Sunday, September 14, 2014

Before Help Arrives: Simple emergency tool saves lives on the highway

   One nightmare scenario involves a vehicle bursting into flames following a crash and the driver or occupant struggling to unlock a seat belt as smoke and flames quickly overcome them. Another is witnessing another driver trapped in a vehicle as you or other would-be samaritans pound and bang unsuccessfully on the window trying to extract an occupant. These nightmares may vary, but they all involve the inability to get out of the vehicle quickly in an emergency.

   Properly equipped and trained first responders can often remove an entire windshield in minutes and, if need be, pry open doors or completely remove the vehicle roof with tools commonly known as the “Jaws of Life”. but for the RV'r or or other drivers on the road a simple tool can often be the difference between life or death.

   A seat belt cutter and emergency window punch tool sure comes in handy. Readily available at most stores like Walmart or online are a variety of combined belt cutter and window punch tools that can be mounted in plain sight in your vehicle or RV or kept handy in an easily reached compartment. Once in place, it can be quickly accessed either to assist another motorist on the highway or even to help escape your own vehicle when the worst happens.

   On one end is a hammer-like head with pointy metal strikers where you’d otherwise expect a flat hammer face for pounding in nails.  This allows even the weakest among us to apply enough focused force on a vehicle window to instantly shatter it into thousands of small pieces and allow access to the occupant, or for the occupant to reach the outside.

   The tool is effective only for side windows -- those that offer the best access for either rescue or escape. Modern vehicle front windshields are essentially two safety glass panes of glass sandwiched around an inner plastic like material designed to keep the windshield intact in case it is similarly struck while driving. All modern side windows, however, will shatter with one or two strikes with the tool.

   Once the window is no longer an obstacle, potential rescuers may be faced with wasting precious seconds searching for a seat belt release with a variety of release options. With the belt cutter, used in a similar fashion as most letter openers, belts can be quickly sliced. This is a particularly helpful tool with child restraints.

   We’ve all seen the online videos of motorists coming to the aid of others on the highway, especially those that have a happy ending.  What we don’t often see, but are the usual outcome too many times, are those where all efforts fail and drivers die while still seated in the vehicle.  In some cases, it could have been merely the difference of a few seconds for either rescuers or occupant, where the right tool in the right place could have made a difference.

   Whether you can, or should, help a motorist in such a situation is a decision only you can make. (A subject for another post) If you do choose to act, or wish to give yourself an extra edge -- get one of these tools for every vehicle you drive.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Visiting Fireman on 9-11

  Now retired from the fire department since ’96, each year at this time since 9-11 I’ve always tried to make it back to my home town of Des Plaines, IL for a city or department led observance of the day.  A couple of years it was enough to stop by the station and have a cup of coffee with the crew for awhile and then move on.

   This year I wasn’t able to drive down for either and instead stopped by the local Oconomowoc, WI Fire Department’s Station 2 this morning to at least observe the modest ceremony they had planned. Just spending even a few moments of that particular day on Fire Department soil still remains important, even 13 years after.

   The local department, though small in number, had raised a flag high over the station on their elevated platform, and the Chief made a few eloquent remarks about both the tragedy of that day and the reverence reserved for the day annually by the fire service. Reading a short poem, or listing a few statistics could not cover up the occasional interruption caused as emotion made it difficult to speak.  A reporter earlier asked why the department had this ceremony each year, and the Chief responded, “Well, I can give you 343 reasons right now,” and then explained further.

   As a retired firefighter, and one of only two or three non-department observers, I was invited to line up along with less than a dozen active firefighters who were on hand for the ceremony.  The Chief began reading the names of the 343 firefighters who had lost their lives at Ground Zero, and after reading a page of names handed the list to the next person in line who continued for a page soon passing the list on to the next, and so on.

   I was deeply honored to have been part of the line of readers and did my part reading the names, ranks and duty assignment of a page full of firefighters I had never met, yet considered brothers. It was, perhaps, one of the most moving opportunities I’ve had on an already emotionally-charged date.

It was a small ceremony, and a relatively short one — though it seemed long due to the cold brisk wind that swept across us on the ramp — but it was a necessary one. And I was deeply grateful to be there.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Here's why it took the fire department 20 minutes to get there

First of all, it DID NOT take the fire department 20 minutes to get there. You may think it did, but not really.

