I am writing this on December 21, 2006, while gratefully trapped in my house in Colorado Springs. I am trapped because of a major snowstorm currently pummeling the area. I estimate we have more than three feet of snow here, with drifts well over five feet. The heavy snowfall at Christmas is actually rare for Colorado and adds to an already unusual holiday season at my house. For the first time, one of our children is out of the country and not able to be home for the occasion, and our 13' Christmas tree has fallen over not once but twice. It was fully decorated both times. The damage has been impressive.
My forced confinement has given me the opportunity to ponder some of the successes of EMS. It has also given me some time to contemplate what, to me, remain as our biggest challenge in the year(s) ahead.
As a result of this storm, last night my son and I were able to personally experience a taste of what you do so well in EMS bailing out people who are hell-bent to knowingly, or unknowingly, cause themselves harm.
Yesterday as the snow was flying, I drove to the base of one of my agencies to do some skills testing. This day had been scheduled well in advance, and I did not want to get behind my appointments. So I chose to make the 25-mile trip. At 10 a.m. it was a bit sporting, to say the least, but after passing about four to five minor accidents I completed the journey relatively uneventfully.
The snow continued to fall all day, and at 5p.m., I left to pick up my son at his local college dorm to bring him home for the holidays. We navigated around several road closures, and two and a half hours after leaving downtown Colorado Springs, we were three miles from home. At that point, I managed to get our Jeep hopelessly stuck.
I called home and, after much discussion, planned to walk the three miles home in the two to three feet snows. Problem was, we had not brought hats and had only street shoes. We had adequate coats, sweaters and gloves but no proper head or footwear. The wind was howling at about 40 mph and the wind-chill was estimated to be 12 degrees. Nevertheless, my son and I thought we could make it to our home.
Over the phone, my wife thought otherwise and made that fact very clear to us in language that is not publishable. She immediately called our local fire department and asked if the agency Hummer could make it to our car. The on-duty crew told her that indeed they could get us, and that my son and I should remain in our vehicle until their arrival.
Not just any Hummer, the Donald Wescott Fire Protection District vehicle is a first -generation Hummer. It is, in fact, a military grade Humvee that has proved very useful in the weather and terrain in our area.
Soon enough, the Hummer emerged out of the darkness and blowing snow to pick us up. As Wescott's medical director, I was quite embarrassed and felt very sheepish but the crew very professionally helped get some of our possessions into the Hummer without portraying any evidence of criticism or cynicism for my poor choice to continue home in the weather. That's right, although they were likely thinking I was a moron, they gave not a hint.
As we proceeded to our house, the radios crackled with numerous other calls for vehicle assistance, including our local ambulance that became stuck enroute to a call. The snow on the roads became much deeper as we got closer to home, and drifts of snow cascaded like waves of water over the roof of the Hummer, making it difficult to see anything ahead.
Finally, the crew dropped my son and I at the top of our driveway and carried on to respond to the many other calls waiting. They had been busy since 10 a.m., and there did not appear to be any let up as the snow continued to come down. We thanked them for putting themselves at risk to save us from ourselves.
In my mind, this is a small example of what our fire service and EMS crews do everyday help protect others from what they may do to themselves. We should all be proud of that fact, and indeed, it is probably the greatest service public safety crews can perform.
Here is what I think is the most important issue facing EMS now and in the years ahead in one word safety.
Undoubtedly, this has been one of the most talked about subjects in Colorado this year. We had two highly publicized fatal crashes involving ambulances. In addition, there have been other incidents involving ambulances or fire trucks this year in our state that have led to serious injury and/or fatalities that were not as widely covered in the media.
Safety is a complex, multifaceted animal that will not be resolved in the short term. But, across America, it needs to be on the front burner if it is not already there. Upfront, we need to acknowledge that safety is a real issue that has to be addressed as an industry.
My personal emphasis is the reduction of the use of lights and sirens (Code 3) both in the response and return phases of transport (Please read my June Case in Point column). But even this small parcel of EMS vehicle safety is complicated.
Improvement starts with the development of dispatch protocols that limit the conditions requiring a Code 3 response, followed by the use of treatment protocols specifying the few clinical circumstances that truly necessitate a Code 3 return to the hospital.
Education to limit Code 3 operations must take place with EMS personnel, sending and receiving physicians and hospital staff, as well as the public.
It is my sincerest wish for the New Year that steps begun by others in the realm of reduced Code 3 operation, and safety overall, be carried to new heights because of the meaningful involvement of more in the EMS community.
Thanks to all of you who do your job everyday for the public. I hope you had a Merry Christmas and holiday season. I wish you the best for a Happy and Safe New Year.
Got to go, now. I have a date with a snow shovel.