THE CALLS THAT HAUNT
Regina firefighter Lt. Blair Bechard remembers a call from years back, two sisters killed during an impaired-driving related crash.One of his tasks during the call was to cut one of the sisters out of their wrecked vehicle.“In the early years, it’s harder for sure,” he says of calls like that. “You become hardened over time. People become subjects that you work on. But there’s no doubt it goes home with you. Kids especially, younger teens, young adults ... I think over the years, you learn to deal with it. I call them ghosts. There are certain calls that really stick in your mind. I’ve probably got a dozen over the years that I can remember even how warm it was or what was going on, what time of day it was.”Ask virtually any emergency services worker, and they will nod in understanding. For Regina advanced care paramedic Darren Tanzell, one such call came early in his now 20-year career.“One of the very first calls I ever did was one of the worst calls I ever did,” he says. “It involved drinking and driving. I remember it was at three o’clock in the morning, it was here in Regina. The fellow was drunk, driving his half-ton, blew through a red light and hit a car full of teenagers. Obviously a very chaotic scene. I can still remember where the engine was laying in the ditch. I remember where everybody was when we pulled up on scene.”Tanzell says the crash ended in fatality and serious injuries, though not for the impaired driver who caused it.“The thing that really bothered me at the time was he didn’t really even know what had happened,” he says. “He was that intoxicated that he was kind of looking around like, ‘Who caused this?’“I’ve kind of thought about over the years why I remember this one so much. I’ve gone to hundreds of accidents and this one has always stuck with me ... I think we can kind of understand someone falling off a ladder or a heart attack or a stroke or even a regular car accident with no alcohol involved. These things happen. But for someone to make a choice and to drink and then drive, it’s more bothersome because it didn’t have to happen.“So I think that’s why those are especially disturbing for paramedics.”Saskatchewan has struggled with high impaired driving rates for years, our recent statistics dwarfing those in other provinces. While SGI’S most recent stats reported a significant decrease in fatalities and injuries (39 deaths and 340 injuries in 2017 versus an average of 57 and 596 between 2012 and 2016), the fact remains many Saskatchewan residents just aren’t getting it.Const. Curtis Warnar with the Regina Police Service’s traffic safety unit has heard plenty of rationalizing from drivers he has pulled over for impaired driving.“To the regular person that we just pull over for leaving a bar, it always seems to be that it’s a victimless crime,” he says. ” ‘I didn’t hurt anybody’ is the first thing out of their mouth, or ‘Nothing happened.’ Well, who’s to say what could have happened?”Warnar, too, has seen far too much of what can happen. He estimates he personally goes to one or two such crashes a month, although he adds the police service in general might be called to as many as one or two a day. The numbers, he adds, might actually be higher since so many suspected impaired drivers flee the scene prior to police arrival.Tanzell has also noticed the problem.“If you’re working a Friday or a Saturday night and you go to a car accident, I’m going to just about guarantee that one of the people involved is drinking,” he says.Warnar describes a sense of frustration, that all the education in the world, all the options available to people for a safe ride home, aren’t having an effect for some.“For me, it’s always so frustrating how people can make that selfish decision,” he says. “And it always comes down to those little things of convincing themselves that what they’re doing is OK, like: ‘Oh, I’m good to go. I only had a couple drinks. I’m going to take the back roads home. There’s not a lot of traffic on the roadway.’ (They’re) all the different components that go into that potentially fatal decision to get behind the wheel when you shouldn’t.”Tanzell points out as few as two or three drinks can be enough to cause a crash; he’s been to those calls too.“You don’t have to be blackout drunk to get in an accident and kill somebody,” he says.When crashes do happen, emergency services workers are there, blocking off the scene, talking to witnesses, picking through wreckage for evidence, helping the injured, cutting trapped victims out of vehicles — and, in the worst cases, fighting to save lives or working around a dead body.For many, there are images that are impossible to erase.Regina firefighter Lieut. Roger Arsenault’s 27-year career contains an estimated half-dozen calls that stay with him.“The ones that touch you personally tend to be ones where you can empathize and put yourself in that situation, especially kids the same age (as your own),” he says.Firefighter David Lowe was on duty two years ago when a call came in about a man killed by an impaired driver just outside the city. The victim turned out to be Lowe’s best friend.“I saw firsthand how it affected everybody — his wife, his kids, everybody that went to the accident,” he says. “The magnitude of everything, and just the preventability of drunk driving is the worst thing. It’s so preventable, yet people still do it, and to such extremes in Saskatchewan especially. It’s tough. It’s hard for guys like us to go to calls like that and see what we see and deal with it.”Members of all three services say supports have come a long way since the old days, when members were expected to just deal with the traumatic scenes they saw and keep going. Now there’s an awareness about occupational stress injuries, post-traumatic stress and the cumulative effects of dealing with calls like this. Besides peer support, services offer debriefs for attending members and make counselling an option. Attitudes are also changing, removing stigmas once attached to members seeking much-needed help.But all the support and help in the world doesn’t erase memory. Assistant fire chief Neil Sundeen remembers an impaired driving-related crash that happened around Christmas a number of years back. He recalls having to cut the driver free of the car, knowing there wasn’t anything they could do to save him. Meanwhile, the man’s wife watched, agonized, from the passenger seat.“You could just see the look on her face, and you just knew what the outcome was going to be and that there was nothing you were going to be able to do about it other than to try to comfort her,” Sundeen says. “You never forget that ... You empathize with that family, knowing that that’s going to be a vacancy in that family — and an unnecessary one — for the rest of their lives.”As Christmas approaches, with its parties and family gatherings, members of all three services are preparing for the likelihood of an increase in impaired driving incidents.Along with that comes the possibility they — like those directly involved in the collisions — will be left badly affected by the things they have to see.“Being there and being arm’s length away and having to deal with a deceased person or what have you, I think you can’t not carry some of that with you,” Warnar says. “It’s just making sure that you have healthy ways of dealing with your feelings and what’s going on with you.”... We can kind of understand someone falling off a ladder or a heart attack or a stroke or even a regular car accident with no alcohol involved. These things happen. But for someone to make a choice and to drink and then drive, it’s more bothersome because it didn’t have to happen. Darren Tanzell, Regina advanced care paramedic
Clockwise from top left, Lt. Blair Bechard, Regina Fire Assistant Chief Neil Sundeen, firefighter David Lowe and Lt. Roger Arsenault of the Regina fire department spoke with Leader-post reporter Heather Polischuk regarding professional experiences surrounding incidents of impaired driving.
“One of the very first calls I ever did was one of the worst calls I ever did,” says paramedic Darren Tanzell. “It involved drinking and driving.”
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