Chances are the actual response time between the time the first call was received and the first unit rolled up on the scene was somewhere around 4 to 6 minutes. It's also the national norm for all incoming emergency calls and radio traffic to be recorded, time stamped and the tapes archived for a year or more. (OK, maybe "tapes" are back in my day, now replaced with wave or mp3 files or whatever...)

A recent tragic fire in Philadelphia resulted in neighbors and others charging that a late response by firefighters was the reason that several children died. In fact, it was not a delayed response to a fire that killed these unfortunate kids. It was the fire itself, which never should have started in the first place. Still, these folks decided to stage a protest outside the fire station even to to point of hindering one of the rigs responding to another emergency.

One rig showed up, according to the records, in less than 3 minutes. Another from the same nearby firehouse took a bit longer because it was elsewhere in the area dealing with a vehicle fire. A report of a house fire would also automatically trigger responses from other stations further away.

What happened at this call is the same thing that happens at most fires.  People first become aware of the fire and from that instant their internal clocks begin ticking. Just as time flies when you're having fun, when an emergency is in progress it seems like time stands still. 5 minutes seem like 10, 10 like 20 and so on. The actual time from someone first noticing a fire and a fire engine arriving on the scene may actually be 10 or 15 minutes or even longer.  The crucial time, however, is when the fire department first becomes aware of the fire and learns the location. It takes only 15 seconds or so to actually dispatch the equipment and if apparatus are in station should it only take 4 to 6 minutes to arrive on scene.

True, all sorts of factors can affect a response including traffic jams, weather, construction and detours. Usually fire companies are aware of nearby construction or other detours and plan accordingly or other stations are dispatched. Either way, they only know about the fire from the time they know about the fire.

One of the most common comments I remember after 26 years of fire response is, "It took you guys 20 minutes to get here!"

Each time it was actually under 6 minutes.

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Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Watch out what’s following the emergency vehicle

The first thing I learned when I moved to a rural area was that if a deer darts across the road in front of you, there could be another close behind. Oftentimes avoiding the first deer only results in a collision with the one following.  It’s the same with emergency vehicles but with an added hazard you might not expect.

Even with lights flashing and sirens blasting, first responders are trained to slow down – or even stop – at intersections and only proceed when they see the coast is clear. Not everyone can hear approaching sirens while enclosed in an air-conditioned and purposely soundproofed car. At times a civilian driver will proceed once the emergency vehicle has passed, never hearing or looking for a possible second responding vehicle. Knowing this, the second responder becomes more keenly aware and approaches the intersection with even more caution, but collisions still happen.

Emergency medical calls pose a different challenge. Even with fully equipped and trained paramedics, some patients need to be transported to a hospital quickly with the use of emergency lights and sirens. Medics and firefighters routinely advise family members and friends NOT to follow the ambulance to the hospital, and to obey all traffic laws and signals if they wish to also go to the emergency room. It’s hard enough to safely pilot an emergency vehicle through traffic without having to worry about someone tagging along.

Still, some disregard the warnings and try to keep up with the ambulance, sliding through red lights by dangerously tailgating behind. People do this either due to over-excitement and concern for a loved one and some do it because they see such behavior as acceptable on TV shows, even though the over-the-top dramatics are written in for effect.  Either way, an unmarked civilian vehicle running a stoplight closely behind an emergency vehicle becomes a dangerous high speed and nearly invisible object threatening to t-bone you as you continue after the ambulance passes by.

Once an ambulance or fire engine with full lights and siren passes, give an extra look before proceeding. Even if you hear the sirens diminishing in the distance, there could still be a distraught civilian driving -- as if wearing blinders – close behind.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Progress and Old School: Need the best of both

Recently I read of a growing number of fire department EMS personnel no longer using long spinal boards for patient transport. The article cited new studies revealing not only delays in transport issues but others involving patient discomfort, bruising, and other problems resulting from transport on the long, hard boards.

Good points were raised and no doubt based on lot’s of input and study. In the accompanying comments, however, I noted resistance and skepticism shown by some veteran paramedics — and younger EMS folks writing them off as “old timers”. The comments revealed yet another round of old vs new attitudes in both the fire service and EMS, with some balancing the value of new technology against the foundation of experience. Nothing new here, of course.

