Boom goes the dynamite, but hiss goes the ambulance. And, no, it isn’t because of the caduceus on the side of the box.
The new year is four hours away, in this case 2009, and I am spending my New Year’s Eve preparing to help those people who will be needing help. My steed, a damage-prone Chevy slant-side ambulance with fake wood paneling that would make any 1980s Christmas movie proud, is the oldest one in the fleet.
I do a pretrip inspection and find nothing out of the ordinary. With nothing to fear but the dark, I proceed to pick up two other EMTs for the shift from the next station to the north. About seven miles north of the fire station that houses the ambulance I’m driving, I remark to myself how dark it gets at night in Alaska during the winter.
Abruptly the lights all quit on me. Every single electronic turns off. My stomach turns inside out as I realize the only thing I see in my windshield is the reflection of a scared EMT white-knuckling a steering wheel. That’s not a good thing, given I’m traveling 65 miles per hour on an open highway frequented by one-ton moose and three-ton vehicles abandoned on the sides.
I notice I have two cars headed toward my rear bumper, so now I’m trying to slow down from 65 mph with no visibility and no power while two vehicles traveling up to me at highway speed have no indication of what’s going on.
Instinctively I reach over and hit the switch to activate the emergency lights. They light up for me, very dimly. Dash lights also faintly appear. My headlights are still not on, but my overhead lights illuminate the road just enough to highlight the white line on the edge. Realizing the engine is completely dead, I decide to drift the ambulance over to the side, wait for the vehicles behind me to pass, then restart the engine and proceed to my destination.
I hear a whoosh like someone is blowing gently into my ear, followed by hissing like the thing in my ear is an angry cobra. Smoke fills the cab. An acrid, sulfuric odor fills my nostrils and mouth. I can’t breathe! is my only thought. My plan is out the window, and I just slam on the brakes, hoping the people behind me have noticed.
I bail from the ambulance, and as I’m clearing the doorway to escape the smoke that has now filled the entire ambulance, I recall the two cars behind me. I hear them bearing down, and I look up expecting a face full of fake chrome bumpers but instead find they have taken defensive action. I can only imagine the panic in those drivers’ minds that there were patients inside the ambulance burning to death.
I reach back into the ambulance and grab my portable radio and call dispatch to send fire response for an ambulance on fire. While I’m transmitting information I hear a car rev up and a siren start from the other side of the hill. I wonder if I’m closer to their fire station than I’d thought.
I need supplies! Opening compartments without lights, I have nothing to go by except touch. I grab the only flare I can find and set it about 50 feet behind the ambulance. I run back and search for a fire extinguisher—it takes three compartments to find one. My stomach fills with the taste of nervousness as I open the driver’s door, wondering if the truck will backdraft and litter the snowbanks with my body parts, but I need to pop the hood. No flames are showing from under the hood, and it doesn’t feel excessively hot, so I shove my hand in as quickly as I can through the smoke to pull the lever.
Fire extinguisher in hand, I pull the pin and aim it at the engine and am about to start filling the engine with retardant…and I see there are still no flames. The smell is there, but no flames, and the smoke being produced isn’t very forceful.
I hear more sirens and guess it’s the fire department approaching. Brakes screech and tires slide on icy pavement. It turns out that when I gave my location on the radio, I was off by about four miles in my hasty size-up. I watch every single fire truck responding slide at various angles down the highway past the ambulance. Turned around, fire crews confirm the fire is out, and our EMS chief responds to secure the temperature-sensitive equipment and supplies.
I have never left for another shift without at least two flashlights and a plan since. Too often we get comfortable with our skills, our partners, and our equipment and don’t take safety as seriously as we could. Yes, I had performed a pretrip inspection, but I didn’t know where my fire extinguisher was when I needed it. I didn’t have a flashlight. I didn’t know where the hazard triangles or flares were.
The things I practice regularly, I rocked: hitting the battery kill switch when turning off the truck, removing the key from ignition, being aware of who was around and behind me while driving, moving off the road instead of stopping in the middle of a lane, staying out of traffic when standing, and calling for help immediately.
We perform as we practice. If you know where your equipment is, you’ll instinctively have it in your hands as soon as you consciously think about needing it. If you regularly open the hood for preventive maintenance on your apparatus, you’ll know how to open it quickly in an emergency.
Take your safety seriously. The lives of you and your partners depend on everyone being aware of risk and how to mitigate it.
Christian Hartley is fire chief for the city of Houston, Alaska. He is a second-generation responder who has worked in EMS, corrections, and the fire service since 1999.