered with Universal Air Connections (UACs) for the purpose of transfilling the tank. We are required to have RIT teams standing by, ready to spring into action at the first transmission of a "mayday." But in all the case studies the I've ready, I've yet to see a single one where these measures made the live-saving difference.

Lt. McCormack puts it this way: "If you put out the fire, safety is accomplished for everyone on the fireground." And he's right. Getting the job done quickly and efficiently keeps the situation from escalating too much, from becoming too complex, and as a reslut, will keep everyone safer. Our focus in emergency services needs to be on educating responders about a common sense approach to safety. And it also needs to be reinforcing the idea that what we do is dangerous and it is irresponsible to think that we can ever make our jobs 100% safe.


Bernice said...

I agree that we can never make our jobs 100% safe, but there are precautions that have to be taken. We put on our gear and SCBA, we wear our helmets, we wear our gloves. I think the hard part is finding that line between protecting ourselves to the best of our ability and protecting ourselves to the point where we can't do our jobs.

I don't think I am being very clear in explaining my thinking (I blame the sudafed). Essentially I agree with you, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't have any regard for our own safety.