Wednesday, September 21, 2016

HELP! I've fallen and can't get up! Down and helpless on the Washington coast

"This is bad. This is real bad," I thought.

Once I started to see more clearly after slipping between a few huge driftwood logs on Ruby Beach in far northwestern Olympic National Park, I felt my head to see if there were any knots or bumps from slamming my head on one of the logs. I finally sat up as a woman passing nearby moved my way asking, "Are you OK?"

Sitting there feeling around for my glasses I said, "Not sure, but I think so." I found my glasses sans one lens. "Crap," I said feeling around for something smooth and shiny among the rocks and stones. Finding the missing lens and popping it back in place I could finally both see and focus on my situation. I made some motion to try and push myself up to sit on one of the logs, and found that my right foot was just laying there, still attached of course, but angled sharply to the right.  It didn't take any of my 26 years of EMS first responder experience as a retired Des Plaines, IL firefighter to know my ankle was broken, and badly. Revelation number two sunk in then, with the realization that I was stuck on a beach 2000 miles from home near the furthest northwestern point in the continental US, 40 or so miles from any medical help, and no cell service at all. Zero bars, once just an inconvenience, became extra scary to this clumsy near 70 year old stranded and crippled on the log strewn shore.

The woman who saw me fall, I learned, was a young woman visiting from Ireland. As she sat and stayed with me also finding her cell phone of no use, a young couple came over from another direction, asking if they could help. I said yes, I'll need to contact 911 or the Park Service and pointed to my ankle. Trying not to wince, the couple realized my situation was severe immediately. The young man took off up the path to the parking area seeking assistance as his girlfriend occupied another log, literally becoming one of two helpful and watchful bookends keeping me company as we waited for help.

Over the next 45 minutes or so, the young man returned twice to check me out and returned to the lot watching for help to arrive. Finally, I saw the telltale EMS t-shirts on two men and one woman carrying medical bags and equipment. They were EMS workers attached to the Forks Community Hospital some 40 miles away, and immediately began checking me out from head to toe, gathering vital signs and doing a comprehensive survey of my condition.

I identified myself as a retired firefighter and that I'd done a self survey as well, to which they politely acknowledged but continued to professionally do their own anyway. Soon they expertly removed my shoe -- carefully without cutting the laces since I told them they were brand new shoes I bought to help calm my wife's concerns about me tripping or falling somewhere -- and splinted my leg from thigh down in an inflatable splint. Then the wait began as more National Park Rangers were called for to assist moving me from the beach and up the winding and climbing pathway to the waiting ambulance in the parking area where I had left my small van-sized RV.

After about an hours' wait — the National Park covers a lot of territory in the Olympic Penninsula — several more Rangers arrived and I was transported via a large single wheel attached to a basket in sort of an oversized wheelbarrow with 3 or more rescuers on ether side. After a 40 mile trip north back to the EMS crews' home base to Forks Community Hospital in Forks, WA, I was finally wheeled into the emergency room where I was examined, x-rayed and treated by the most friendly, professional and sincerely caring ER staff and Doctors I'd ever encountered. Sure, I was probably expecting a more industrial-type, assembly line experience like some more busy and overloaded ER's I've seen over my EMS years, but the up to date and current facility was matched by all the personnel I encountered. It was not the "Mayberry Clinic" I expected, though the kind, sympathetic and friendly treatment was almost idyllic.

Slowly, as I was scheduled for surgery that evening, panic began to arise as I considered my plight: So far from home, traveling alone, having just been told I'd probably need 6 weeks or so until I could even think of driving.  I had a sizable investment in a modern and well equipped RV van sitting alone in a lot 40 miles south still at Ruby Beach and no plan or idea of how I would get myself, much less my RV, back home to Wisconsin. I finally made the inevitable call home to my wife who, up til now, figured I was happily still taking photos along the west coast.

I won't go into a detailed account of the conversation, but I made the call, assuring her I was in good hands and receiving excellent care. I would call her after surgery, still several hours away, and the surgeon assured that he would also call her once surgery was done. I began my wait for the trip to the OR as I was prepped and situated for the reduction and surgery that would follow.

