Feb. 25, 2014, Winnipeg - Are you the person on your kids’ sports team who everyone looks to when someone goes down in a heap? Do you find yourself being routinely summoned, because if anyone will know what to do, it will, of course, be the friendly neighborhood firefighter, right?
Firefighters seem to be in the right place at the right time, all the time, if you ask me. Off duty really just means you’re not wearing your turnout gear.
I have been Mr. Black Cloud the last few years, I must admit. I’ve called 911 a half dozen times at hockey rinks, soccer games and even restaurants. And I always find it awkward to make decisions without the back up of the crew and an officer on scene with me. It seems to be a lonely place, to be relied on based solely on the notion that your job garners so much respect that your judgment is taken as kind of a gospel.
I once had a dad take my word over a physician when we both responded to a kid who was KO’d on the ice. The doctor was a urologist, and had no more expertise in assessing a kid’s cervical spine or symptoms of concussion when for the last 20 years he has been dealing with kidney stones and bladder infections. I mean, really, would you get your furnace installed by the guy who built your deck? Wait, stupid question. I know – no firefighter has ever paid anyone to build a deck. But you understand my point.
The doctor was certain the kid was OK and had just been shaken up on the play, so I informed him that if he went against my recommendation to call an ambulance I would inform the father that he was now, in fact, the attending physician on scene, and all responsibility of patient care would be handed over to him. The doctor suddenly concurred, probably. We called for a unit and the kid was later diagnosed with a concussion and missed a few weeks of hockey.
A few years back I was in a outlet shopping mall outside of Minneapolis, and I was done like dinner, tired of the crowds, and my wife was killing me with “one-more-store” talk, so I offered to take the kids to the hotel to go swimming, but they wanted to stay with mom. I had been given permission (don’t pretend like you don’t get permission) to walk the five minutes back to hotel and was told to meet the family at the restaurant outside the hotel in an hour. I never made to the hotel. The restaurant had a lounge in it and I decided to enjoy a beverage while waiting the hour or so for my family to show up.
Well let me tell you, on a hot day those girlish little blue umbrella drinks that were half price go down really fast. My family showed up and while we were eating our dinner I could feel just how hot my cheeks were. I was ready for a hot tub and bed as I was going to be blessed with another full day of shopping for back-to-school stuff the next morning.
I asked our server for the cheque and while I was talking to her, my wife and kids seemed to be distracted by a young man at a table on the other side of the restaurant who was flailing around in front of an older woman. My oldest daughter and wife – in synchronized style – yelled at me to go help. The young man had tried to eat his whole plate of extra cheesy mozza-sticks in one bite and was now in a full choke. His grandmother was starting to panic as I was being yelled at by my family to get over there and do something. The server and I had been alerted to the disturbance; I got up from my table and made my way over to the choking kid and promptly gave him some of Dr. Heimlich’s medicine. On the third thrust, a goopy cheese glob came out and the kid took a breath for the ages.
One too many blue umbrella drinks, and being in a different country with no team of firefighters and not one urologist in sight, made this response a high-risk operation. For firefighters who regularly have a team of resources to bounce ideas off of, a rig full of tools, and a working command structure at our disposal, this was like jumping from an airplane after throwing out the chute. I like working in a team, and even though I’m confident in my abilities, I feel better knowing I have someone watching my back.
We are truly never off duty. And while being a jack-of-all-trades responder and problem solver to others can be a frightening proposition sometimes, I am constantly honoured to have the privilege of being that guy who everyone can look at when stuff goes sideways.
We’ve all got our off-duty stories that will make our moms smile; just remember to take it easy on the urologist who thinks he is a concussion expert. After all Dr. Henry Heimlich was a thoracic surgeon by trade, who stumbled upon a manoeuver that is credited with saving many lives.
We all have a inner desire to help, it’s just that for some it is a difficult skill set to unleash. For us on the job, it has become an expectation that we assist whenever and whomever needs help, no matter if we’re on shift, or sipping vino from your ocean view vacation rental.
Maybe, just maybe, that urologist will save my life one day, hopefully while I’m on vacation!
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
and follow him on twitter @disasterbucket
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