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Friday, May 01, 2009

The Effect of Traffic Collisions On Emergency Personnel

When tragedy strikes on the road, we expect emergency personnel to be on the spot within minutes and we depend on them to provide professional care and a calming influence to help us through the trauma. However, we often fail to think of the effect the trauma may have on them. Emergency personnel, including police, firefighters, EMTs, and tow truck operators face dangers outside what would normally be the obvious hazards of the job. Witnessing and providing emergency services at a traffic collision takes a toll on them in more ways than one. With each horrific crash, there are emotional tolls that lead to physical problems and with each crash, no matter how minor, there is a very real danger of serious injury or death.

The stresses of the job wear away at first responders little by little. A small amount of stress is common in our lives and can even, in certain instances, be beneficial. But when an individual is subjected to the types of stresses that first responders normally see, the stress can build up, leading to mental and physical problems for the first responder. Part of the stress is due to the fight-or-flight response. This natural response to any type of stress is a coping mechanism that physically prepares the body to meet an emergency. Blood flows to the large muscles and the body produces adrenaline to provide extra strength and endurance. As an infrequent occurrence, the fight-or-flight response can save our lives, but it can start to wear down our bodies when it happens on a regular basis.

To understand the full impact of the emotional toll on first responders, we first have to define the word accident in relation to car crashes. Accidents are occurrences beyond anyone's control. On the highway, there is very rarely such thing as an accident. Instead, there are only poor driving decisions on the part of one or more drivers that lead to a crash. The real tragedy of most traffic crashes is that they were so easily preventable.

When emergency personnel arrive at the scene of a traffic crash, they are often witnesses to horrific scenes that most of us will never see in a lifetime. Unfortunately for the emergency personnel, they witness these types of scenes on a regular basis. This begins to take an emotional toll on them, especially first responders who are parents, when they have to deal with children who have been orphaned, injured, or have died due to a senseless driver error.

Combined, the stress and emotional trauma can lead to chronic or long term stress. Over time, chronic stress can result in cognitive problems such as inability to focus, short attention span, memory problems, and difficulty in making decisions. Emotionally, it can lead to mood swings, irritability, depression, and anxiety. Chronic stress can also cause behavioral issues such as impulsiveness, pacing, insomnia, and non-productivity. If untreated, the chronic stress can lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Finally, one of the biggest dangers that emergency personnel face is being struck by another driver while tending to the victims of a crash. This can happen when a driver who is speeding unexpectedly comes upon the scene of a crash and can't stop in time or by "rubberneckers" who are so focused on looking at the crash that they don't watch the road ahead. National Traffic Incident Management Coalition (NTIMC) studies show that, on average, at least two emergency responders are struck each day in the United States. Between 1995 and 2006 an average of one law enforcement officer was struck and killed each month by a passing vehicle. In the first three months of 2006, five tow truck operators were killed while working at the scene of a collision.

Move Over America
The incredible toll that these secondary crashes take on emergency personnel has led 40 states to pass "Move Over Laws." For example, Florida's Move Over Law requires motorists to move over into the opposite lane or, if they can’t move over, to slow down to 20 mph under the posted speed limit when passing any emergency vehicle with its emergency lights flashing. There is now a national campaign to encourage the remaining states to pass their own Move Over legislation and to increase awareness among motorists in states where they have been passed. A recent poll showed that while 90% of drivers believe the Move Over Laws are a good idea, only 39% of drivers are aware of their existence. You don't have to wait for your state to pass a Move Over Law to adopt this habit when you come upon an emergency vehicle.

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