By Audrey Fraizer
The streets of Tofino were closed for a procession that would wind through the small town in British Columbia, Canada, and lead to a canopy at the elementary school large enough to accommodate 2,500 people.
Formal dress uniforms would be the order of the day, with paramedics, law enforcement officers, military personnel, and firefighters from across Canada and Washington state gathered to pay final respects to Jo-Ann Fuller, 59, and Ivan Polivka, 65. The two paramedics from the British Columbia Ambulance Service (BC Ambulance) died in the early morning hours of Oct. 19, 2010, after their ambulance plunged over a low concrete barrier off the Pacific Rim Highway and tumbled 33 meters (167 feet) into Kennedy Lake below.
Dispatchers would be there, too. Like the others in public service, they were devastated by what had happened.
“The EMDs were absolutely shattered,” said Mark King, who at the time was manager of a BC Ambulance communication center in Victoria on Vancouver Island. “The dispatcher who had been the last to talk to the paramedics believed it was his fault. Of course it wasn’t, but when something tragic like this happens, the survivors become the victims.”
To provide bereavement for the Tofino community, where Fuller and Polivka lived, and for the public service community as a whole, British Columbia ambulances were draped in black ribbons, and a BC Ambulance dispatcher gave the Last Call. Honor Guard, an outdoor memorial attended by more than the 2,500 people lining the streets of Tofino, was also held.
King, however, thought he could do more for his 911 staff. After all, as he said, the six people on duty when the news of the deaths came in did not have the opportunity to take a break; they could not leave their posts to decompress.
“We had to maintain operations that morning,” said King, who had been at the center fewer than four months at that time. “Dispatch was inundated with calls from people asking for more information. Paramedics from all over Victoria started coming in because they didn’t know where else to go.”
The tragedy also dredged up painful memories from past line of duty deaths (LODDs), intensifying the grief. Two of the EMDs working the day the paramedics died had also worked on the day an Air Evac jet went down in the early morning hours of Jan. 11, 1995, over the ocean near Masset, British Columbia. The flight team was en route to transport a pregnant woman to Prince Rupert. The accident killed two BC Ambulance paramedics, one doctor, and two pilots.
At the time, the Victoria dispatch office dispatched all the ambulances for the province.
“All these emotions came back,” King said. “BC Ambulance did very well at bringing closure (following the deaths of Fuller and Polivka), but the focus was mostly on the paramedics. How do we respect what the EMDs went through? I wanted to do something meaningful to them.”
The center retired the call sign 136 KILO and took part in BC Ambulance trauma counseling. King recognized the significance of the memorial wall, but it was more than counseling and photos on the wall that King thought would help lift the spirits of his staff.
Something bigger came to mind.
King knew about the print that artist Roy Henry Vickers had dedicated in honor of the two paramedics. Vickers, a renowned British Columbia artist, had once worked on an ambulance in Saanich, British Columbia.
According to a news article announcing the event held about one year after the tragic accident, Vickers said the print of an autumn sunset over Frank Island with the geese flying south “heralds a change of seasons, not only for the environment but also in the lives of people. The faces of male and female represent two loved ones who left this world.”1
King said the sentiment is indicative of the area and its culture.
“[The two paramedics] were very much part of the community, and the community takes great care of their people,” he said. “The print of Frank Island is beautiful. It’s a natural fit and provides a different way of closure.” =
1.Drews K. “New work by artist Roy Henry Vickers tribute to B.C. paramedics killed in crash.” The Globe and Mail. 2011; Jan. 14. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/british-columbia/new-work-by-artist-… (accessed Nov. 10, 2015).