The Occoquan-Woodbridge-Lorton Volunteer Fire Department (OWL VFD) has become the first fire department that also provides emergency medical services (EMS) on the east coast, and in the state of Virginia, to carry Ben’s Blue Bags. The bags are kits with assorted sensory items that can be used while treating patients with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or family members of people with autism.
The idea to begin carrying these unique resources has been discussed by members in the past few years. Recently, OWL VFD EMT Brooke Smith and Prince William County Department Fire and Rescue System (PWC FRS) Firefighter/EMT, Anthony Saville, who is assigned to station 2, mentioned the idea to OWL VFD’s leadership. After hearing the presentation, OWL VFD Life Member and former Rescue Chief, Ed Craig shared information about Ben’s Blue Bags, a nonprofit organization based in Indiana. Craig had seen the product a few years ago in a Facebook post.
Ben’s Blue Bags was created by Firefighter/Paramedic Lt. Matt Kodicek from the City of Crown Point Fire Rescue in Crown Point, IN. He was inspired to start the nonprofit in honor of his son, Ben, who is autistic.
Kodicek shared, “According to a 2018 CDC study, approximately one in 59 children are diagnosed with ASD. A common factor that was found is they have some type of sensory process disorder. Many first responders carry Items like stickers and stuffed animals in their vehicles. While these items might have been appropriate years ago, today’s times call for different measures.”
Smith and Saville know people with special needs. This inspired them to suggest acquiring the kits for OWL VFD’s apparatus. “We wanted to put something into play (the kits) to give them something as a distraction. We can also use the items with a child in situations where we need to treat a parent or relative. The items can be used as sort of a “peace” offering to show that we’re friendly and we’re here to help,” Smith shared.
OWL VFD Chief Wayne Haight was in full support of the idea. “OWL VFD has a long-standing tradition of “thinking outside of the box” to meet the needs of our community. Our members are great at seeing needs, doing research, and presenting innovative ideas. We do this when designing our apparatus, and now these autism kits are another example. It was great to also have a PWC FRS member involved in this too. This was the result of Smith and Saville discussing the idea while staffing together at station 2,” Haight shared.
Kodicek presented two training sessions, open to both OWL VFD members and PWC FRS personnel who staff OWL VFD units. During the classes, he explained that having a son with autism made him recognize the need to not only spread awareness about ASD but also provide first responders with resources to use while treating patients with autism.
During the training, Kodicek shared important information that is common among people with ASD, such as why they are attracted to water, why they don’t recognize dangerous situations such as traffic or fire emergencies, and how to calm situations down by using sensory stimulations items.
The sensory bags contain an array of different items to use when patients are having a stressful sensory issue. Marbles in mesh, squeeze balls, a flipper chain, and a Rubik’s Cube is among the sensory tools in the kits.
The items take into consideration the various forms of ASD; nonverbal, hyposensitivity, and hypersensitivity. The noise reduction earmuffs in the kits can be used for autistic people who are sensitive to sound, while the dry erase markers and a whiteboard with pictures can be used to help first responders communicate with non-verbal individuals. The bags are not just for children, they also can help adults going through a stressful event.
For more information about Ben’s Blue Bags visit their Facebook page, www.facebook.com/bensbluebags