Let me take you somewhere. It is late at night, on a quiet country road. It is dark, I am cramped in a very small space and my helmet gets in the way. Light filters through a spider web of cracked glass, and my torch light throws a small beam on my surroundings. I have crawled inside the wreckage of a car, to collect the drivers’ personal belongings. The side impact airbags hang loose, having done their job of saving a life. It is an eerie, disturbing place to be.
Outside blue and red light flashes across the almost deserted landscape, the only noise comes from the fire truck, its pump running on idle. The ambulance stands ready, while the police car’s headlights add to the small pool of light illuminating the scene, including a wheel sitting at the base of a power pole. Five meters away the shards of a fence lie around a crumpled vehicle. The few people on the scene, the ambulance paramedic, police officer and firefighters all know each other. We are all a part of a small community. We also know the patient. They are a member of our CFA brigade. A flood of emotions races through all of us. But we have to put them aside until later and do our job.
No MVA is good, and they are a part of life for urban fire fighters and ambulance officers, and the general public become somewhat desensitized by the glorification of them in the media and TV shows. But rural fire brigades often face additional stress, and the personal impact of an incident is also often high. The frequency of the callouts is low, so you never really get used to them. Many are high speed accidents, resulting in serious injury or fatality. The chance of arriving on scene to find someone the crew knows is also very high, and this plays on your mind as you head out to the scene. Country communities are very small, and suddenly the whole incident becomes very personal.
At a nighttime rural MVA there are no streetlights and no traffic. It is lonely and intense, and you can suddenly feel very isolated. With the darkness closing in around you, there is nothing for your peripheral vision to take in. If you are dealing with a serious trauma, and perhaps the sight of a car wrapped around a tree, or scattered across the road in barely recognizable pieces, there is nothing to relieve the tension. If you look around, that is all you see, illuminated by red and blue flashing lights. Beyond it, you look into the blackness of the night. The road is quiet, the only noise is the hum of the pump running on the Tanker. The likelihood that you will be there for a long time adds to the challenge. An additional paramedic might have to be dispatched from many kilometers away, or the air ambulance requested. In the country it is common for only one ambulance officer to attend initially, often resulting in CFA members being called on to assist with the patient.
How does it feel to be a volunteer firefighter on a roadside in the middle of the night, in the middle of the country, blue and red light flashing across the scene from the emergency services vehicles? Later that night, sitting at home, sleep evaded me until my mind sorted through the mixed emotions of horror and relief. Horror of attending another car accident, and finding the driver is yet another person I know. Relief that this time the outcome is as good as you could ever hope for from a high speed MVA, impact with a power pole; the driver sitting outside the car, conscious, alert and suffering minor physical injuries. In the past the result has not been so good. I also felt concern for the driver and how they would cope with the psychological impact of the accident.
Perhaps it is impossible to adequately describe how it feels every time this happens. Except there are two emotions that are always felt…horror and sadness, only tempered with the satisfaction that you have been a part of a team making a difference.
As CFA firefighters, we all do the same job, put out fires, attend MVAs, and rescue the odd cat from a tree amongst other things. But there are a number of quite marked differences between Urban and Rural fire brigades that perhaps go unrecognized. The experience of attending MVA’s, especially at night, and finding that the occupants are one of your own is one of them.