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ORANGE : Call 911 and Then Grab a Teddy Bear

Among the stretchers, bandages and other equipment carried on the city’s fire trucks is a supply of emergency items that firefighters won’t travel without: teddy bears.

Two or three of the cuddly critters ride in each of the Fire Department’s 11 trucks as part of Operation Hug, a program sponsored by the Justina Lowry Professional Auxiliary of the Assistance League of Orange.

The fuzzy, 8-inch bears can calm traumatized children at fire and accident scenes, Fire Department officials say, allowing emergency workers to evaluate injuries and then treat the children and their parents.

The department has distributed from 250 to 300 bears since the program began in 1988, according to fire investigator Richard Alarcon, who coordinates Operation Hug.

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“Just the sight of the bear makes them calm down,” Alarcon said. “Also, a lot of times kids are afraid of a Fire Department official, so this really breaks the ice.”

The members of Engine Company No. 1, a medical unit that reports to more accident scenes than any other in Orange, have had plenty of opportunities to see the bears in action.

“The children don’t need to be hurt themselves,” for the bears to do the trick, Capt. Mark Bingham said. “Sometimes, it may be their mom that you’re trying to take away to treat. . . . The bear helps distract (the children). I can’t think of anyone who’s refused them.”

About a year ago, firefighter Carl Collins responded to an emergency call for a 5-year-old boy who had suffered head injuries after falling from a tree. The boy’s 2-year-old sister panicked and began screaming. It seemed that nothing could make her stop.

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“I ran out to the truck, got her a little bear and she took it, got quiet, turned into the couch and started talking to the bear like that was her little baby,” Collins recalled.

Sometimes a bear can set an example for a young accident victim, firefighter Dale Eggleston said.

“Once we had a kid strapped into a backboard (stretcher) and we strapped the bear in next to him so he had a friend,” Eggleston said. “We told him, ‘See, the bear’s lying down, he’s being still.’ ”

Carrie Haan, chairwoman of Operation Hug for the Assistance League, said the program had its origins in a Christmastime automobile accident.

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The driver was unconscious and the passenger, a child, was too frightened to unlock the door for the emergency crew. A police officer grabbed a teddy bear from his patrol car that he had bought as a gift for his own child and, with a little help from the teddy, persuaded the young passenger to roll down the window.

The program then started up in the Orange Police Department and quickly spread to even wider use in the city Fire Department. The Assistance League now distributes bears to Orangewood Children’s Home, the Orange Park Convalescent Hospital and the neonatal unit at UCI Medical Center, Haan said.

While the firefighters now endorse the program, they admit that not everyone was enthusiastic when Operation Hug started.

“First, we thought, ‘Where are we gonna stuff these bears’ ” on the firetruck, Eggleston said. But the bears soon proved their effectiveness.

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“Sometimes, you try to do it with a 15-year-old--it doesn’t quite go over,” Alarcon said. “But depending on the circumstances, sometimes even a 15-year-old could use it.”


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