LEADING Fireman Zaquin Mathurin is a humble and jovial Emergency Medical Technician who views his service to his country as importantly as he does to his own family and in his own words; “I put nothing before my family and my job, I’m very dedicated.”
Mathurin who has been employed with the St. Lucia Fire and Emergency Service for 13 years is also a husband and father of one.
The EMT hails from La Pointe, Mon Repos but resides in Sarrot, Bexon. Today, Mathurin sheds light on how the service manages with only 13 ambulances serving the entire island (two in Gros Islet, three in Castries, one at each airport, two in Dennery, 2twoin Vieux Fort, one in Soufriere and one in Micoud)
The VOICE: To the outsider looking in and thinking that your job just involves picking up sick or injured people and transporting them to the hospital, how ignorant are they to the reality of your job?
Zaquin: You leave your home and you have to be mentally prepared to face the job. Then you come to work and you have to “leave home behind”. You must always remember what you’ve studied and learnt so there are constant refreshers as to what you have done in the past like your exams, what you know and your experiences. You must also have your equipment available because a master without his tools is nothing. When you get a call, you need to be able to relate to that call at hand and also to put it behind you because there are many psychological aspects attached to the calls. We could find ourselves too attached to a call which could be traumatic to us mentally hence the reason for us being debriefed because you can imagine getting yourself wrapped up in an emergency call. For example, do you remember where the children got burnt in the vehicle along the Bexon highway? I was off duty that day and I witnessed the whole incident unravel in front of my eyes. So imagine me as a civilian with my daughter then six seeing that. Contrast that with me being an EMT, getting there and seeing that. On occasions like this you have to step out of being a father and become a professional to aid that person. So it is more than just taking somebody and bringing them (to the hospital). The emotional part or the physical attachment to a call can be very touching so as an EMT, you have to know when and how to tap in and out of feelings. We may seem insensitive but that’s what we are tasked with. Sometimes we go home and if we are not properly cared for, these feelings could manifest themselves aggressively otherwise in dealing with our families. So the onus is on our supervisors as well to see the warning signs in us when we come into contact with these kinds of calls. Sometimes we go out on a call and when we come back, everything is nice but the physical aspect, you can sleep off and be healed but the mental aspect of the job is very demanding.
The VOICE: You mentioned that supervisors are tasked with looking out for the signs that EMTs are in need of debriefing. Is it common for crew members to reach that near breaking point?
Zaquin: Yes, you could see when someone is burnt out or stressed out. You see it when like for no reason, they will snap at other people or they won’t come to work and report sick. These little things happen and you wonder why this is going on. It could be for a call that they went on six years ago that still affects them and yeah, that happens.
The VOICE: I can only imagine the horrors that you all have witnessed…
Zaquin: I’ve seen children who were born in toilets…not regular toilets, pit toilets. I’ve seen children who were burnt and died in fires, the list goes on and on. My skin is not scarred but you can imagine how the brain could be scarred by such events. There are many of us here who are trained at that level…some are trained better to handle that kind of trauma, but you have those who are less trained but they have to deal with the same kind of emotional stress.
The VOICE: What about the other issues and stresses, how do you cope?
Zaquin: We have the public to deal with, those who want ambulances now for now. I can remember one call that I went on when I got to the scene of a stabbing and I asked one guy; “Was there a stabbing?” and the guy said: “No, no there was no stabbing here so you could turn around.” Then I heard a faint “HELP, HELP!” in the background and there was a knocking on the side of the ambulance. I said to the first guy: “You turn around and GO AWAY!” and it turns out that he was the perpetrator. So you have to ask, is your safety more important that that person’s life?
