John Petropoulos Memorial Fund strives to increase safety for emergency service workers in the workplace

On Oct. 17, Calgarians gathered in Denny’s at Deerfoot Meadows to enjoy freshly brewed coffee and 99-cent grand slam breakfasts to support Celebrity Benefit Day.

All proceeds from the breakfast were going towards the John Petropoulos Memorial Fund (JPMF), which is dedicated to reducing and eliminating workplace injuries and fatalities to emergency services personnel.

Various Calgary emergency responders and volunteers showed up to the event to accompany members of the community in remembering Petropoulos.

At around 5 a.m. on Sept. 29, 2000, Calgary police officer John Petropoulos fell through a false ceiling of a warehouse while investigating a break-and-enter. Petropoulos died that day at the age of 32.

Friends and family say that if proper safety regulations had been followed in the workplace, his death could have been easily prevented.

Creating positivity from tragedy

Petropoulos’ death left all those who knew him devastated. However, out of that grief the JPMF was created by three of Petropoulos’s recruit classmates, Cliff O’Brien, Joe Matthews and Glen Laird.

John Petropoulos in his Calgary Police Service Uniform. “John was very devoted to making Calgary a safer city,” said Cliff O’Brien, co-founder and vice-chair of the John Petropoulos Memorial Fund.

Photo courtesy of JPMFThe initiative was kickstarted through the sale of pins featuring Petropoulos’ regimental number, 3125, which raised $12,000 within a week of his death.

“We needed to focus our energy onto something positive,” said O’Brien, now vice chair of the JPMF. “And although we weren’t 100 per cent sure what the outcome was going to be, we wanted to do something.”

It was thanks to the generosity of police officers and other emergency workers both in Calgary and across Canada that this initiative was so successful.

Later, after some collaboration with Petropoulos’ wife, Maryanne Pope, the JPMF took life and has grown ever since, maintaining the goal to keep emergency service workers safe in their jobs.

“Workplace safety fatalities should be zero,” said Pope, who is also chair of the JPMF. “There’s nothing crazy about striving for that, because these are not like meteors falling from the sky — these are cause and effect incidents, and education and being proactive is totally the answer.”

JPMF takes these words to heart as they hope to create change by educating people about the importance of workplace safety for emergency responders, as well as providing the public with tools to make these changes in their own lives, workplaces, homes and on the roads.

From public service announcements on TV and radio, to safety videos and presentations, they hope to direct public attention to the issue, while always keeping one clear goal in mind: to create a society where people can go to work and come home again safely all the time, said Pope.

“We know that one death is one too many,” Pope added.

A need for prevention

Top tips on how to make your workplace safer:

  • Consult with workers about workplace safety: no one knows your workplace better than those who work in it
  • Conduct a hazard assessment: perform physical inspections using a checklist
  • After you’ve identified hazards, make the necessary changes
  • Install safety railings, proper signage and sensor/motion lighting
  • Emergency exits should be easy to locate and accessible
  • Clear away any clutter, debris and unsafe stacks
  • Properly store hazardous waste and toxic chemicals
  • Get a building permit for renovations
  • Ensure security alarm systems and carbon monoxide detectors are functioning properly
  • Be aware of weather-related hazards
  • Make workplace safety a priority

Tips courtesy of the John Petropoulos Memorial Fund

O’Brien, who is also an inspector with the Calgary Police Service, said, “Emergency responders don’t dictate where our workplace is; it could be in your home, in a business or on the side of the road.”

This unpredictability means that emergency workers cannot take the same precautions that others do within their workplaces, because they never know where they will be from one day to the next and rarely end up in the same place twice.

Ian Wilson, managing director of the JPMF, explained that dangerous environments often occur because people don’t think of those who may need to enter their property should an emergency arise.

“People don’t consider there’s going to be a break-and-enter here tonight, or a fire, or a medical emergency, because frankly those things aren’t the norm,” explained Wilson. “So it’s somewhat understandable that people wouldn’t consider emergency workers when they’re drawing up their safety plans.”

The JPMF has found that events are a key form of education for the general public. Each year the organization holds several events, ranging from charity golf tournaments, to BBQs and community booths at some of Calgary’s biggest festivals.

Some events are more message-driven and safety-related, while others are purely set up to allow the JPMF to connect with the community.

An opportunity for education

Monday’s breakfast, which ran from 7 a.m. until 2 p.m., provided people with the chance to meet some of Calgary’s emergency responders as they frequented the tables to serve people with a fresh, hot cup of coffee and have a chat.

Calgary EMT Lindsey Jepson greets some community members with a fresh cup of coffee as they enjoyed a 99-cent Denny’s grand slam at Celebrity Benefit Day on Oct. 17.

Photo by: Rachel KaneCalgary Metro emergency medical technician Lindsey Jepson was one of the emergency responders who helped out at the event. She believes events like this are a great opportunity for the community and emergency responders to get together and support a good cause.

Supporting the JPMF is very important to Jepson, who comes from a long line of Calgary Police Service members.

The day Petropoulos died still resonates vividly in Jepson’s memory, as she recalled the feeling of waiting to find out if he would be okay after hearing about the accident from members of her family who knew Petropoulos well.

“It was like waiting to find out if it’s your brother, or your sister, or your best friend,” Jepson said. “The services of police, EMS and fire are a family, a brotherhood and a community.”

Petropoulos’ death has drawn attention to the dangers associated with the job, yet workers are seldom deterred from their duty.

“While there are risks and you’re nervous and afraid going into a call or starting a shift on a cold winter night that’s dark and icy and you don’t know what you’re walking into, every single call is worth it, to make a difference in somebody’s life,” Jepson said.

According to family and friends, Petropoulos shared this same enthusiasm and dedication that Jepson talks about.

From heartbreak to hope

Looking back, Pope explained that it has been an amazing journey, despite the tragic start.

“In the early stages it was hard not to be angry and think, ‘that’s not fair.’ I wanted my husband; I didn’t want to become a workplace safety advocate. That’s not what I signed up for.

“But in time, the anger fades and you realize, okay, well you can’t have your loved one back, but you can help make it safer to make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone else.”

Pope feels that her husband’s death wasn’t in vain, and explained that the JPMF will continue to strive for increased workplace safety for emergency workers.

“At the end of the day our message is, if you take the time to make your workplace safer for a police officer, firefighter, or paramedic who may have to go in during an emergency, you’re going to make it safer for everyone.”

rkane@cjournal.ca