Every new trend or practice that surfaces in emergency services should balance the skills of first responders using new equipment and techniques with the years of solid in-the-field experience of active veterans.  While some feel these sometimes opposite poles conflict with each other, smart responders draw from both as needed.

I remember when wearing an air pack was considered a practice only for wimps. Some felt it delayed time needed for entry for search and rescue or extinguishment and there were rarely if ever enough of the devices to go around. What few air packs on scene were stored in an outside engine or truck compartment and contained within large black suitcase-like container. Today it’s rare to see a firefighter without one.

Then there was the advent of Nomex hoods that were to be donned to protect ears, neck and face. Veteran firefighters resisted these because they could no longer use their ears as “radar”, turning heads from left to right to determine the direction to unseen flames based on radiant heat. Today they’re standard issue.

Firefighters were once used to jumping on a tailboard and buttoning up their coats while en route, using one hand to hang on to a chrome-coated safety rail. Today firefighters are required to not only be seated in a provided jump seat before the engine moved, but to have their seat belts buckled as well.

All of those past fears and skeptical attitudes have long been replaced by successful implementation and acceptance and continue to save lives and reduce injuries. Where implementation is most successful, the new practices are periodically tempered by previous experience, providing a balanced application of the latest-and-greatest new gadgets, procedures and practices along with the benefit of experience from those who have it..

So consider tolerating us old timers and fuddy-duddies when you can. We know the world changes and new ideas help us evolve to better serve our fellow citizens, but once in awhile we may be able to reach into our old bag of tricks as needed to help reach the objective at hand.

"That's not the way we've always done it," can be a quick road to obsolesence to be sure.  But if you're willing to look, there are still a few valuable treasures left packed away in the attic.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Ice Is a Challenge for Firefighters

Excerpt from “10-24: A Firefighter Looks Back
From Chapter 11: Running Hot & Cold

“[Ice resulting from hose line water streams] can be a serious impediment to firefighting operations overall.

We learned during one particularly cold winter season that when temperatures get to a certain low point, and are sustained there for a day, even the small amount water remaining within the fire engine pumps can freeze, rendering hydrants and the 500 gallons of water carried on the engine totally useless and unattainable. As a result all engine pumps would need to be drained of any water that would be susceptible to freezing and interfering with the ability to pump any water. This meant a moment or two on a fire scene priming the dry pump for operation, but the slight delay was better than the alternative.

In some subzero responses, many joked that the colder it was, the more firefighters wanted to be inside fighting the fire. It was the best source of heat, and it followed that some kidded about not knocking a fire down too fast so they could ward off the cold a bit longer.

Even if that were true, it wouldn’t let anyone escape the grueling task of sub-zero post-fire cleanup, gathering frozen hose and equipment while slipping on icy surfaces everywhere.

In warm weather, drained fire hoses could be disconnected and rolled up for transport back to the station. In sub-zero weather, the spaghetti-like pattern of hoses surrounding a fire scene is quickly frozen. Much of the water remaining inside freezes and hinders any attempt to drain the rest, and nearly a half-inch of now frozen mist encases the outside of the hose. What normally would be a quick job of rolling up lengths of drained hose instead became an exercise in folding awkward lengths of frozen stiff and heavy hose and heaving them into a department squad or pickup truck bed or other department vehicle for transport.

Once back at the station, they would need to be thawed first, then drained and cleaned.
Many firefighters outside during firefighting operation are subject to this frozen spray as well. In addition to icicles forming on helmet rims -- and even from mustaches on those so equipped -- ice formed on the outside of bunker coats and pants, sometimes so thick that it seriously hindered movement.

At one such fire, a Salvation Army truck was on hand providing hot coffee or hot
chocolate along with warm cotton gloves to freezing firefighters. When another firefighter and I stopped by to grab a cup to warm up, I reached out and picked up a styrofoam cup full of hot coffee, only to discover that enough ice had formed on my bunker coat and sleeves to keep me from bringing the cup to my own lips. Seeing this, the other firefighter reached over and broke up the ice at the elbow bend of my coat, loosening it so I could maneuver my hot coffee. After he loosened up my two elbows, I did the same for him.

As firefighters approached the coffee van, it started to look like a scene out of the Wizard of Oz where the Tin Man needed to have all his joints oiled before he could move.”