"Is there any way I can secure my RV down there at Ruby Beach?" I asked the admitting doctor in the ER.  He pointed to a fellow standing in the doorway.  "A couple of guys from Maintenance said they'd be happy to help," said the Doctor. I handed over the keys to a friendly middle-aged guy who assured me he knew where the lot was at the beach and that two of them would head out now and bring it back and leave it secure in the hospital lot. When he returned the key just before surgery, they both refused any kind of payment. "Just wanted to help out," they said, adding ten-fold to my faith in mankind overall.  I was overwhelmed by their help and effort, and then my cellphone rang.

My wife had called my oldest son in Dallas, Texas area where he works as an ER Nurse at a hospital in Plano, TX.  "Your son is making arrangements to fly out from Dallas to Seattle, rent a car and drive from the airport to Port Angeles, WA then hop on a bus to the hospital.  He will be there late tomorrow afternoon to drive you and the RV back home."

Over the next several days, my wife and family became my strength and sole support. At that moment, however, for the first time in my adult life, after years of responding to emergencies of others, I felt all the panic start to fade away and I burst into tears for a few transitional and eye opening moments. Laying there so far away from home, alone, injured and awaiting surgery, I realized that amidst the pain and worry, that I was both the luckiest man in the world and the world's proudest father.

And that Forks, WA rocks!!

Epilogue: Surgery went ok, resulting in a metal plate and a few screws to repair my broken ankle, and was splinted to keep it immobile for my several day trip home for follow up by my own Doctors. My son showed up as promised the next day. What followed were 4 days of a road trip where my son drove all day, then schlepped me in and out of motels and saw to my needs, subtly watching for any signs of difficulties associated with my ankle or surgery.  That trip could be a whole separate story on it's own, but I'm going to keep that within family and selfishly save those warm memories for myself. Oh, and no more solo distant hiking adventures so far away. Ever!

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Firefighters shot while entering home: Update of protocols called for

   Recently, two Maryland firefighters were shot by a homeowner who did not realize they entered his home following a request by the owner’s brother to check on his welfare. One of the firefighters died from the gunshot wound shortly after. Classified as a “routine” welfare check by local fire officials, this is the second time a firefighter was shot in the same district during this type of call, with one firefighter wounded in 2008 in similar circumstances.  “We will probably give them a little more guidance to help those people make better informed decisions,” said the Fire Chief in a local news story.
   The argument is strong on both sides of the first-responder community, with some calling the firefighters “heroes” for their attempts to help another, with others calling for much stronger indicators — such as actually observing someone incapacitated, or hearing calls for help or screams within — before making forcible entry into a residence, especially these days when more Americans are protecting their individual homes and “castles” with firearms under a protective 2nd Amendment. (Full disclosure: I’m one of them.)
   Leaving the ongoing firearm debate aside, there’s the matter of who should make such entry and under what circumstances. How many times do you knock? How loud do you call out? How many times do you call out? Should a 2nd floor entry be attempted first? (Often 2nd story windows aren’t locked.)  And leading all those questions is whether firefighters should be making forcible entry “just in case” at all or leave such initial entry to trained police officers.
   I fall on the side of following the cops inside in any situation when a forcible entry is made when there’s no flame, smoke or audible indicators to do so. Some will immediately remind me of how “seconds count in a medical emergency”, and they’ll be right. Taking that one extra step of precaution can save lives as well.  Others will question whether fire or EMS personnel will be lesser servants should they pause. Maybe, but fire and EMS personnel make such decisions everyday when they stop and take time to check if a floor over a fire is spongy or not before proceeding, or taking time to check prior medication before injecting another drug that might prove lethal in combination. Seconds do count to be sure. But so does common sense.
    Individual courage and sense of duty is always admirable, but unfortunately not always productive. Protocols for such calls to “check on the welfare” should primarily be a police response with EMS backup. Or, at the very least, an EMS or Fire response, though only with on-site Police support.  Either way, firefighters may be the experts in how to break in and make entry, but in most cases void of smoke, fire or screams, the Police know best when to break in.
   Fire and Police have always been two equal parts of an ongoing competitive game.  Everyday, however, they continue to work best as a team when it comes to saving lives — of both first responders and the citizens they serve.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Could just One More Sentence save lives?

