During his 46 years working in law enforcement and emergency medical services, Don Webster has become well-versed in first responder safety.

“You will find that emergency responders get hurt when dealing with general medical situations,” said Webster, a community relations officer for Huntsville Emergency Medical Service Inc. in Hunstville, Ala. Among safety equipment used by some first responders is body armor. Webster said he is generally a fan of it, though he points out some issues to consider when using body armor for responder safety.

“Body armor is good, but if you have it you must wear it all the time, consistently,” he said.

Although it can save lives, Webster has heard people complain, “It’s hot. It’s uncomfortable. I’m burning up.”
Make sure to clean and disinfect the body armor before use. Some police officers prefer to wear it over their uniform, which helps prevent excess sweating, Webster said.
In high-risk situations, like an active shooter on the scene, he said it’s smart to use body armor. Still, it’s the times you least expect a patient to lash out at you when problems arise.
Those situations can range from treating patients who are having seizures or diabetic reactions to trying to stabilize psyche patients.

Gun laws and first responder safety

With Florida recently joining Kansas and Ohio in allowing paramedics to carry guns when responding to high-risk calls, first responders may find themselves undergoing firearm safety training.
Many agree the most dangerous people to own guns are those who know nothing about how to handle them.
If you are allowed or required to carry a gun, Webster said continual practice and training is a must. The cost of training and equipment — such as bullets and bulletproof vests — also can become a big expense, Webster said.

“If the state law allows you to carry a gun, who’s paying for the training and who’s paying for the guns?” Webster asks.

These are big questions. It will be interesting to watch how it all unfolds and whether more states follow suit.
If small ambulance companies have to pay out-of-pocket for firearms, for example, that could mean one less ECG or another piece of medical equipment, Webster said.
Check your state’s laws here to review what you need to do to get a license to carry a concealed firearm.

Weather also can pose a threat

Weather is another factor that can create hazards for first responder safety. If you are pulled in as reinforcement to help injured people from a weather event, you need to stay calm and focused to stay safe on the job.

Some utility companies offer training materials for first responder safety when dealing with downed power lines or ruptured gas lines.
Familiarize yourself with training materials and tips, such as these electrical tips. Many local utilities also establish safety guidelines, such as keeping the ladder truck ladder at least 10 feet away from power lines.

Potential first responder exposure matters too

When responding to a situation where opioids or other drugs are potentially present, take the following first responder safety precautions, said Rachael Cooper, senior program manager for the National Safety Council.

Safety tips include:

  1. Careful what you touch. If opioids are in the environment, be mindful about touching your face and nose, especially during allergy season, Cooper said. The main concern is that you do not want to transfer substances from your gloves to a mucus membrane, like an itchy nose or eyes.
  2. Watch your step. Watch out for dark spaces where hidden drug paraphernalia and dirty needles might go undetected. “Assess the situation thoroughly,” Cooper said. “Sometimes you will see a needle. Use the flashlight on your phone to look under the chairs.”
  3. Wear safety equipment. In most cases, if you wear personal protective equipment correctly, and follow basic safety protocols, it should keep you safe. “Respirators are super important,” Cooper said. “Make sure your respirator strap is not twisted. Always wear gloves.”

More responder safety training about how to gear up with personal protective equipment is critical, Cooper said. The American Medical Association soon will release more guidelines.

“If nobody is directing you to do more training on personal protective equipment, take the initiative to have more training,” Cooper said.“Talk about it more as a group. Be more proactive.”

Don’t neglect overdose training

Overdose training is critical too, especially when you could end up saving your partner’s life. Cooper said mock scenarios are an effective way to help first responders prepare for situations where it’s critical to stay sharp, focused, and not panic.

Cooper said an important factor in responder safety is knowing which symptoms to look for in an opioid overdose. Dizziness is not one of them. Instead, look for respiratory distress and pinpoint pupils, she said.

Let’s say your partner gets exposed to a used heroin needle or inhales carfentanil — which is more potent than fentanyl. When you’re asked to administer Naloxone or Narcan on a coworker, Cooper said, just know it’s much more difficult a task when it’s someone you care about.

If you don’t carry Naloxone or Narcan, Cooper suggests calling dispatch or a supervisor right away to ask for backup since a teammate could experience a medical emergency.

And remember when coworkers are exposed to substances, always get a toxicology report to see what’s in their system, Cooper said.

Pair it up with detailed incident reports. The more data you collect, the better you can prevent accidental exposure and adjust safety protocols.

Want to learn more? Check out our courses that deal with opioids, overdose and toxicology reports.