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3 tips for treating a fellow firefighter experiencing a medical emergency

Prepared to treat your own? Lessons learned from a problematic incident


Hold training specifically geared toward treating one of your own. One component of the training should focus on performing CPR on a firefighter dressed in full gear.

Photo/Ben Thompson

We run medical emergencies all the time, most of which have a successful outcome. Why should it be any different when we treat a fellow firefighter?

I’m here to tell you, when it is one of your own lying on the ground in front of you, it is very different. Contending with unforeseen emotions, everyone on scene jumps into action with or without direction. No one wants to let down one of their own, but even good intentions can lead to chaos. Here’s a case in point.

A not-so-pretty case study in treating a fellow firefighter

We were operating on the scene of a working structure fire when a firefighter grabbed me by the coat. He yelled, “Ed is on the ground beside the hydrant clutching his chest!”

My mouth went dry and my heart leapt up into my throat. Ed was my friend. I immediately thought about his wife, pregnant with their fourth child. “Go!” he said, pushing me toward the ambulance.

Out of all the other firefighters who were on the scene that day, I was the only paramedic. Because the incident commander (IC) still had a fire to deal with, I was assigned the task of overseeing Ed’s treatment and transport.

I’ll be honest, it wasn’t pretty.

When we reached Ed, he was lying flat on his back and grimacing in pain. He is a big guy so lifting him to the stretcher would have been a challenge on a good day. In our heightened sense of excitement, we snatched him from the ground without any communication and literally tried to throw him onto the stretcher. His top half made it, but the bottom half fell to the ground. He groaned, “Come on, fellas.”

After we had him in the back of the truck, things still did not settle down. Before I had a chance to actually conduct an assessment, we were taking corners on two wheels heading toward the hospital of the driver’s choice. He had not even hesitated to ask me where we should go. At one point, a bin full of 4 x 4s fell onto Ed’s lap and spilled everywhere. “Good grief,” Ed said as we slammed into a pothole.

When we made it to the emergency department, a cavalry of nurses and physicians were waiting for us at the door. They got to watch as my overzealous driver snatched the stretcher over the hook before the wheels had a chance to drop. The stretcher fell three feet to the pavement and slammed, nearly bucking Ed to the ground.

As we leaned down to roll him into the ER, Ed whispered a few choice suggestions to me, none suitable for publication.

Lessons learned from Ed’s incident

I’m glad to say that Ed turned out OK and was able to return to duty. In true firefighter fashion, he still busts our chops about dropping him outside the ER. Even though we laugh about it now, I have not forgotten about how easily I lost control of the scene.

To make sure it doesn’t happen again, following are three lessons I’d like to pass on.

1. Talk about it: Reviewing recent line-of-duty deaths (LODDs) with your crew is one of the best ways to honor the fallen.

There are a few good questions you should ask:

  • What were the contributing factors?
  • Was it heat-related?
  • Was it on the scene or after the call?
  • How would we have treated it?

Sometimes these discussions can lead to spontaneous training classes, which are often the best kind. That is what happened at our kitchen table last week. Before I knew it, we were in the engine bay running through CPR on a firefighter dressed in full gear – something that none of us had actually practiced or done before.

When we were through, everyone was humbled at how much more difficult it was. But after a few practice rounds, we felt much more confident about how to handle the situation.


Following the training, the crew was humbled at how much more difficult it was to treat a patient wearing full gear. But after a few practice rounds, we felt much more confident about how to handle the situation.

Photo/Ben Thompson

2. Know your crew: Firefighters do not like to ask for help. Pushing through sickness, discomfort and physical exhaustion is seen as part of the job. Being the only paramedic on the crew, I now take it as my responsibility to make sure that they don’t push too hard.

Ed had been feeling chest pain for a few days leading up to the event. Had we known this at the beginning of the shift, we might have sent him to the doctor long before he fell to the ground on the fire scene.

Now I pay attention to my crew the moment I walk into the station. How are they feeling? Are they still exhausted from last shift? Did they spend their day off mowing a two-acre pasture in the blazing heat?

Just a few simple questions can alert me to a potentially larger problem. And since I will be the one responsible for treating them when things go wrong, I feel it is only right that I do my best to see that it never happens.

Not everyone likes being told to hydrate, to rest or even to take a sick day. But I have not met anyone that doesn’t love going home to their family the next day.

3. Earn their trust before you need it: Even after all the pain we put my friend Ed through that day, when it was all over, he paid me the greatest compliment. He shook my hand and said, “I’m glad it was you out there today.”

What had I done to deserve such a compliment?

No one knows you like your crew. If you do not take the job seriously, it shows in everything you do.

Ed had been with me on hundreds of medical calls. He had seen me at my best and my worst. But he also saw me all those times in between, when I was reading articles or checking off my equipment. He knew very well what I put into the job, and he trusted me because of it.

Be ready to treat one of your own

We should never forget that the guy working alongside us might be the next one calling for our help. We owe it to them to know that if that day comes, we’ll be ready.

Ben Thompson is a battalion chief in Birmingham, Alabama. In 2016, Thompson developed his department’s first mobile integrated health (MIH) program and shared his experiences from building the program at TEDxBirmingham. Thompson was the recipient of the 2016 Emergency Medical Service Provider of the Year Award and the 2018 Joe E. Acker Award for Innovation in Emergency Medical Services, both in Jefferson County, Alabama. He has a bachelor’s degree from Athens State University in Alabama and is a licensed paramedic. Connect with Thompson through his website