Mundelein firefighters receive autism training
Lt. Brandton Romberger leads his crew of firefighters into a drill using dry ice to recreate a smokfilled room.| Michelle LaVigne ~ Sun-Times Media
Updated: November 23, 2012 3:26PM
MUNDELEIN — The Mundelein Fire Department is among the first in the state to achieve staff-wide certification in new autism awareness programs.
“Properly assessing the behaviors and injuries of a victim are crucial to keeping both them and the responder safe during a dangerous situation,” Deputy Fire Chief Tim Leidig said. “Government statistics now say one in 88 males will be somewhere on the autism scale. That’s a significant population that deserves our best efforts.”
Leidig is considered the department’s expert because he has a young son who is autistic.
In April, Leidig learned of the Illinois Fire Service Institute’s new programs for identifying, communicating with and predicting behaviors of autistic victims. The Fire Service Institute is the state’s fire academy, and it created the free autism awareness online classes by consulting with experts nationwide.
The first program is an introductory, four-hour online class that highlights terms, explains basic behaviors. The second is a more intense, eight-hour program. A number of scenarios are discussed, including where an autistic child might hide to escape fire alarm sounds.
All of Mundelein’s 44 firefighters passed both classes.
“We understand that 12- to 16-hours of online training does not make us experts,” Leidig said. “Awareness has to start somewhere and I predict more training will be developed soon.”
Northwestern’s Lake Forest Hospital gave the Mundelein Fire Department a Cut Above Award in August, acknowledging firefighters’ efforts during a car crash in May.
The female driver was injured and taken to the hospital while her 12-year-old autistic son remained at the scene because his father was on the way.
Firefighters had a tough time calming the boy, who endured severe anxiety from being alone in a new environment.
Not all the firefighters completed the program at the time, but as a team they found a way to ease the boy’s fears.
By the time his father arrived, the boy was mad he had to leave the fire truck, Leidig said.
Dr. Charu Nagar is a neurologist at Lake Forest Hospital who treats patients with autism.
Nagar believes the new autism awareness training for first responders is a great step toward overall public awareness and acceptance of people with disabilities.
“Aggression, anxiety, impulsive behavior and anger can be exhibited at any point if an autistic individual becomes frustrated,” Nagar said. “Since communication and social skills are not as developed as a normal person, it’s even more important for a first responder to know how those potential victims might react.”