First-hand witnesses to carnage

LEIGHTON KEITH
Last updated 05:00 22/12/2012
DAILY NEWS ONLINE

Tamati Paul is the survivor of a crash with a drunk driver.

Ian May
ROBERT CHARLES/Fairfax NZ
COMBINED SERVICES: St John operations manager Ian May, left, and Taranaki area manager for the Fire Service Pat Fitzell have witnessed first-hand the road trauma caused by drunk drivers.

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They have a total of 77 years experience dealing with tragedies on our roads.

Pat Fitzell, the Taranaki area manager for the Fire Service, and St John operations manager for the region Ian May say as the carnage gets worse, so does the appalling behaviour of people at crash scenes.

The worst crashes also have an added factor - it's alcohol.

So when the emergency services arrive they frequently have to deal with both the carnage and drunk victims.

Ian May says it's frustrating to be confronted by an obnoxious drunk driver while St John staff are frantically trying to save lives.

There have been cases of drunk patients deliberately spitting blood around an ambulance and threatening staff.

Those drunks are on the road in the middle of the day and the middle of the night, he says.

And when a child has died at the hands of a drink driver "you have to dig deep inside yourself to be professional and caring as you transport the non-compliant drink driver to hospital".

Mr Fitzell has seen friends of a drunk driver abuse and assault his staff as they tried to cut the drunk driver from a wreck.

"It's difficult but, I hate to say it, but I guess over the years you sort of get used to that sort of thing.

"All of our people remain professional, their aim is to get the person out and get them medical treatment as soon as."

But one smash was so bad it led to a fire chief standing down for almost a year.

"I remember a few years back, the chief of a volunteer brigade going out to a crash on Boxing Day.

"It involved two cars and speed and alcohol were factors. He arrived at the scene and his daughter was in the vehicle.

"You can't even imagine how the guy felt."

It was nine months before the fire chief was back on duty.

The worst crash he could recall involved a single car carrying seven teenagers.

"There was alcohol all through the car and it was in a 50kmh zone, in the middle of the city, and it killed six of those people."

He says many young people are being recruited into the fire service, and it is fatal crashes rather than the risks associated with fighting a major fire that often prove too tough for them.

As cars have got lighter and more powerful, crashes have taken a greater toll on both the vehicles and the people inside them.

"We send them out there and they see all of these horrific sights at times. It is hard on them and we've had to set up, over the last few years, what we call peer support groups.

"We have had people leave through not being able to handle that sort of carnage."

Working in small communities could be especially difficult for firefighters who often attended crashes involving people they knew.

Mr May says drunkenness can disguise life-threatening conditions.

"Alcohol masks a developing head injury, it can distract a patient from the pain of their injury, it can alter eye pupil response and vital signs.

"You can take an unconscious patient to hospital at times, with a head injury, and you have little idea whether they are drunk unconscious, head injury unconscious or both."

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Drunk patients were often taken to hospital as a precaution - but they were the most difficult group to convince they needed help.

The best Christmas present emergency service staff could get this year would be a safe holiday period on the region's roads and for drivers intending to drink to leave the car keys at home.

"It's not hard, for the cost of a taxi ride somewhere, you weigh that up against a life and it's just not worth it," Mr Fitzell says.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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