A million high school football players will likely watch the Super Bowl this weekend. Many of their parents assume their games are staffed with medical professionals, just like in the pros. But that's not the case.
During this season's North Coast Division 5 championship in Martinez, a St. Patrick-St. Vincent defensive player dove for Fort Bragg's quarterback, but missed. Instead, he collided with the left leg of one of Fort Bragg's linemen.
"His foot was kind of pointing in one direction and his ankle was slid over to the other direction," describes Bruce Triplett, Fort Bragg's principal.
His leg was broken, his ankle was dislocated. The crowd looked around the stadium for an ambulance, but there wasn't one.
Several people called 911.
"Then we just sat there and waited for an ambulance to show up," says Triplett.
According to the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District, it took about 11 minutes for an ambulance to arrive on the field and another four to load the player.
"It was frustrating when the ambulance did show up, they weren't code three, they didn't have lights going," says Triplett. "They stopped at stop signs and turned on their blinkers."
Triplett says Fort Bragg parents are used to having an ambulance or fire truck at their home games.
But it's not a statewide requirement. Each California Interscholastic Federation section has its own rules. Some require schools to have medical staff at games. Some do not.
"We require that a physician, an ambulance, an EMT, a paramedic or a certified athletic trainer be present at all of our football games," says Gil Lemmon, commissioner of the North Coast Section.
Lemmon says an athletic trainer was on site and put the leg in an air cast.
But there's no guarantee that a California school's "athletic trainer" is qualified to provide medical care because the state does not require them to be licensed.
"We know of shipping and receiving clerks and personal trainers and all sorts of people who may have nothing more than CPR and may not even have that," says Mike Chisar, who is with the California Athletic Trainers Association.
Chisar estimates that only a third of California schools have a trainer with the education and experience required in other states.
The North Coast Section's Gil Lemmon says schools should pay to hire licensed trainers, but also says ambulances are too costly and mostly unneeded, except in extreme cases.
"Unless there's attention within, say, three minutes, they actually could expire, lose their life," says Lemmon. "And those kinds of things you're not going to be able to do anything about. You offer the best care that you can and we had absolutely great care available at the venue."
Alex Robertson is an EMT and says Fort Bragg was fortunate to have an assistant coach, who is also an EMT, at the game to tend to the fallen player.
Robertson was in Ventura near the end of the season for a CIF Southern Section game when two players crashed into a 66-year-old official.
"Knocked him about ten feet back," says Robertson. "By the time he hit the ground, he was unconscious. He had snoring respirations, which means his airway was blocked and so he needed immediate interventions."
Robertson used a tool called an airway adjunct to help the man start breathing. He says even a licensed trainer would not have had an EMT’s tools or advanced skills required to save the man’s life.
"Minutes count and depending on the response time of the municipality that you're in, anywhere from seven to 11 minutes, that's critical and that can determine literally not only the quality of life afterwards, but sometimes life and death," says Robertson.
He says the CIF fails to recognize that emergency staff on the sidelines can save lives. He also says Southern Section schools had no medical staff at his sons' games, which is why he started a business to staff games with EMTs.
According to research by the Colorado School for Public Health, there are about 39,900 football injuries nationwide that require surgery.
The CIF, though, says it cannot force schools that host regular-season games to provide advanced medical care and the CIF will not require the sections that host playoff games to provide it either.
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