Hurricane deployment is not Beach Week for Ambulance Strike Teams
Operating in the public eye under conditions that may require evacuation or assisting colleagues at a moment’s notice means responders must be ready 24/7
If an ambulance strike team treated their deployment to areas at risk of catastrophic flooding from Hurricane Florence as a road trip to the beach, it’s plausible to ask, “What were they thinking?”
In September of 2018, after a county EMS agency sent 10 EMS personnel to Bladen County, N.C., an area hit hard by Hurricane Florence, some, but not all 10 of those providers were accused of misconduct. At least one crew member acted as a whistleblower. The violations, which resulted in the termination of two of the EMS providers and suspensions of many others, included:
- Participating in an action which could disturb or disrupt the normal operation of county government or impair the integrity or trust of County Government.
I suspect they weren’t thinking about the potential negative perception and consequences of transporting alcohol in an ambulance or drinking alcohol between shifts. Transporting alcoholic beverages in county-owned vehicles is a violation of county policy and against the North Carolina Office of Emergency Management rules for Ambulance Strike Team Deployment.
As we enter another hurricane season, it's time for a reminder of how EMS providers should conduct themselves when deployed to a disaster area.
Hurricane deployment is work
Responding to a natural disaster with the potential to kill and injure dozens or hundreds of civilians, cause billions in property loss and displace millions of people from their homes is not a trip to the beach. Sure, being a disaster response paramedic is an opportunity to gain valuable experience, garner a bit of positive publicity for your agency and even to rack up some overtime pay. But it’s not a vacation. Natural disaster deployment is just like work – with all the norms and obligations of being an EMS professional, but in a different response area.
EMS operates in the public eye
Our actions are closely watched by patients, their friends and family, and the public. We are expected to be at our best – vigilant, sober, empathetic and competent – when providing care or preparing for the next emergency. There are lots of ways to manage stress and mitigate the stressors of the job. And there are many times when a beer (or soda) with coworkers is an acceptable way to blow off steam.
But as you know from wall-to-wall coverage of Hurricane Florence and Hurricane Michael in 2018 and Hurricane Dorian in 2019 on every cable news channel and website, the media is casting about for news. It’s important for EMS to be in the news without becoming the news.
Ambulance Strike Team Code of Conduct
The Minnesota Ambulance Strike Team and Emergency Medical Task Forces Guidelines (ver. 8/2017) include a code of conduct for deployed members of an Ambulance Strike Team.
- While deployed, act as if you are constantly on camera. You likely are!
- Events of this nature attract the media and attorneys. Your actions reflect your organization, and the State of Minnesota.
- Respect private property. Do not enter a private residence or business without the owner’s permission, except in life-safety emergencies. Looters will be prosecuted.
- A community impacted by a large-scale emergency/disaster will be in distress, independent of personal impact. Crews should exercise extreme patience and understanding treat the public, and all other emergency responders with respect. Follow the Incident Command Structure.
- No alcohol or drugs during deployment.
- Remember your mission is to help the sick or injured. This is not a vacation!
- Take only essential personal items. All personal items need to fit in the side compartment of your ambulance. Lawn chairs, televisions, or large radios are not permitted.
- Do not bring pets. Rescued animals need to be brought to an animal rescue group. Ambulance Strike Team personnel are not to keep rescued animals.
- Ambulance personnel are responsible for wearing all appropriate safety and personal protection equipment. Ambulance services will not be responsible for lost or damaged property.
- You are responsible for the ambulances, and all equipment issued to you.
- Firearms are not permitted.
Natural disaster deployment is 24/7
Personnel responding to a natural disaster might have an 8-, 12- or 24-hour operational shift, but between shifts they still have important responsibilities to:
- Sleep, eat and hydrate.
- Take care of personal hygiene tasks.
- Correspond with friends and family.
- Repair and clean equipment.
Most importantly, the off-shift personnel need to be ready, at a moment’s notice, to get out of Dodge if the wind changes direction, the floodwaters rise, or colleagues need to be rescued or treated. Alcohol impairment compromises a responder’s ability to rest and prepare for their next shift, as well as their ability to move an ambulance out danger or care for an injured colleague.
Gratitude for service
I am grateful for the EMTs and paramedics from around the country who have deployed in Ambulance Strike Teams, leaving their homes for days or weeks at a time for the dangerous austere conditions of natural disasters. They have responded to the massive western wildfires to the battered shores of North Carolina and Florida.
Thanks for being ready and willing to leave your friends, family and normal routines behind for the unpredictable and shifting risks of disaster response. We want to continue learning from about what could have been done better and what went well.
What's your experience with natural disaster deployments and department policies? Share your tips, experiences and lessons learned below in the comments area.
This article was originally posted Oct. 19, 2018. It has been updated.