Fire/Rescue StreetSense ❘ By Kate Dernocoeur
In our eagerness to help others, sometimes it’s the simple things that help most, such as checking Facebook. Wait, what? For one 14-year-old Florida girl, it was a post on the popular social media site that made all the difference.
On July 7, 2020, the girl was listed as an endangered runaway after she went missing from home. The next day, Escambia County (FL) EMS dispatched a crew on a case of possible “heat stress.” Maybe the call nature wasn’t thrilling, but that didn’t stop Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) Courtney Kocon from paying attention. She recognized the girl at the scene as matching the description she’d seen earlier that day on the Escambia County Sheriff Department’s Facebook page.
Without tipping off the man who was with the girl, Kocon and her partner, EMT Andre Thompson, kept her safe in the air-conditioned ambulance until the deputies arrived. Very slick. The man was arrested, and the girl was returned to her family.1
Many discount the value of social media but, in this instance, it was beneficial—indeed, potentially lifesaving. Information was made available; it was seen and remembered, leading to an important chance to help beyond the usual straightforward medical needs of the call.
Eyes on the Ground
For a lot of reasons that go beyond the obvious, emergency services personnel play an important role for our communities as “eyes on the ground.” We collectively have access to numerous settings regular civilians never see. Our work crosses all the economic, racial, ethnic, religious, and other social barriers that tend to separate people. It’s still true (mostly) that we are welcomed in and regarded as helpers.
This capacity gives us the chance (and responsibility) to see beyond the obvious. What about the call on a woman who “fainted”? You can see by her fluttering eyelids that she is obviously alert, but something’s not right, and you know it. The snide, uncaring behavior of her partner confirms it. With finesse, you can quietly speak to her, saying, “I’m your medic and I’m here to help. I can tell you can hear me. I need to know if you’re hurt or if you just need to get out of here safely.” You might be her first safe haven from an abusive situation that she didn’t know how else to escape.
A habit of not taking things at face value helps hone critical thinking skills. We can rescue people enmeshed in such situations as domestic violence and child abuse when we take the time to look past the straightforward facts and question what’s under the surface.
Beyond the Surface: Human Trafficking?
Another deeply concerning population is human trafficking victims. This topic is full of murky assumptions and prejudice, but emergency services providers can help knock it back like the destructive social “fire” it is.
Don’t ever imagine that none of that is happening around where you live. Sadly, with an estimated 21 million human trafficking victims out there, it is probable that some are nearby no matter where you are. It is a huge, robust industry that’s on target to surpass the drug trade in profitability in 2020, with annual revenues of $32 billion (United States) and $150 billion (worldwide).2
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security defines human trafficking as “modern-day slavery.” It is most widespread in the sex “trade” (where one in seven runaway juveniles ends up) or among agricultural and beauty industry workers (often immigrants who fear speaking up).
Part of the challenge is that human trafficking demands a multidisciplinary approach, which can result in lack of sufficient “ownership” of the problem. That’s why the agency crossover when Kocon and Thompson successfully identified the missing girl in Florida was so exciting.
Human traffickers are sociopathically good at manipulating their victims and covering their tracks. They’re adept at brainwashing and threatening those being held so they can’t (or won’t) seek help. Rodney Daniels of Pensacola, Florida, is a retired assistant fire chief and the father of a possibly trafficked daughter. A frequent speaker on the subject, he said, “Unless a person says, ‘I’m a victim, I need help,’ it’s a process of connecting the dots.” Many times, how you read the situation makes the difference, such as realizing something isn’t lining up. “Maybe,” said Daniels, “the guy is answering all the questions or the EMT wonders, ‘Why have I been in this house five times in the past month?’”
Peeling back the layers and not taking things at face value are essential. So is awareness. A national survey of human trafficking survivors found that more than 88% had come in contact with a health care or EMS provider, and 67% had been seen in an emergency department; yet, they were not identified.3
If you encounter a possible victim of trafficking and are unsure how to proceed, call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline at 1-888-3737-888. There is not an easy “symptom” list, but red flags can include the following: avoidance of eye contact, no control of money or documents, minimal personal possessions, inappropriate clothing, medical history that appears scripted or inconsistent, evidence of malnutrition, branding or tattoos (especially with names), unusually high security measures in place, and more. Sometimes, counterintuitively, people are adamant that they are “just fine.”
If your gut-check is causing you heartburn, follow through on your suspicions and report the situation appropriately. It’s easy to fall into the habit of thinking of our mission narrowly, but the bigger picture includes consistent readiness to serve no matter what is needed. A call for heat illness in a hot environment such as Florida may not have seemed all that exciting to Kocon and Thompson, but congratulations to them for noticing the unanticipated dimension of that call after seeing that timely Facebook post. It was a real “save.”
1. Source: https://www.ems1.com/rescue/articles/fla-emts-rescue-missing-girl-DIoeYr11ghudrO4T, posted July 13, 2020, accessed August 12, 2020.
2. Source: https://www.usfa.fema.gov/current_events/110818.html, US Fire Administration: “Training helps EMS workers identify human trafficking signs.” Nov. 8, 2018.
3. Source: https://nurseslabs.com/human-trafficking-health-care-setting-red-flags-nurses-need-know/, accessed August 13, 2020.
KATE DERNOCOEUR, retired firefighter/NREMT, still serves as a medical examiner investigator as well as a SARTECH-II with Kent County’s SAR K9 unit in western Michigan. She retired from the Ada (MI) Fire Department in 2019 and was a paramedic for the Denver (CO) Paramedic Division (1979-1986). Her emergency services career began in 1974 with the Vail (CO) Mountain Rescue Group. Educated as a journalist who also earned an MFA in creative writing, she has written extensively for EMS publications, including JEMS, since 1979, and was a frequent speaker at EMS conferences from 1984-2004. Her book Streetsense: Communication, Safety and Control was released in its 4th edition in 2020. She also coauthored Principles of Emergency Medical Dispatch with Dr. Jeff Clawson, MD (first edition, 1988), among other books. Her blog, “Generally Write,” is at www.katedernocoeur.com.