Distracted driving

Yesterday, two of my coworkers in the fire department were injured on the job. The details of what happened are not fully known but here’s what I can tell you (this via one of the official photographers for the fire department — here is his blog story about it):

An engine company responded to a vehicle fire on the interstate. While working on controlling the fire, a vehicle came into the active scene, striking two of the firemen — thankfully, they only sustained minor injuries. In addition to hitting these gentlemen, they also hit “at least” 2 other vehicles (according to the only report I have). Three other civilians were transported to the hospital as a result of this individual running into an active scene. I have several gripes about this:

First, I have an issue with the fact that news agencies felt that this was not a story worth pursuing. Granted, I didn’t actually watch any news coverage to see if they added anything to what was written on their sites but from the local news sites, all that is being reported is the short “news briefs” that 2 firemen were struck while on the job and sustained non-life threatening injuries. The end. As I was telling Jon today, apparently just “getting hurt” wasn’t good enough to make the news. Now, if they had died, these news folks would be all over it. I also commented that if public safety isn’t doing anything to actually help you (generic) as a person at that instant (i.e.: firemen saving your house, police catching the person who robbed your home or EMS administering life-saving treatment to you or your immediate family), most people don’t care about them. I see it all the time: my ambulance approaches a busy intersection while running emergently (read: with lights and sirens) to a call. People look up, see me and then proceed to go through the intersection because where they have to go is more important than the 4 year old I’m trying to get to who can’t breathe because he’s having an asthma attack or the 69 year old who has stopped breathing and his heart has stopped. The fire department and police department have similar stories, I promise.

The second issue I have regards what is known as the “move over” law (see this from the NC Department of Crime Control and Public Safety). This law took effect 10 years ago this coming January…and people still ignore it. There have been plenty of public service announcements so, if you haven’t heard about it, you’ve been living under a rock. The basic idea is that when an emergency vehicle is stopped on the side of the road, you slow down to provide an element of safety. If it is a multi-lane highway, you are to move over one lane, giving the emergency vehicles a full lane to work in that is unobstructed by moving vehicles. A lot of this requires common sense when trying to figure out the best way to safely do it for all parties involved. We obviously don’t want you to cause another wreck trying to get over a lane to give us more room to work…but if you significantly slow down (maintaining a “safe speed” as instructed by the law), we won’t fault you. But, if you got past us at 80 miles an hour on the interstate with mere inches between my body and your car, we will. However, the largest component is that you, as the driver, pay attention. That can solve a lot of issues.

I know for a well-known fact that around the Raleigh area, fire and EMS, especially when on an exceptionally busy roadway such as the interstate, always leave their emergency lights activated on their vehicles until they have left the scene. And believe me, you can’t miss all of those lights if you are paying the slightest bit of attention. Believe me, we pay attention out there. But, if you have ever been in a wreck or witnessed one, you understand how quickly something can happen and how little time you have to react to what is coming at you (or you understand how little time someone in that position has to react). There is nothing worse than seeing what is going to happen and knowing there is nothing you can do about it. As much attention as we pay, you have to help us out by paying attention to what you’re doing. If you do what you’re supposed to, we can worry about the people who we have been called to help.

I have already touched on my final point: people just don’t seem to care. And that irritates me. It’s one thing for a gaggle of geese to ignore my lights and sirens…and it’s a completely different thing for a car to ignore me. (Yes, there’s a story there: while driving to a call this past week, we were heading up a hill and as soon as we were getting ready to crest the hill, we see a dozen or so geese waddling across the roadway. There’s no way around them. My partner slammed on the brakes to avoid a feather fender and goose stew. Blaring the siren and the air horn at them did nothing. Absolutely nothing. All it did was cause them to raise their wings as if they were going to fly…and then increased their pace a whole 2 steps an hour.) As much fun as it can be to go fast and go through red lights…I’m not the biggest fan of it. Why? Because it’s dangerous. And people don’t pay attention and, worse, don’t care.

The next time you go to work, see how many risks that could impact your life (i.e.: you could die or become seriously injured as a result) you take in a single day, let alone in a single 5 or 10-minute span. Depending on the length of my journey, I may take a dozen of these risks in just a few short minutes. I know that one stupid move by someone could land me in the hospital or in a casket. And that risk is even greater if we are traveling emergently to the hospital. Why? Well, the reason we are traveling emergently is because the patient is exceptionally sick and each second that it takes to get to definitive care (i.e.: the hospital) actually makes a difference. However, that doesn’t mean that I can’t provide necessary intervention for the patient in the meanwhile to keep him or her stable until we are able to reach the ER. As a result, I am often moving around in the back of the truck while we are on the road, going through stoplights and driving “real fast”. Unfortunately, the drive to the hospital is often further than it is to get to the patient initially. This means even greater risk. So, when people refuse to move over, stop or just plain get out of the way, it makes my day that much more dangerous. I bet that throughout the course of your day, you often think that you can’t wait to get home to see your family; however, I bet your thoughts don’t go something like this “I hope I get to go home and see my family once my shift is over.” See the difference in attitudes there? You never doubt that you will see them at the end of your workday. We know we take a risk in doing our job. When we got into this, we understood that. However, that doesn’t decrease our desire to go home in one piece to see our family. If anything, it increases our desire to make sure we do absolutely everything we can to stay safe. Please help us…all of us with that.

Like I said, I have very few details of what actually happened for the wreck that involved these firemen getting hurt. I don’t know if someone was yapping on the phone (a constant problem that w find as we are trying to get place — people talking on the phone and ignoring the sirens and air horns being blasted at them) or reading or messing with their 2 year old in the back seat or messing with the radio or eating (which, I’ll admit, I am guilty of) or, worse yet, texting (against the law in North Carolina). However, I will guarantee that there was some level of distracted driving which resulted in these needless injuries. All that I can ask is that you please, please, please pay attention and give us room to work. Remember that we are public servants…but that we need your help to ensure we can do what so many of you so easily take for granted: go home and see our families once we get off work.