There are judgement calls that you have to make because sometimes, if you don’t move NOW, you will die. We are faced with these things and sometimes the scene may appear to be safe, it may be a normal and everyday call but it could turn out that the perpetrator is still on the scene and our lives end up being at the mercy of these perpetrators if we don’t know that they are there. If you look at the number of places that we have to go to, the number of infections and diseases that we have to come into contact with. There are people with bed sores, we meet people with AIDS and all types of diseases. There are people with bed bugs and…you could just imagine what we deal with every day.
The VOICE: What safety measures are in place to help you all?
Zaquin: You’re supposed to know that the scene is safe before you respond but you won’t know at all times. For example, there’s a chopping near the Castries Market, you ask the people in the area if the perpetrator is still around and they all tell you no. You still call and alert the police, you go close by just to make sure that the scene is safe. The victim might run to you or people tell you where he is. You try to get assistance to that person and for some reason, the assailant wants to finish the job so they smash bottles at you etc…it happens.
The VOICE: We then come to the infamous Joe Public who sits at home watching the television and slam or defame your fellow EMTs without knowing exactly what you guys put with daily. How do you cope with that?
Zaquin: They call for the ambulance and when we get there, we hear: “Since the time I called you guys, what took you so long?” We are not just parked at the station just waiting. There are other people who need our help. Sometimes the ambulance is out on another call, sometime we’ve gone to Gros Islet to give them some back up as we assist other stations seeing that there is only one fire department so it takes a while for the ambulance to respond from one station to the other. Twenty to 30 minutes in real time might seem like two years for the person in need of attention. So you could imagine the amount of animosity and hatred that we receive. We have an issue with dogs, we have neighbours who don’t like each other and so many other issues. So you might see it on TV where a call is made and the EMTs are there but it’s not like that in reality. That’s not all; if you look at our topography, when we get to a scene and we have to carry a patient from the bottom of a hill or ravine to way up where the ambulance is parked. We don’t get the calls where we go to Cap Estate and we just wheel in a stretcher to somebody’s bed and carry them off. Another downside of this job is that sometimes you could be accused of taking people’s things. You could go on a scene and people will say that they had this and that and it’s now missing. Every organisation has its bad apples and it has happened before but the point is that we’ve been labelled with that stigma.
The VOICE: Is it all gloom as an EMT?
Zaquin: Don’t get me wrong, there is the nice part where people respect you and see you as a life saver. Sometimes you go to a scene and people offer you drinks and foods etc and they see you on the street…There’s a lady who works at Abraham’s for example and whenever she sees me, she remembers me helping her brother so many years ago and she still has me in her mind. To be honest with you, I can’t even remember her brother’s face but I know hers because she remembers me. There are other people who greet you and say things to their children like: “This is the man that delivered you!” and you would be surprised to see how big these children have grown…you bring out life sometimes so it’s not always bad, helping someone in need of assistance and providing that humanitarian support for someone when they need it is to me, what I love about my job. It’s not just a job, it’s a hobby and I leave my home knowing that I’m going to help the public of St. Lucia.
The VOICE: With such a mammoth task to undertake daily, the St. Lucia Fire Service is seriously under-staffed and under-resourced. How dire is the situation and what would you say is needed to fix this issue?
Zaquin: Our crews are too small (nine persons where it should be 12-15) and so rotation and off days are problematic and we don’t get to spend time with our families. In terms of resources, we are very limited and equipment is very expensive. We need more staffing…that is essential and we also need allowances for EMTs as there is none. We get the same pay as a fire fighter and so an allowance of some sort would be an incentive to get us to want to sacrifice all that we do.
The VOICE: What would you like to say to the public to get them to try to understand your plight?
Zaquin: We are all human beings and sometimes we need to step out and wear the other person’s shoe to see how it feels. For all you know, he could be having a bad day from home or even work and yes when he goes to a scene he will be professional but he understands that you are in a dire situation but you also need to bear patience with him because he is also a human being. We shouldn’t be so quick to judge…they are trying their best to assist and if they weren’t they wouldn’t be in that job, so try to understand that we are trying to help. You need to bear with us as we bear with you all.