Making Workplaces Safer for Responders

In May 2011, I met with Darren, the police officer who was with my husband, John, the night he died in September 2000. Darren was the K-9 officer who went into the warehouse with John, also a police officer, to investigate a break and enter complaint.

Darren and his dog searched the main level as John went up a wooden ladder to search the mezzanine area, where he stepped through a false ceiling, fell 9 feet into the lunchroom below, and hit his head on the concrete floor. Darren found John and immediately resuscitated him. But he succumbed to his injuries later that day.

As for the warehouse, not only was it dark —- no sensor lighting was in effect -— there was no safety railing in place to warn John of the false ceiling. He had taken a single fatal step from a safe surface to an unmarked, unsafe surface. Unfortunately, a chair had been left in the middle of the lunchroom the day before, so when John fell, the back of his legs hit the chair and projected his upper body downward at such a force and angle that the impact of his head striking the ground caused a massive brain injury.

There ended up being no intruder in the building; it was a false alarm.

Those were the basic facts we, the founding members of the John Petropoulos Memorial Fund (JPMF) -— a charity that raises public awareness about why and how people can make their workplaces safer for everyone, including emergency responders —- were given. The artifacts, on the other hand, the physical evidence from the night of John's fall, wouldn't come my way for more than a decade.

But in those 10 years, the JPMF had been busy. Our five 30-second public service announcements have aired on TV more than half a million times. Our current campaign, Put Yourself in Our Boots, brings all our safety messages, including a powerful 10-minute video, onto one DVD that is being shown in presentations and safety meetings across North America.

As John's widow and board chair of the JPMF, I've given dozens of presentations on the circumstances that led to John's death, as well as the fund's safety initiatives. The purpose of these presentations —- also being given by other members of the JPMF —- is to raise awareness about potential workplace hazards facing emergency responders, so at to help prevent injuries and fatalities to the living.

For nothing we say or do will bring John back.

Becausee police policy required the service hold on to all evidence from the incident for a decade, John's items were released from the property room to Darren in September 2010.

In May 2011, Darren gave those items to me. After coffee, we went out to his car and there was the chair, one leg bent at an awkward angle from the force of John's legs hitting it. Darren pulled the chair out and handed it to me. "In my presentations," I said, taking the chair, "I call this the nail in John's coffin because it ensured a nine-foot fall didn't just hurt him -- it killed him."

"I can see you using this chair in your presentations," Darren said.

I shook my head. "No. I don't want to emphasize the nail. I want to emphasize the key factor that led to John ending up in a coffin in the first place."

But of course, there is no physical evidence of this factor because it never existed. If a safety railing had been in place, John would still be alive.

Next out of Darren's vehicle were the broken pieces of ceiling tile. All the other items were in cardboard boxes flagged with neon orange "Biohazard" stickers. It doesn't take a forensics expert to know decade-old dried blood is the reason for the labels.

It was a warm and sunny day, so I took my precious cargo to the cemetery. At John's grave, I sat at my usual place on the grass in front of his headstone. I took a deep breath, opened up the lid of the first box, and pulled out a brown paper bag. Out came the uniform shirt John had been wearing -— ripped open by Darren's knife so he could perform CPR and get John's breathing going again.

Darren had given me this knife in February 2009 at the press conference launching the JPMF's Put Yourself in Our Boots campaign, moments before I stepped up to the podium to speak to the media.

There, at John's grave, the sun warm on my back, I held his torn shirt up to my face and breathed in deeply.

Like a really lousy Christmas stocking, nearly every item in the boxes was individually wrapped in a brown paper bag. Out next came John's pants, also ripped open, obviously by medical personnel. Then out came Darren's K-9 blood-stained uniform shirt. At first this puzzled me, as I hadn't expected Darren's shirt to be in with John's things. And then I remembered from the Put Yourself in Our Boots safety video Darren's mentioning he had bundled up his shirt and used it as a compress to try and stop the bleeding from the back of John's head.

Out next came the flashlight John had been holding while searching for the non-existent suspect. Next came John's tool-belt, cut in half. Then his handcuffs. His keys. Notebook. The broken plastic ear-piece for his radio. His socks.

Then I reached into a bag and pulled out John's work boots. Of all the items, seeing his boots again hit me the hardest. I realized the Put Yourself in Our Boots campaign couldn't have been more aptly named. Because our goal is to get the public to think about workplace safety from a different perspective: that of emergency responders who may have to enter premises during an emergency, we challenge people to put themselves in the boots of an emergency responder and take a moment to look around their familiar workplace through the eyes of a firefighter navigating their way through a smoke-filled room, or a police officer searching for a suspect in the dark, or a paramedic trying to get their stretcher to a patient.

If a change needs to be made, we encourage people to make it. The beauty, of course, is that if a workplace is made safer for emergency responders who may or may not have to attend, it is also safer for everyone.

For tangible tips on how to make your workplace safer, please click here.

Posted by Maryanne Pope on Nov 03, 2011

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