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May 9, 2014, Winnipeg - Sometimes I wonder why people call 911. I know you do as well. We all want every call to be a fully involved house fire at which we can get a great stop and prevent life loss and property damage, but the reality is that we are getting called out to so much other stuff that we can forget to recognize the difference we make at the call that no one seems to want to go to.

May 9, 2014
By Jay Shaw

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May 9, 2014, Winnipeg – Sometimes I wonder why people call 911. I know
you do as well. We all want every call to be a fully involved house fire
at which we can get a great stop and prevent life loss and property
damage, but the reality is that we are getting called out to so much
other stuff that we can forget to recognize the difference we make at
the call that no one seems to want to go to.

The truth is that some folks that do not have the ability to cope access the necessary resources, and so they call 911 to request emergency services.

I’m not griping here about not wanting to respond, as I actually believe the fire, and/or fire-based EMS systems in Canada may be the best agency through which people can access the services they need.

I’m talking about the call that is made because the family has nowhere else to turn and no one else to help – the unique medical call or questionable fire-safety call, at which we show up and actually put the wheels in motion for resolution.

In the last few months I’ve responded to a college-aged young female street person in an affluent area of the city with mental illness, walking the lanes and eating out of grocery garbage cans; a middle-aged mother who can no longer take care of her father with dementia; and a call to check the well-being of a women who had not been seen for a month – we found her living in a hoarding squalor, with emaciated dogs in conditions that made all of sick and sad at the same time. The common denominator in all these responses is that the folks did not have the capacity to deal with their issues.

Capacity, from an emergency-management scope, is a determinate that can be used as an subjective criteria to establish your district’s vulnerable populations, or just a rough idea to figure out where your going to be over-utilized when large-scale disasters strike your area.

I would take a shot in the dark that firefighters in every district of this country can map out where vulnerable populations are; doing so could result in a great resource for capturing and documenting information for times when we may have to go searching for these vulnerable people.

Big-scale disasters get mega news airtime and always seem to capture touching moments where someone in turnout gear does something special, and the world gushes.

From my strictly logical research brain, I see this as the same thing as responding to someone without capacity, and making a difference every day.

That is why when our rookie took the time to tell the vulnerable and scared young street girl who had fainted several times that it was going to be all right, and he would take care of her, I felt a sense of pride for our job. And the way our new guy tuned out the grocery store gawkers and told the woman to focus her attention on him, calming her down and making an embarrassing situation somewhat tolerable until an ambulance unit could arrive. I was proud of his compassion and ability to understand that while our efforts are the very first steps toward getting this young girl help, he still did his job above and beyond. No cameras were needed to capture this act, but if they did. you could post the video under the definition of building community capacity.

I’ve written before about moments in which you might be able to make a difference, and more importantly the lost opportunities to do the same. Every call may offer that opportunity and that is why I love going to work – every day.


Jay Shaw is a firefighter and primary care paramedic with the City
of Winnipeg. Along with multiple fire and emergency services courses and
certificates, Jay holds a masters degree in disaster and emergency
management from Royal Roads University and is an independent education
and training consultant focusing on leadership, management, emergency
preparedness and communication skills. Contact him at
jayshaw@mts.net and follow him on twitter @disasterbucket


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