Delayed Response: Thoughts on Public Safety from a Frontline Firefighter/Medic
In the blink of an eye, that’s how fast it can happen.
The blink of an eye and I’m lying on the ground, staring at the ceiling, and gasping for a breath I can’t seem to take. How did I get here? Why can’t I breathe? Who punched me in the neck? I’m hurt but I’m more scared and confused than anything.
A second ago I was sitting near the back of the bus next to my friend Mark. Molly was sitting in front of us, kneeling on her seat so she could face back, talking with me and Mark. I noticed we were quickly passing the cars outside the window but thought nothing of it. Molly must have sensed something and turned back to sit in her seat. Then, in an instant, I’m lying on the floor in the isle. Molly is next to me, blood around her mouth. To my right, my friend Tom stares at his hands which are covered in blood from a broken nose. No idea where Mark went. We’ve crashed!
Another blink of the eye and I’m lying on the grass outside the bus. I hear the now familiar song of sirens screaming in the distance as they try to reach us on the clogged highway. I assume I exited the bus on my own power, but I don’t remember.
I blink again. This time I open my eyes in the back of an ambulance, strapped to a backboard. I remember looking at the ceiling. Those round dome lights, the grab bar, and even the small access panel to the antenna on the roof are all clear in my memory. The paramedic by my side wears a suit, not a uniform. I would learn when I started working in EMS it most likely meant he was a manager or came from his other job. He’s kind and reassuring. The monitor electrodes are cold on my skin. Then I blink again and finally open my eyes being wheeled into the emergency department.
April 14th, 2014 marks the 20th anniversary of my first ride in the back of an ambulance. It was the first for most of my friends as well. Two of our busses on a high school field trip crashed on I-95 in New Haven, CT and sent about forty people to the hospital. Looking back, those blinks seem to get shorter and shorter with time.
But, at the same time, the memories I do retain stay clear. A common thread while talking to my friends recently is the feeling of comfort brought to the scene by those who came to make sense of the chaos. Whether it was the calm confidence of the medic I was with, the crew who broke the tension with humor by telling Tom his broken nose was beautiful as they loaded him into the ambulance, or any of the other acts of kindness which took place that day, my friends all say the same thing. From the emergency workers and police on scene to the hospital staff to the fire fighters who welcomed the uninjured into their firehouse for the day, the kindness of the people who came to help us stands out.
Many of my coworkers have not had the benefit of being strapped to a cold backboard as a frightened teen 130 miles away from home. It can be easy, and sometimes necessary, to form a hard shell while dealing with tragedy for a living. But we have to remember what we’re doing and why.
Of course there is abuse of the system. Sometimes we all get tired of dealing with the lonely old lady who calls twice a day just to get a response. It’s hard to have sympathy for the toe pain at three in the morning. I’m guilty of mumbling some pretty rude things on the way to those calls myself.
But it’s important to remember, for those who are truly sick and injured, something as simple as our attitude and demeanor can make a lasting impact on someone’s life. Walking into a chaotic scene with the cool confidence that we will handle this crisis professionally can instantly put people at ease. It may not be a crisis to us, but it is a big deal to someone when we’re arriving on scene.
I challenge you to think about this. Consider how you approach a scene. Are you prepared? Do you appear confident to the layperson on scene? Would you trust someone who looked like you?
I’ve talked about this with students I’ve had the opportunity to mentor over the years. Imagine sitting in an exam room and watching two doctors walk in. One looks nervous, has no sense of humor, and appears unsure of himself with his shirt untucked and his shoes untied. The other smiles politely as he enters, looks calm, confident, and well-kept. Maybe he even makes a light-hearted joke if the situation allows. Who would you chose to care for you and your family?
The public expects no less from their first responders, nor should they. As I’ll talk about in my next article, today’s consumer demands more. They demand competence and professionalism. They expect a constant drive for improvement. But most importantly, they expect customer service.
We should accept this challenge and strive to deliver the highest level of customer service possible. This doesn’t mean simply knowing what the book says and reciting what the protocols dictate. It means knowing how to interact with a person in crisis. It means instilling a sense of safety and security in someone who has just had one of the worst days of their life. Because even in those situations with no happy ending, where a trauma surgeon on scene would still be unable to provide the care needed, that calm confidence can help bring order to the chaos.
Fortunately, there were no fatalities on the ill-fated bus trip of 1994. However there were plenty of stitches, breaks, bumps, and bruises. Some injuries still linger 20 years later, likely to remain for life. But the one constant positive, the one theme present in each of my friends’ stories, and the biggest influence on the fire fighter / paramedic I have become is the performance of the first responders that day.
People’s lives change in the blink of an eye and we are the ones they call for help. We are the ones they will remember twenty years from now.
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Tom Valle earned his EMT certification in 2000. After graduating from UMass, Amherst in 2001, Tom worked private ambulance in both Springfield and Greenfield, MA while earning his paramedic certification from Greenfield Community College. He continues to work as a professional firefighter/paramedic in western Massachusetts and serves as the secretary for union’s Local. Tom is continuing his education by working towards a Bachelor’s in Fire Science through Columbia Southern University.
Tom can be reached directly at
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