In the early morning hours of Jan. 5, 2020, 43-year-old Matthew Smelser, a paramedic supervisor at Rostraver-West Newton Emergency Medical Service in western Pennsylvania, was killed when his ambulance was struck by a tractor trailer on Interstate 70. Smelser, a father of two, had just exited his ambulance to help a crash victim on the side of the road, state police said.
Smelser was laid to rest January 10 at Monongahela Cemetery in Washington County during a steady rain. Instead of a hearse, Smelser was transported in a Rostraver-West Newton ambulance outfitted with memorial black bunting. The Pittsburgh Paramedics Pipes and Drums Corps played as he was carried out of the funeral home by emergency service personnel.
Inspired to act in the wake of unspeakable tragedy, Smelser’s friend and former colleague Michael Bedner, BS, NRP, CCEMT-P, has launched an initiative to raise awareness among legislators and the public of the dangers faced by first responders on our nation’s highways. “This had to be preventable,” says Bedner of Smelser’s death. “What could we have done differently? What can we change?”
“Anybody who’s been in EMS for any length of time knows the sound of air brakes on a tractor-trailer,” Bedner tells EMS World. “It’s simply bone-chilling. [Smelser’s death] could have been any one of us.”
Specifically, Bedner’s call to action includes better advance warning of emergencies ahead, laws that decrease posted speed limits based on road conditions or in the presence of an emergency, safer road designs with adequate room for safely pulling over, and stiffer penalties for those who speed through work zones and emergency scenes, refuse to yield to emergency vehicles, and/or drive distracted, negligently, or under the influence.
The petition goes beyond EMS providers to include police officers, firefighters, tow operators, and construction and utility workers. At the time of this writing, it had nearly 11,000 signatures. Bedner wants 100,000. Personal stories of those who knew Smelser as well as other first responders lost in the line of duty fill the page.
Bedner has been surprised to find himself as the centerpiece and the spokesperson of an issue that hits close to home for law enforcement, EMS, road workers, and tow truck operators. He’s in demand on news programs and podcasts. “This is more than a Pennsylvania issue,” he says. “At the end of the day, we all want to go home to our families. What’s motivated me to stay full steam ahead is the support that I’m getting from fellow providers. I’m continuously getting messages of ‘thank you for doing this.’”
Bedner sees it as a small yet significant tribute to his fallen comrade. He recalls Smelser as the colleague and mentor who knew how to have a good time but also as a dedicated EMS professional who set high standards. “He was the one you wanted to impress,” Bedner recalls. “If you did something to make him happy, you knew it was a good day.”
Bedner stresses EMS can be a reactive field—unfortunately it sometimes takes losing a life to drive action.
“This change simply cannot wait,” he says, adding that improving safety conditions for workers on our nation’s highways is a multifaceted problem that will take coordination among intelligent and dedicated people. “I’m confident that together we can make a lasting impact on protecting our first responders and roadway workers.”