QC firefighters learn to help the helpless

Fire engineer Ky Flagg and firefighter Justin Casillas of Queen Creek Fire and Medical wear goggles to simulate central vision loss and gloves simulating arthritis as they train to deal with elderly people suffering dementia. (Courtesy Queen Creek Fire and Medical)

Firefighters and first responders are used to being in control.

But what happens when even they do not know the best way to handle a crisis, or when the people they are trying to help cannot explain what is wrong?

Queen Creek firefighters recently trained to deal with people just like that – those who suffer from dementia.

“It’s not easy to rattle a firefighter,” said Lin Sue Flood, director of community engagement for Hospice of the Valley, who trained Queen Creek Fire and Medical personnel on the best way to approach and treat people afflicted by the disease.

Firefighters and other first responders gathered for what amounted to eight minutes of chaos, confusion, and, ultimately, education and understanding as they went through an exercise that simulated some of the daily challenges confronting people living with Alzheimer’s disease and other age-related mental decline.

“There was a lot going on and it was hard to focus on the task that was given,” said participating firefighter Peter Minder.

Trainees wore goggles with coated lenses that simulate cataracts and central vision loss, gloves to mimic arthritis, neuropathy or sensory sensitivity, and headphones that blare loud and confusing noises.

They were given vague instructions to button a shirt, sort coins, write their names and put a belt on a pair of trousers, a debilitating combination of physical and mental challenges that is baffling and all too common for people suffering from age-related mental and physical decline.

Captain Jason Mertlich had a hard time understanding the instructions but focused as best he could, knowing this was just an exercise.

“This was a task I was doing for a short period of time, but if this was something that was going to last, it would be very stressful,” Mertlich said.

For 150,000 Arizona residents who currently live with Alzheimer’s, it will not ever be over, and will continue to progress as brain health deteriorates, making even the simplest tasks unmanageable, frustrating, and ultimately too much to accomplish.

“When dementia is attacking the brain, people start to lose the ability to sequence those tasks,” said Hospice of the Valley dementia educator Helena Morgan. “They start to lose the ability to initiate the tasks, or follow through with a task in its entirety.”

People with dementia also become easily and often irrationally confused, frightened or angry, even physically aggressive in stressful situations.

All that is critically important for first responders to understand because they need to act differently in these types of situations.

“Short-term memory isn’t there, so people with dementia may forget you are standing behind them,” said Kobie Chapman, Morgan’s colleague and fellow dementia educator with Hospice of the Valley.

“If you startle them by approaching from behind, you could create an unsafe situation with someone who is already combative or agitated. You could get punched,” Chapman said.

For first responders walking into crisis situations where emotions are high, it is critical they recognize when someone has dementia and is acting or communicating differently.

This type of education has historically been lacking in most public safety agencies.

“Sometimes when you go on calls, it’s hard because we’re not understanding what’s going on with people who have dementia,” said Fire Engineer Katie Athey. “So, this helps us get a better understanding.”

“I definitely will relate to dementia patients better after being in their situation, in a sense,” Minder said.

Fellow firefighter Jason Pridie was not sure what to expect when he signed up for the training, but said it will make him more empathetic going forward.

“To have that little bit of understanding of what they might be feeling will help me take it slow, show a little more patience and approach things differently,” he said.

“Dementia is growing very rapidly,” Morgan said, adding Arizona has one of the highest growth rates of the disease in the country due to its large senior population.

“You are going to have an interaction with somebody that is living with dementia at some point in your life,” Morgan said. “Whether it is work related or family related.”

More than seven million people in the United States have some form of dementia. As Queen Creek grows, training like this will continue to be important as age related mental decline continues to emerge as a critical issue.

“With more multi-generational families moving into Queen Creek our firefighters are responding to more calls for help that involve those living with some type of dementia,” said Queen Creek Fire and Medical Department Chief Vance Gray.

“This training really allows them to understand the challenges the patient might be facing, and gives them a better understanding of how to help address some of those challenges so we can get them the best care possible.”