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Firefighters suspended for saving a child’s life

Two firefighters have been suspended from a Virginia fire department for a surprising reason: They saved a little girl’s life.

Volunteer firefighters Captain James Kelley and Sgt. Virgil Bloom were the first responders after a little girl suffered what appeared to be a seizure. They put the little girl on oxygen at the scene and decided she needed to be transported to the hospital.

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That’s where problems arose. Kelley said he was afraid it might be at least 10 minutes before an ambulance arrived, so he decided to take the little girl to the hospital himself. En route, the firefighters radioed to ask for the location of the nearest ambulance twice but never received a response. They arrived at the hospital 13 minutes after the 911 call came in.

Stafford County Fire & Rescue suspended the two volunteer firefighters, citing licensing laws that prohibit the fire engine from being turned into a transport vehicle. Due in part to the firefighters’ assistance, the little girl is going to be fine. The girl’s parents “feel terrible” about the firefighters’ suspensions, according to a statement issued by the family.

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Neither firefighter has been formally charged with any wrongdoing, and for now their positions with the fire department are in limbo. Their fire chief is as confused as they are by the county’s decision. His outrage is understandable.

When firefighters make mistakes, they can risk the lives of the people they are sent out to help, and those mistakes open up their departments to legal liability. In this case, the two firefighters did the exact opposite: Their quick thinking and willingness to bend the rules ensured that a little girl received the medical care she needed in a timely fashion. Instead of contributing to a tragedy, they prevented it.

Sending a message to employees — even volunteer — that rules are more important than human lives could have disastrous consequences down the line. No one wants a firefighter to hesitate to save their child’s life because there might be a rule against it. Being a hero requires taking risks, and these two men shouldn’t be penalized for having the courage to do what was right.

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Another problem with the fire department’s decision was the lack of communication to its volunteers. The firefighters say they haven’t received any information on how long their suspensions will last or what they can do to return to work. When employees make mistakes, they need guidance from their supervisors about how they can resolve the issue. Radio silence isn’t an effective teaching tool, and it likely contributed to the employees’ decision to involve the media.

In our highly litigious society, employers are put in a difficult position. It’s not surprising that they want their employees to follow the rules. However, employers also need to recognize the importance of rewarding employees (and volunteers!) for making decisions under pressure. When not breaking a minor rule could have devastating consequences, the best employers reward their employees for doing the right thing and not abiding by the letter of the law.

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