Behind the front line

Behind the scenes with Queensland’s first responders as they deal with traumatic crashes and the ensuing aftermath.

Story Nathan Torpey | Images supplied

A car crash doesn’t just affect those injured and in need of help.

Crashes have a far-reaching ripple effect not only on the families of the victims, but on the first responders – firefighters, police, paramedics and road staff including RACQ patrols and Traffic Response Units – called to the scene.

As news of an incident breaks, Queensland’s unsung heroes – our emergency services – spring into action. They run towards the danger, fight to save lives, seek to uncover what happened and in the case of RACQ’s road staff make the scene safe.

For them, the job doesn’t stop when the flashing red and blue lights dim and the sounds of sirens fade. The memory of the crash and what has been seen remains.

This is the life of a first responder.

In life and death situations, few professions demand the diverse skill set required by a paramedic.

Queensland Ambulance Service Senior Operations Supervisor, Martin Kelly, has been a paramedic for 40 years and said while the service was his life’s calling, it came at a price.

“People have no idea how disturbing some of things we see are,” he said.

“As a career paramedic you’re exposed to an immense amount of trauma.

“People relate that level of trauma to what someone might see in a war – the effects are very similar.”

Mr Kelly said while crash scenes are incredibly confronting, the personal stories behind the tragedies stick with him long after the day is done.

“The stories behind these events are just heartbreaking,” he said.

“One of my first jobs involved a couple who crashed after a slab of concrete had fallen off the back of a truck.

“The man was severely injured and lived but his fiancée, who looked relatively uninjured, died immediately upon impact.

“The couple had been up to Bathurst to buy a block a land and were due to be married in a couple of months.

“You’re just left thinking what put those two vehicles and those people together at that point in time?”

Mr Kelly, who has been called to help save the lives of thousands, has also been on the other side of tragedy after losing multiple family members in a horror crash in Wellington.

“Thirty-five years ago, I got a phone call at 4am to find out my brother, cousin, his wife, their two children and a family friend were all killed in a crash,” he said.

“I still feel for the guys who had to turn up for that crash – the paramedics, police and firefighters all would have known them as it was a small town.

“Every now and again, you get to something similar and the way the incident occurred does make you think about what happened then.

“But it made me focus on what I was doing and how important it was.”

Queensland Police Senior Sergeant of the Forensic Crash Unit Simon Lamerton said while you might be sympathising with the families on the inside, you must be focused on the job at hand.

“At the scene, you go into work mode,” he said.

“You’re the professional and when you have distressed members of the public there, you can’t stand aside going ‘oh my god’ – you just do your job.

“It’s afterwards, when you stop and think about it, that it hits.”

Sgt Lamerton said a police officer’s role goes beyond the scene of the crash, as they’re required to notify the families of the deceased and work with them during the legal process.

“It’s unique for us because the other emergency services aren’t required to do that,” he said.

“They help save the victims life and then their duties generally keep them away from having more contact with the family.

“It’s hard when you have to sit down with families afterwards, go through what happened and try to make some sense of it for them.”

Sgt Lamerton, a father of three daughters, said it was the crashes involving children and young women that hit home the hardest.

“Incidents involving children are generally the worst and I think all emergency services would agree with that,” he said.

“They’re the ones I hate.”

Sgt Lamerton said he would never forget about a two-year-old boy who died in a bus crash early in his career.

“The Boondall bus crash has always stuck with me,” he said.

“It’s was 23 years ago now and is still Queensland’s worst fatal crash, with 12 people killed.

“The bus was travelling from Maryborough with a lot of elderly women going on a shopping trip to the Logan Hyperdome.

“It had a mechanical fault in Sandgate and went into the centre island, rolled on its side and slid.

“There were 50 women on board – 11 of them died at the scene plus one two-year-old boy, who was the grandchild of one of the women.

“His mother and grandmother were on the bus and survived but he died and I was left asking why him? Why couldn’t he just live?

“That has stuck with me for the longest time because I dealt with the families and the mother and father of the boy.

“It was 23 years ago and I can still recall every detail.”

Queensland Fire and Emergency Services State Rescue Training Coordinator, Matthew Quinn, said it was different for firefighters as “not knowing or having closure was part of the job”, given they would often not find out about patient’s condition following a crash.

He said a large majority of a firefighter’s workload now involved rescuing motorists following a crash, and called on all Queensland drivers to give way to emergency service vehicles as soon as possible.

“It’s critical that people give way to our emergency vehicles and move over to the side of the road and wait until we have passed,” he said.

“It can be difficult but the extra time we have can be the difference between life and death.”

RACQ’s Principal Road Safety Advisor Joel Tucker also said there was a need to give space to first responders called to the scene, with the Club advocating for additional road rule requirements.

“South Australia and Victoria have introduced rules requiring passing motorists to slow down and give first responders space and we want to see similar provisions in Queensland that also include our on-road staff,” he said.

“It is vital that we do all we can to protect those who protect us on the roads.”