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Ariz. medic’s invention can save backs

The firefighter paramedic has developed a belt that will help first responders while lifting heavy patients

By Regina Ford
Green Valley News & Sun

GREEN VALLEY, Ariz. — Green Valley firefighter Diane Vetter has been on hundreds of medical calls but one she took several years ago has led to an invention that could make life easier for first-responders all over the country.

“We encountered a 600-pound man who was sitting on his bedroom floor,” Vetter recalled. “The man said he was uninjured and he just needed help getting back on his feet.”

Vetter, a 17-year firefighter and paramedic with of the Green Valley Fire District, said she and three other firefighters tried to lift the man up by his arms, but with no luck.

“We wrapped a bed sheet around him to see if that would work,” she said. “The sheet wasn’t large enough and it was really difficult to hold on to, but after about 30 minutes of struggling, we managed to get the man to a standing position.”

It was that and an increase in similar incidents that prompted Vetter to investigate a safer method for lifting patients and also keeping the rescue personnel injury-free.

“I thought to myself, there must be an easier way to help large people get back on their feet without injuring my crew,” she said. “That ignited a spark of an idea.”

Turning to research

Vetter began to research bariatric lifting belts to see what was out there and to see what other fire departments or ambulance services were using.

According to her research, “one single back injury can cost between $5,000 and $100,000, and that doesn’t reflect indirect costs including lost work days and back-filling a worker’s shift.”

According to the 2010 National Fire Protection Agency’s U.S. fire experience survey, there was an estimated 8,650 non-fire emergency injuries reported involving strain, sprang and muscle pain that year.

“The role of the fire service has changed over the past few decades,” Vetter said. “No longer are fire departments dealing only with fighting fires. For the average fire department today, 70 percent to 80 percent of all calls are related to medical emergencies. Firefighters now are being trained as emergency medical technicians and paramedics. Fire departments must deal with the injured, sick and dying.”

Vetter also learned that fire departments were facing the same dilemma with heavier people.

“I couldn’t really find anything out there that came close to what I had in mind,” she said. “So I went to work designing and testing my own belt to assist people getting back on their feet while reducing the number of back injuries to firefighters, emergency services personnel and other health-care workers.”

Her own design

What she eventually came up with was what she calls the Vetter Belt, her own design with a patent pending.

She said she sought out the strongest and most durable materials to design her lifting belt and discovered that rock climbing apparatus were made of materials that she could incorporate into her own belt.

The Vetter Belt features a band of 14 double thick and triple-stitched daisy chain loops on the leg straps that are easy to place on the person and simple to adjust.

“They are just as easy to disconnect even under tension or under any lighting condition and even while wearing latex gloves,” she said.

The leg straps are red and blue to avoid confusion.

“‘Tighten the red leg strap’ is easier to understand than ‘tighten the left leg strap,’” she said. “Your left or my left?”

The Vetter Belt also features carabiners similar to those used by climbers, providing quick connecting and disconnecting.

“It is simple to place the Vetter Belt around a patient’s waist,” Vetter said. ”The handles on the waist belt are easy to grab, allowing lifters the best possible position to mitigate injury to themselves and the person being lifted.”

Vetter said her invention can be used to lift a non-injured person from a seated position to a standing position; assist with walking a non-steady person on flat or uneven surfaces, wet surfaces or on stairs; as a gait belt or a transfer belt from a gurney or wheelchair to a seated position on a hospital bed. The 3-inch belt is rated at 8,000 pounds; the 2-inch belt is rated at 6,000 pounds breaking capacity, she added.

Local use

GVFD carries a Vetter Belt on each of its engines, Capt. Tom Louis said, and all were donated by Vetter.

“The trend in the United States is leaning toward larger people and as health care providers and EMS are lifting these people, we are seeing increasing numbers of emergency medical personnel sustaining back injuries,” Louis said. “The Vetter Belt has made such a difference and we endorse it. When we’ve used it, it feels like the lift was that much easier. We are also proud that it has been invented by one of our own.”

Southwest Ambulance paramedic Maggie Flores has used the Vetter Belt when the ambulance has accompanied GVFD on a call.

“It’s wonderful and I’m not big but I can lift someone much bigger than me with the help of this belt,” Flores said.

Southwest Ambulance EMT Gina Mejia used the Vetter Belt for the first time recently during a demonstration session, first lifting a 190-pound man the old way using his arms followed by using the Vetter Belt.

“It’s so much easier with the belt,” she said.

Green Valley firefighters Austin Franklin and Sean Rickard have also used the Vetter Belt.

Franklin said that after nearly 20 years as a firefighter, he “feels the strain” in his back.

“It’s just made lifting so much easier,” Franklin said. “I’m feeling it from over the years, no doubt about it.”

Rickard, 24, said he “hasn’t felt back pain yet,” but said he trusts the opinion of the more seasoned firefighters.

“We don’t really think about it anymore when we are lifting someone,” Louis said. “It’s a given. We just use the Vetter Belt.”

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