by Tom Loach
I had just finished reading Dr. Reiser’s article in last month’s Crozet Gazette about his night tour in the Emergency Room at UVA, when I got to thinking about the overall situation of public safety in our community. Consider this: on any given day only a very small percentage of the population will use the services of one of our agencies (fire, rescue and law enforcement) dedicated to protecting the public, yet most of us could not imagine living in a community where those services are not available twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. When you look at the scope of public safety services, it quickly becomes apparent that we spend a significant amount of time, effort and money to ensure that should someone in our community need help, help is available. More importantly, over the past decade there has been a quantum leap in the amount and type of help available. While some of those changes are due to 9/11 and the war on terrorism, such as preparing for possible biologic and chemical attacks, a good deal of the improvements are byproducts of changes in society and not always good changes at that.
Let’s first look at the good Dr. Reiser, his crew in the emergency room and the rescue personnel who stream in daily to UVA and keep them very busy. When I first started with the ambulance service in my fire department in New York in the late 1970s, the procedure was to get to the patient, load him or her in the ambulance and get to the hospital as quickly as possible. We provided basic first aid, but rapid transport was our greatest asset and the patient’s best chance to live. Today, paramedics on board ambulances can start treatment as soon as they get to the patient. They communicate directly with emergency room staff and provide advanced treatment that in my day was available only in the best emergency rooms and intensive care units in the country. What hasn’t changed, and in fact it’s gotten worse, is that we eat too much, weigh too much and exercise too little. If the epidemic of childhood obesity is any indicator, Dr. Reiser will be busy for a long time to come.
On our roads, we still find that about 37 percent of traffic fatalities are related to drunk drivers. And which of us has not followed someone weaving back and forth on the road while they’re dialing their cell phone or, worse yet, sending and receiving text messages, thus presenting a new menace on the roads. According to one statistic I found, nearly 25 percent of the car accidents now involve cell phone use.
When I was growing up, every afternoon after school let out I would rush home, turn on my black-and-white, 12-inch TV set and watch the afternoon series of cartoon shows. On one such show the host was Officer Joe Bolton. Officer Bolton was a beat cop and besides showing us reruns of the Little Rascals, he would fill us in with the do’s and don’ts of living. They seemed pretty simple at the time; that is to say, don’t lie, cheat or steal. Officer Joe’s words were the golden rules and if we had any doubt about what he was saying, at the end of the show Officer Joe would sign off while swinging his night stick as if to reinforce his message. Today we have to station police in our schools to keep them safe. I can never remember having anyone phone in a bomb threat, yet we had this experience here in Albemarle and it came from middle-school students. Did anyone ever think we would see the day our police departments would have SWAT teams practicing “Active Shooter” scenarios to prevent tragedies such as the one that occurred at Virginia Tech.
And law enforcement doesn’t end with the police department. The Albemarle County Sheriff’s Department, under the direction of Sheriff Chip Harding, makes sure the wheels of justice continue to run smoothly by providing security in our courts and serving legal papers. Sheriff Harding has been working to extend the functionality of the department through his Reserve Deputy Unit. Reserve deputies are volunteers who not only augment the fulltime staff in their regular duties, but provide several programs that have recently been improved with new technology. Reserve deputies now go into the community to provide parents with a copy of their child’s fingerprints so that if a kidnapping takes place, the police have one more tool to help recover the child. With the baby boomers now reaching their golden years and with the increasing prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease, the reserve division has tracking technology to find patients should they wander away from their home. And, if needed, the reserve division has its own Search and Rescue unit, augmented with volunteers from the community, that can be called out to increase the chances of a successful search.
In the past I’ve written about the change in the types of fires firefighters now face. With the synthetic and plastic materials used for many of the items in our homes, fires are now hotter, more toxic, and produce more smoke than fires of days gone by. In recent years there has been a trend to build homes with light-weight construction material and while these materials have kept housing costs in check, they have proven to present a danger to firefighters. It’s gotten so bad that in the fire service there’s a macabre saying that goes, “In the door and through the floor.” In response, we have improved our equipment. We now have better protective clothing and new technology like thermal imaging cameras that help us locate the fire before it finds us. In the fall, the Crozet fire department will be adding a new ladder truck so that we can be sure we reach the heights of the new buildings being built in Crozet.
Despite the significant changes in our society, our public safety agencies have been able to rise to the occasion and meet every challenge thrown at them. I’m sure they will continue to do so in the future. What really boggles the mind is the fact that what we do here in Crozet and Albemarle County is replicated in most every village, town, city and county throughout the United States. And all this to provide services that most of us hope we will never use. Yet we know full well the chance exists that sometime in our lifetime we or someone in our family is going to need to call for help from either law enforcement, rescue or the fire department.