From "Adopt-A-Hydrant" flyer,
Des Plaines, IL FD
   So far this winter we've all been subjected to massive coverage of snow storms around the country, partly because it's news but partly because such 24/7 coverage has proven to increase both viewership and advertising opportunities for broadcasters. Of a more local staple for news media are residential fires that result in a tragic loss of life. It seems that with both of these important stories, what is often missing is just one more sentence. Just one additional statement that could possibly help save lives but is often omitted.
   The most recent east coast "snow-maggedon" displayed the expected footage of folks shoveling snow, plows slicing away at snow buildup on streets and roads, aerial footage of highway backups and endless radar evaluations. Reporters made snowballs, jammed yardsticks into the snow and alternated between footage of snow blowers and kids sliding down hills in plastic saucers. On one national network, the studio anchor actually convinced a somewhat hesitant field reporter to fall back in the snow and demonstrate for America the fine art of making snow angels.
   What was disturbingly missing from these reports, however, was that One More Sentence. Something like, "And please be sure to keep neighborhood fire hydrants free of snow and accessible to first responders."  While many local news outlets team up with the local fire department and show how buried hydrants can delay a fire response, the national news seemed to be more interested in frolicking in the snow. It only takes a few seconds to say, but hopefully some listeners will think a bit after clearing their own sidewalks or driveways and clear the snow away from a nearby neighborhood hydrant buried by passing plows. It takes time for responding firefighters to dig out a hydrant, and even more time if they can’t locate one buried in mounds of snow and ice plowed up from the street.
   The other One More Sentence deficit in the both national and local news is the one that should conclude every report of a residential fire fatality where it applies. That would be, "Fire officials report that there were no functioning smoke alarms present.”
   In my 26 years as a career firefighter, I can't recall a single fatality or serious injury in a home that was protected by a working smoke detector. There may have been some, but I suspect those incidents are extremely rare. I'd expect that it would be one of the first questions from a reporter since most such fatalities are due to smoke inhalation.  The piercing shrill of an activated smoke detector has proven to be a tremendous life saving device providing warning enough to escape and help others get out as well. Where there are no such detectors, the news accounts usually include the family member or neighbor telling how, "I just couldn't get past the smoke and flames," to help those inside.
   Smoke detectors would seem to be a no brainer to most folks, and having the security of an easily spotted and accessible fire hydrant near your home would also seem to be important during a snowstorm. But we're all victims of differing priorities and distractions, and this does seem to be the era of short attention spans.
   All the more reason that news coverage could help save some lives, I believe, by providing a quick reminder about buried hydrants and having a working smoke detector by adding that crucial and possibly life saving One More Sentence.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Keep RV Fire Escape Clear

    Fires in occupied RV’s are rare, but as more and more RV’rs continue to extend the camping experience into winter months using propane furnaces or electric heaters that can be used when hooked to shore power or generators, fire hazards increase as well.
   Sticks and bricks homeowners have long been encouraged by local fire departments to practice regular Escape Drills in the Home (EDITH). Fire safety experts know that the feeling of sudden panic experienced while still in a half-sleep stupor can lead to bad judgments and reactions ending with tragic results.  I vividly remember a few incidents where we’ve found a victim who died only because they lost their way in the smoke and darkness or found an exit blocked.
   Applying this kind of detailed and comprehensive drill to an RV or small camper would seem like overkill, but some basic pre-planning and nightly preparation checks can both save lives and prevent injuries in case of a middle of the night fire.
   Though all RV’s and campers have several exits, some of them may be blocked temporarily at night being used as a sleeping area. Others may be blocked with other stuff relocated to accommodate a sleeping area elsewhere. In addition to the obvious need to keep your smoke detector operational, here are a few things to consider:

  • Keep all exit opportunities clear, or in the case of smaller Class B's or camper vans, be sure the person sleeping in front of an exit knows how to open it quickly.
  • Know where the proper lever or latch is located or if there is a corresponding locking latch that needs to be operated before opening.
  • Don’t block that latch.
  • Keep portable heaters away from anything that can burn, i.e. trash bin, laundry, bedding (even blankets or covers that may slide off of you overnight).
  • Is your fire extinguisher readily available and located at or near an exit? (Should only be used after everyone is outside anyway, but you never know.)
  • Anticipate people or pet movement overnight that might dislodge, topple or move flammable objects.
  • Add your own additional precautions unique to your situation here.    
   Every RV and camper environment is different, so precautions taken will differ as well. Take a few moments to inventory your own unique living and sleeping arrangements and then imagine how you’d quickly react in case of a fire in your unit.
    Firefighters refer to trailers, campers, RV’s and the like as “matchbooks” because of the amount of materials that can burn (called a “fire load”) contained in a small space. As such they are often extinguished, but rarely saved. While it may be easy to imagine how you’d put out this fire, or deal with that fire and so on, when it comes to the real thing actual reactions may be different.
    How to get the hell out quickly may be the only way to save your life.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

9/11 - Remember the Blood of Heroes

As a retired career firefighter I do the same thing each year as September 11th approaches. Recalling the horrors of September 11, 2001 and the loss of so many firefighters and first responders among the nearly 3,000 who perished, I see how the event itself seems to have dimmed in the collective memories of many in this country. Just within the past week, one TV pundit went as far as saying we all “over-reacted” to the event.

   I finally had the opportunity to visit Ground Zero in New York in 2011. For many firefighters, including the retired members like myself, such a visit is our own “pilgrimage to Mecca” -- forgive the ironic metaphor -- to show respect for the fallen. I was as surprised as my grown son who was with me was when I was unexpectedly moved to tears at one point viewing a display case showing the hundreds of patches from Police and Fire units from around the world. It epitomized and drove home the sense of brotherhood and family that first responders share, and how the survivors continue to honor their memory and ultimate sacrifice.

   Each year I share a link to a 9/11 memorial site that contains a moving video, “Remember the Blood of Heroes”, offering a powerful visual and audio reminder to all of us of how we felt that day. It begins with a series of applicable quotes that lead to a moving and powerful payoff, one that I believe many Americans need to revisit from time to time.

   For me, every day after September 11, 2001 has become September 12th. I hope that instead of allowing the date to diminish in importance, dissolve through historical revisions, or depreciate in patriotic value, that we will continue to honor those who responded and those who perished during this attack on America and modern civilization as we know it.

   Please view the video, and share the link with others as well.

Monday, February 9, 2015

"We're gonna burn the witch!" - A Halloween Memory

   Many years ago there was a story in my home town paper about a neighborhood Halloween celebration that a few families tried to arrange that drew fire from others as for -- lack of any sensible definition -- "politically incorrect".  The celebration involved the ceremonial burning of a fabricated witch in effigy as part of the Halloween program. There were concerns of "Satanism", devil worship and all manners of religious paranoia that pressured the city to not grant permits for the event and essentially killing the idea.

   The story stimulated a twinge of nostalgia concerning my father Robert A. Ornberg, who passed away in 1958, who began the tradition in our hometown in the mid 1950’s.

   Dad was wondering aloud, I recall, just before Halloween how the neighborhood kids needed something else to do besides soaping his windows. Instead of planning to call the police every half hour, he contacted a few neighborhood and business friends and to to work.

   First he persuaded several local merchants and businessmen to donate various treats such as candy, ice cream, cookies, punch and a few toys for prizes. As an Advertising Manager for a local manufacturer, he was able to assemble a few 16 mm cartoons, a projector, a long extension cord and a large bed sheet. Others gathered was seemed like every empty cardboard box in the city, old newspapers and some old wooden skids.

