Monday, December 24, 2012

Keeping Safe: street sense

By now the new has shocked the Public safety family: two firefighters dead, two wounded, and one off-duty police officer wounded - all of them shot by a man obviously out of his mind for reasons we'll never know.

One of the two killed was a Public Safety Telecommunicator (dispatcher), as well as a volunteer firefighter: Tomasz Kaczowka. He worked both sides of the radio. I didn't know him; it doesn't matter. Line of duty deaths are difficult for dispatchers. it's even worse when one of the victims spends most of their time in a chair next to you.

We all send our heartfelt wishes of sympathy to the family and co-workers of the deceased and wishes of a speedy recover to the injured.

Questions will linger. Why did this man take his anger, his rage, out on the first responders - firefighters, not even law enforcement - in the first place? What could those men have done to prevent the tragedy in the first place? What steps can any first responder practice to prevent a similar occurrence in another town? Can Public Safety Telecommunicators help stop such an incident in the future?

There is an unwritten rule in Public Safety, 'don't become a victim' that we all learn very early in our careers. This simple piece of advice reminds us to be careful. I remember being told this by my first partner on my first day as an EMT in Oakland. He went on to tell me a few common sense rules of thumb:

1) Always be aware of your location (especially at night). Is the call in an alley, an area without light, or an apartment without a phone? What street are you on and what was your last cross street? **back then, we didn't carry portable radios and this was way before cell phones were invented**

2) Listen and look for signs of trouble before you get out of the ambulance. If it sounds or feels wrong, ask for a cop to respond. Same thing once you get to the patient. **we often were sent to calls without fire or police assistance**

3) Don't stand in front of windows or doors (bullets can come through access routes, as can flying objects).

4) Remember, scenes may start out secure and quickly go sideways. that 'Star of Life' is very reflective at night, making a good target. Always have an exit in mind in case you have to leave fast. Don't block your exit.

As a dispatcher, I have often been 'restricted' by protocols when taking certain types of calls. What do I mean by that? When I received a call reporting a fire, the expectation from administration for dispatch was that we'd get the address, the type of fire, ask if anyone was still inside, and obtain a caller name & phone number. This type of information was basic, or what I referred to as 'the Dragnet version' (just the facts).

The fire department radio initial response was scripted, in other words, we had wording for dispatches. We weren't supposed to deviate from the dispatching format, and never, ever use radio codes. There are reasons for this; FIRESCOPE, ICS, limited radio resources, and a flow of radio traffic.

Traditionally, fire units wouldn't arrive on scene of a crime until the law enforcement units declared the area 'safe', even in the case of officers down. Instead, they would wait a short distance away. Funny though, when it came to a fire, that was never an issue. I, and my co-workers in EMS back then didn't follow that policy. We rolled in and handled business. Most of the gang-bangers considered EMS  and fire neutral in Oakland. Sure, there were a few instances of crews yelling "Shots fired" over the channel, with a chaotic exchange conversation between the dispatcher and one of the crew trying to pinpoint where the shooter was (the ambulance no longer in the same area) for the police to deal with.

Sadly, this 'protection' granted to fire and EMS is eroding.

What can you do to safeguard the welfare of your field personnel now?

When taking calls, first & foremost, pass along any information that could be potentially life-threatening to the first responders. If law enforcement response is required, communicate problems encountered to the law enforcement dispatcher and in turn, relay the instructions to the fire / EMS personnel. always get detailed suspect information (head-to-toe, same with clothing). Get a detailed description of the structure involved (1 storey, color, how many doors / windows, fenced, vehicles in driveway, dogs, etc).

If a unit reports shots, try to remain calm and get law enforcement started. Ask the fire/EMS if anyone injured, where is victim, how many reports heard, possible if the shooter was seen (description?), last known location, was weapon seen (handgun, long gun, color, how many),

It is important to remain cool and calm. Once the dispatcher loses it on the radio, everyone else does as well.

Goddess Bless all.

stay safe out there.

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