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Nov. 29, 2012, Winnipeg - What can 15 seconds accomplish?

It can make a world of difference on our jobs; it might even be the difference between life and death. Hang on a little longer, push a little further, and maybe make a real difference in someone’s life.

November 29, 2012  By Jay Shaw

Nov. 29, 2012, Winnipeg – What can 15 seconds accomplish?

It can make a world of difference on our jobs; it might even be the difference between life and death. Hang on a little longer, push a little further, and maybe make a real difference in someone’s life. But did you ever wonder what you could do if you had a chance to get 15 seconds back? What would you do? I know what I would do.

I want to share with you why every call is an opportunity to leave an impression on the public (taxpayer) in a profound and positive way. As a licensed basic EMT (in Manitoba we call them paramedics, but that’s another blog) I get to interact with a lot of family members at calls at which I inform family members what I’m doing to their loved one. I’ve been asked many times, why are you doing that? What drug is that you’re giving and why? Why are you hooking her up to that machine? Is s/he going to live, die, be all right?

I’ve told family members their loved ones have died. I’ve told daughters that their mothers are going to be fine, and I’ve told husbands to sit close by and hold their wives’ hands because they’re scared and need reassurance. Quite often on this job, we are there when the most personal and devastating thing possible happens, and we’re supposed to handle it like pros.


It’s our job, and frankly, your communication skills, if used in the right way can have a tremendous positive impact for your patients and their families. Part of me feels this is the most rewarding aspect of my career. A really good fire captain once told me that when people call 911 it is generally one of the worst three times in that person’s life, and there are three impressions you can make: positive, negative, and neutral. You get to choose which impression of the fire service you will leave forever with that person. That’s a pretty powerful opportunity. Besides doing your job to the best of your ability, did you go the extra mile for the family by explaining what is happening and what the next steps will be after the fire or after the ambulance drives away? Did you take the chance to make a real difference? Sometimes, all it takes is 15 seconds and you can make a major impact on someone’s life. I know, because about 10 years ago I failed to do it, and I can still see her face to this day.

I used to work in an ER and I have an orthopedics background – fixing bones. I’ve worked side by side with trauma surgeons when some of horribly busted up people have made their way through the hospital doors. So when I had a few years on the job and just started to ride the rescue, I missed an opportunity to make a real difference at an MVC at which we had to basically remove the entire car from a patient in a slow and tedious extrication. I was in charge of setting up all the equipment and running the power unit for the tools and shuttling equipment into the car to the crew members who were trying to peel this car off of this 16-year-old girl. It was rush hour morning traffic on a steady feeder route, already almost 20 degrees at 7 a.m., and if you can believe it, the patient’s mother showed up as she drove past an eerily familiar car that was now crumpled into a tinfoil ball. We had already taken off the roof, rolled the dash, and were getting ready to remove the patient. We had a great team inside and the girl was in stable condition with a few broken bones and glass cuts, but she was scared, crying, and asking for her mom.

When I got the signal from the officer to shut down the power unit for the Jaws and start to help with the patient removal, the noise level immediately dropped on scene, and in the early morning sun and humid summer air, the mother who had stopped – out of what I can only assume was an instinct – could now hear the cries from inside the car. It is, to this day, one of the worst moments in my career as I watched the facial expression of a mother recognize the cries of her trapped child in a car that was so badly damaged it was almost unrecognizable. Nobody should have been able to live in this wreck. The power unit shut off and the scene was silent for a few seconds as the crew was getting the backboard in place to remove the girl to the stretcher. She screamed when crews moved her from the pain of her severely broken leg, and I saw a mother die inside as her child was being removed from the wreckage. The mother called out and when our patient heard the one voice she wanted call back, the mother broke down and had to be held back. Other bystanders gasped as they too had just recognized a heart-wrenching moment in time.

There were enough firefighters on the backboard, so I started to clear debris for the stretcher path to the ambulance on scene, but the only thing I could do was watch as a mother was held by a stranger, who had know idea what was going on. I did, and I could have taken 15 seconds to ease her heart. You see, I’ve seen these injuries numerous times, and while I could never guarantee a mother that her kid was OK, I knew that with my words I could have made a world of difference, and for the rest of my life whenever a family member thanks me for spending that extra 15 seconds explaining what is wrong, while I’m holding a hand to tell someone that we are here to help, I see her face. Every time I get a chance to tell an elderly woman why I’m giving her husband pills, or a needle, I do it for this mom.

I’ve rehearsed what I would have said to her; I’ve also apologized, and I even had an opportunity to try to fix a wrong that only I can see was committed, but I would have had to pull some strings at the hospital and I just could not cross that line. I understand that technically I did nothing wrong. Shortly after the ambulance departed a police officer informed the mom that her daughter was most likely going to be OK; I made sure the officer knew the complete medical situation. I could see some relief in her eyes, but for me I will always want those 15 seconds back. The minutes that had passed before any official of some sort spoke with this mother would have been the worst moments in her life. I can’t imagine living through the agony of what that mother endured, and all because I did not know if it was my role, if I was allowed, or if it was accepted for me to offer support and assistance.

So if you ever get a chance to make a difference, please do. Be honest, no lies or half-truths, rather sincere communication that may often just come in the form of asking if someone understands what is happening. And if you ever find yourself with more than a few extra seconds, go the extra mile – it is so worth it. And if you still have a few extra seconds, give me a call, I’d gladly put a few in the bank.

Jay Shaw is a 10-year member of the Winnipeg Fire Department and is completing graduate studies in disaster and emergency management at Royal Roads University. Jay also works at the University of Manitoba as a research assistant in the Disaster Research Institute. E-mail Jay at and follow Jay on Twitter at @911writer.

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