Easter long weekend: Emergency services message to the northern beaches

ON DUTY: Paramedic Ben Tory, Sergeant Matt Paterson, Dr Josh Holden, Station Officer Lachlan Arnold and Dr Andy Ratchford. Pictures: Geoff Jones
ON DUTY: Paramedic Ben Tory, Sergeant Matt Paterson, Dr Josh Holden, Station Officer Lachlan Arnold and Dr Andy Ratchford. Pictures: Geoff Jones

IT may be part of their job to attend car accidents, but these heroes are the first to admit that it's often graphic, confronting and at times heartbreaking.

These highly-trained professionals walk into places and situations many of us fear to tread, and they admit that being called to a serious or fatal crashes leave a mark on them.

With school holidays and Easter long weekend about to start, local emergency service personnel sat down with the Northern Beaches Review to share a few harsh realities of just how easily a poor decision on the road can impact your life and those around you.

This paramedic, firefighter, police officer, emergency doctor and retrieval medicine specialist, all from Sydney's northern beaches - who have a combined 86 years of service between them - all confess that they have seen things at road crashes that they cannot unsee.

Mona Vale paramedic Ben Tory joined NSW Ambulance six years ago and has lost count of the number of accidents he's been called to. They've been everything from minor bingles, to serious crashes and, unfortunately, fatalities.

Mona Vale paramedic Ben Tory. Picture: Geoff Jones

Mona Vale paramedic Ben Tory. Picture: Geoff Jones

One of the worst crashes he's ever been called to happened years ago, when a person had been texting while driving.

"They ran up the back of one of those tow trucks, the flat bed trucks, and because of the angle of those trucks it literally just went straight through the car," he said.

"He did not survive, but he still had his phone sitting in his hand when we got there and he was halfway through a text message. That was quite a few years ago now, but that's still always stuck with me."

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Mr Tory said the average person doesn't understand just how horrific serious crashes can be.

"A lot of the time the accidents people see are the minor ones because they're the ones where the traffic is still flowing past, it's a small bingle, often people walking out of the car," he said.

"If it's a major accident, there's major injuries, bleeding, possibly limbs coming off, we'll do more to close the road to stop people's exposure to it."

Firefighters can also be called to the crash scene and Narrabeen Fire and Rescue NSW Station Officer Lachlan Arnold said it's often not just the accident victims who need help.

"When it becomes complicated and traumatic for us as firies is when family members arrive, I don't know how the cops do it," he said. "Watching the grief and being witness to the grief of family members, it's a horrible thing that you never get used to. It's more challenging than having to cut someone out of a car that's for sure."

You should be ashamed

Narrabeen Fire and Rescue NSW Station Officer Lachlan Arnold. Picture: Geoff Jones

Narrabeen Fire and Rescue NSW Station Officer Lachlan Arnold. Picture: Geoff Jones

What he's seen while at accidents is also having an impact on how Station Officer Arnold is teaching his 16-year-old son to drive.

"The message that I've been most clear with him about is to do with phones," he said. "If I think of all the car accidents that I've been to in all my 18 year career, very few of them are down to bad luck. The two most important factors are phones and alcohol, the third is speeding.

"The difficulty with the phones is that people won't admit to it that that's what caused the accident to happen. People are ashamed, and they should be ashamed, if they've been using their phone and they've lost control of their vehicle."

Accidents that leave a scar on us

Manly police officer Sergeant Matt Paterson. Picture: Geoff Jones

Manly police officer Sergeant Matt Paterson. Picture: Geoff Jones

Often a crash can be seared into the memories of not only the emergency services who are called, but the community who watch on in horror.

On October 1, 2013, a fuel tanker lost control Mona Vale Road and crashed. Bystanders watched the chaotic scenes in disbelief as burning rivers of fuel rushed down the road, with the accident leaving two men dead and five people in hospital.

It made national headlines and remains to this day one of the most difficult crashes Manly police officer Sergeant Matt Paterson has ever attended in his 23-year career.

He was just about to finish his shift and one of his colleagues told him a tanker had crashed, at first he thought they were joking.

He remembers the scene just as vividly today as if it happened yesterday and the impact that it had on emergency service personnel who were called there.

HORROR CRASH: The fuel tanker crash in Mona Vale on October 1, 2013 was one of the most difficult that Manly police officer Sergeant Matt Paterson has ever attended. Picture: Tim Pascoe

HORROR CRASH: The fuel tanker crash in Mona Vale on October 1, 2013 was one of the most difficult that Manly police officer Sergeant Matt Paterson has ever attended. Picture: Tim Pascoe

"I was seeing very experienced cops not know what to do," he said because of the scale of the incident. While most crashes are cleared in a matter of hours, this one lasted for days, and it took Sgt Paterson a few days to process what he'd seen.

Today's technology means that family members and friends often find out about crashes via social media or phone tracking apps while emergency services are still on scene. Sgt Paterson recalls family members using an app to track their loved one and discovered he'd been stationary on Powderworks Road for a while. The family came looking for him to discover he'd been in an accident.

Critical care with wings

When there's been severe trauma in an accident and someone's been left in a critical condition, a rescue helicopter is often called to the scene to urgently treat and transport the patient.

Dr Josh Holden is a retrieval medicine specialist with CareFlight and works alongside a critical care paramedic, pilot and co-pilot on each flight.

CareFlight retrieval medicine specialist Dr Josh Holden. Picture: Geoff Jones

CareFlight retrieval medicine specialist Dr Josh Holden. Picture: Geoff Jones

"It's an extremely challenging job," he said. "We have all the equipment to run a mini intensive care on the roadside or in the back of a helicopter. We have similar equipment that we have in the emergency department and resuscitation room.

"It is an intense job, but we do a huge amount of training and scenarios and drilling to prepare us for every circumstance. We don't have surprises, we train for any problems that might arise."

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Dr Holden has been a trauma specialist for the past 10 years and also works in emergency medicine at Northern Beaches Hospital and has urged anyone taking to the road these school holidays to take care and drive to the conditions.

"A momentary lapse in concentration can have psychological and physical effects for the rest of your life," he said. "Two seconds of looking down to write a text can result in a crash that might endanger yourself, your family or people you don't even know."

Coping with a crisis

Northern Beaches Hospital director of emergency medicine Dr Andy Ratchford. Picture: Geoff Jones

Northern Beaches Hospital director of emergency medicine Dr Andy Ratchford. Picture: Geoff Jones

Debriefing with colleagues is absolutely vital in helping emergency services and medical staff cope with what they see in their jobs, Dr Andy Ratchford says.

The director of emergency medicine at Northern Beaches Hospital has been a doctor for 29 years, and he said talking about what's just happened helps staff to cope.

"In the emergency department we'll try and do a debrief with all the staff as soon afterwards as possible, that might be 10 minutes after the patient's left the emergency department to go to the operating theatre or the intensive care unit," he said. "We'll talk about what happened, what we've learned from it. That really helps people I think for the really hard resuscitations talking about it immediately after it. I've personally found that quite helpful."

Fuel tanker fire on Mona Vale Road, October 1, 2013. Video: Adrian Hybner
This story There are things you can't unsee at serious road accidents first appeared on Northern Beaches Review.