   Then, on Halloween Eve, I remember peeking down into the basement as Dad meticulously assembled, from 2 by 2’s, bunched up newspapers, black crepe paper, cardboard -- along with a warlock’s imagination – the biggest, ugliest and scariest looking witch that a 7 year-old have ever seen mounted on a long wooden pole.

   Flyers had been hand delivered throughout the neighborhood for several days. On Halloween, hundreds of costumed kids with their parents gathered at the old Community House, located at a neighborhood park. There were games to play, treats to consume and prizes to win. As it grew dark, the sheet nailed to side of the small field house lit up with the images of Woody Woodpecker, Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig. Then it was time for the parade.

   With Dad at the head of the crowd carrying the paper and wooden witch high overhead, the entire crowd followed Dad and the witch out of the park and marched through the neighborhood. Someone began the chant, “We’re gonna burn the witch! We’re gonna burn the witch,” a few times which quickly ignited the entire crowd chanting in unison as they moved from block to block. After snaking through much of the neighborhood we all returned to the park where the cardboard witch was propped up at the top of the large pile of cardboard and wood. With ample ceremony, and a fire engine and crew standing by nearby, the pile was put to the torch.

   The excitement that had been building all evening exploded in cheers and hollers as flames consumed the evil make-believe witch, and seemingly burning away all the ideas of pranks and youthful mayhem as well. Everyone finally went home feeling like Halloween was indeed a holiday.
I know there must be a few other “kids” out there that remember this tradition as fondly as I do.

   Dad sure had a way of coming up with the right idea at the right time. 

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Major snowstorms bog down firefighters too

   Every time there’s a major snowstorm, folks empty out food stores stocking up for a few days of possible isolation, or hardware stores of all manners of snow shovels, blowers, and scrapers. It’s just accepted -- and expected -- that calling 911 will bring help “just in case.”  

   Fire departments prepare for such emergencies, but one old saying might be appropriately altered to read, “Snow happens.” No matter how much you try to prepare, a couple feet of snow, or extended periods of sub-zero temperatures are going to have an effect on how crews will be able to respond, perform and even wrap up afterwards.

   In one such blizzard in the Chicago area in 1979, a quickly developed SOP called for ambulances responding to medical emergencies to be preceded in traffic by an engine literally clearing at least passable tire tracks for the ambulance to negotiate.  It added time to any response -- time that can be crucial in a medical emergency -- but it at least help assure that the equipment would arrive rather than get bogged down in snow.

   Another challenge with a couple feet of snow falling in a short time is finding a fire hydrant. Major snowfalls, coupled with plowing activities, quickly buried thousands of fire hydrants under massive piles of snow.  Once the snow was over, a hydrant that was buried even as little as one inch was just as invisible as one buried in a 10 foot pile. In the event of a fire, searching for an available hydrant could prove devastating as a building burned with no water available.

   In our ’79 blizzard, all hands were called back on duty and all were assigned on a 4 hour out, 2 hour rest schedule to any available public works or non-emergency fire vehicle to dig out literally every hydrant in town.  Armed with a water system map and shovels, crews used a 6 foot long metal rod to locate hidden hydrants.  Guided by the water map, which showed the “general area” where hydrants were located, we stabbed here and there until feeling a telltale metal response and started digging. It took fire crews, on overtime, 72 hours to dig out every hydrant in town. Fortunately, no actual building fires were hindered by a buried hydrant.

   Sub zero temps offer still more hazards. The pumps on fire engines carrying their own water supplies would freeze up if not previously drained in severe freezing weather. If not, the pump could not...pump water.  Once drained, however, it would function but may take a couple of valuable minutes to prime before the pump could actually function.

   Fire streams created thick layers of ice on firefighting gear, sometimes making it near impossible to bend your legs or elbows until a fellow firefighter helped “break the ice” at your joints to allow greater movement.  After the fire, fire hoses froze in place and were impossible to roll up again. They had to be folded in large spaghetti-like spindly sculptures and loaded into the back of pickup trucks to be returned to the station to be thawed out and cleaned.

   And you can be sure that NOBODY ever stuck their tongue on a hose nozzle.