The first responders: On the frontline

A crash doesn't affect just those involved.

Almost immediately, news of the incident reaches our brave emergency services crews, who will fight to save your life, make the scene safe, and find out what happened.

The memories of crashes remain with them long after the sounds of sirens fade.

These are their stories, and their messages to you...

"You wish people would pay attention a bit more. If only they realised how, in a split second, their life can change."

Ambulance Victoria

LYING in a car wreck after a crash, looking out, you will see paramedics - the men and women charged with the first part of saving your life.

Road trauma accounts for 10 to 15 per cent of duties for Wodonga West ambulance officers.

Team leader Mike Fuery says they have two roles: work out how to clinically treat or free motorists if they are trapped, and be the point of communication to explain what is happening during a time of potential panic.

Paramedics’ decisions are key at the crash scene.

They instruct the SES and CFA with how to remove sections of the car if the driver is trapped, while also giving the patient reassurance and pain control.

“You try to make a personal connection with the patient - find out their name, start talking to them as a normal human being who’s found themselves in a really bad situation, and try to establish that bit of empathy,” Mr Fuery said.

“Their level of pain dictates their response, so if we can get that pain under control, then we’ve got a better chance of making that connection and it’s up to them to trust us.”

Ambulance officers deal with everything from minor neck injuries, to ruptured organs, to serious head trauma.

Mr Fuery said witnessing the pain and suffering can take its toll, but mental health of staff was a strong subject for Ambulance Victoria.

“A human body’s not really constructed to take those sort of impacts very well … we’re really a vulnerable carbon-based lifeform,” he said.

“We will be OK during the actual case, but down the track they have the potential to really destabalise people’s wellbeing.

“We try to debrief those cases which involves the death of children or young people or circumstances that might resonate with experiences we’ve had as people that no one else knows about.”

“I can’t overstate the effect this has on our members…”
“It doesn’t matter what organisation you’re with, every job you go to sticks with you.”

Victoria Police

AS NEWS of a crash gets through to police, officers often experience a battle between their emotions of coming face-to-face with road trauma and a professional responsibility.

When a crash occurs, someone at the scene usually alerts police - either a person involved in the incident or a passerby.

Wimmera road safety and crime prevention advisor acting Senior Sergeant Di Thomson says the news comes through in dribs and drabs.

“The information starts coming to us like a drip feed,’’ she said.

“When we get a call about a serious incident, we start to prepare ourselves and we can feel quite anxious because we know we are going to be viewing trauma, but we also have to be there to investigate.”

Senior Sergeant Thomson said officers only had one opportunity to process the scene and collect the evidence required, so it was important for them to put their feelings aside and get on with the job.

But the trauma involved can take a toll, especially for people in regional areas.

“Naturally, the police in country areas will live in the community as well, so there is a high chance they will know the people involved in these fatalities,” Senior Sergeant Thomson said.

“I can’t overstate the effect this has on our members.

“It is well recorded now that police often suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder"

“When you are forced to continue viewing that trauma, it has to take an effect on you."

“There are levels of trauma we see that human beings aren’t designed to see.”

Senior Sergeant Thomson said everyone handled stress differently.

“Some people are better equipped to deal with it and there is no rhyme or reason why that is,” she said.

“In circumstances where someone knows someone involved in an incident, we try to do everything we can to make sure that officer isn’t investigating.

“Unfortunately, with resourcing levels, sometimes we are left with no alternative.”

Many police officers put on a ‘work mode’ front to ensure they get the job done.

“We have to focus at the task of hand, and we have to do it in a professional capacity to help the family and surviving people.”

It can be a challenge for even long-timers. Senior Sergeant Thomson has been in the police force for more than 30 years and remembers clearly one of the worst incidents she attended.

In 2011, a five-year-old boy was killed in Port Fairy after he ran across the road and was hit by a truck.

He died in front of his family.

“Road trauma affects so many more people than just who is at the scene,” Senior Sergeant Thomson said.

She commended emergency services crews who turned up to fatalities time and time again.

“It’s been a terrible year for deaths this year and the road toll is looking like it will be the highest in several years,” she said.

“Regional areas are at the forefront of that and we all need to look after each other and make sure we get home for Christmas dinner.”

State Emergency Service

STATE Emergency Service veteran Steve McDowell thinks the road toll would look different if drivers had seen the horrors he has witnessed in his decades attending crash scenes.

“You see some frustrating things on the road and it’s in the back of your mind that if they had seen what we see… they would probably think twice about what they’re doing.

“Most people wouldn’t be able to cope with some of the stuff we see. I don’t think people understand what it really is when we go out to a job and the number of people that it does affect, including their own family and all the emergency services involved.”

The Port Fairy unit controller and SES member of more than 20 years has been to at least 200 road crashes in his time on the job.

He, and other volunteers, are there when people are having their worst days.

Highly trained, they play a vital role at crash scenes.

Mr McDowell says it’s impossible to be unaffected.

“It doesn’t matter what organisation you’re with, every job you go to sticks with you.

“Fatalities are the worst. What runs through my mind at a fatality is ‘who was this person, what was their background as an individual’, and then the other side of it is you think about the family.

“When you’re there the training kicks in. It’s when you stop doing your job, you get back in the truck and drive away is when you start thinking about the bits and pieces.”

Mr McDowell, who is also a CFA member of almost 30 years, said there was something almost addictive about helping others.

“To be able to be there and actually help them, this is across the board whatever we do, it’s about helping them when they’re having probably the worst day of their life.

“You’re there actually doing something tangible, you can see an outcome at the end of it, especially if you get someone out of a car and they get in the ambulance.”

“A human body’s not really constructed to take those sort of impacts very well… we’re really a vulnerable carbon-based lifeform.”
“Fatalities are the worst. What runs through my mind is, ‘Who was this person, what was their background as an individual?’”

IT IS the young ones Mark Nevill remembers most.

The Bendigo CFA senior station officer has been attending road incidents for 27 years, yet the fatality of a driver barely old enough to have their licence has never gotten easier to accept.

His overriding emotions when confronted by a death on the road were neither grief nor horror.

They were frustration and disappointment.

“Most of these accidents are probably avoidable, whether it's due to alcohol or speed, or a young bit of bravado.”

“You wish people would pay attention a bit more. If only they realised in a split second how their life can change.”

Motorists were not the only people for whom poor judgment on the roads had consequences; Mr Nevill said being called to the scene of a fatal crash could have long-lasting impacts for his crew.

He spent days or even weeks after such an event checking in on young CFA members, watching for changes in their behaviour.

He also refused to take home to his family the trauma he has seen on the job.

It is that same selflessness that characterises the way Mr Nevill speaks about his team’s work at car crashes, saying the focus of CFA members was fixated upon assisting those in danger.

While the fire authority’s role was primarily fire prevention, they could often be the first emergency service to arrive on scene and be the ones to administer first aid or begin a rescue operation.

“For them, you're there in what is possibly the worst possible event in their life, so you focus on helping them,” he said.

“There are levels of trauma we see that human beings aren’t designed to see.”
“Regional areas are at the forefront... we all need to look after each other and make sure we get home.”
Next time…

In the ED: The race against time


AMBULANCE VICTORIA | Words: Shana Morgan. Photo: James Wiltshire.
VICTORIA POLICE | Words: Erin McFadden. Photo: Jeremy Venosta.
SES | Words: Kate Zwagerman. CFA | Words: Mark Kearney.
PHOTOS | Fairfax photographers and file images.
DIGITAL PRODUCERS | Jordan Avery, Cassandra Dalgleish & Ashley Fritsch.

Make sure you #HOMESAFE