Colorado Street Medics don't diagnose, but they do fall under Good Samaritan laws
Colorado Street Medics, subject of this week's feature, "Medic!," are protected by Good Samaritan laws, but their practice only goes so far: They will rinse out your eyes post-pepper spray, bandage your cuts, offer you sun-screen, keep you awake for your concussion and splint your limbs, but they will not be your doctor. Street medics do not prescribe, dispense, diagnose or carry weapons, but they do give out advice. And in most of the moments they facilitate, the difference doesn't matter.
But what are those laws? According to state statute, "Any person...who in good faith renders emergency care or emergency assistance to a person not presently his patient without compensation at the place of an emergency or accident...shall not be liable for any civil damages for acts or omissions made in good faith as a result."
In case its repetition wasn't sign enough, "emergency" is the key word here. The only way to be 100 percent certain if a bone is broken is with an X-ray machine, and that doesn't fit in a fanny pack. For example, if you are walking down the street and a car crashes in front of you, that's an emergency. You did not schedule an appointment to meet with the driver of that car, and they're unconscious, not paying you. So if you crack a rib during CPR to save the driver's life, he or she cannot successfully sue you over that rib.
Basically, medics' good intentions and the novelty of an emergency keeps them away from trouble. Laws vary across state lines, but Colorado's provide heavy shelter from fallout. But it should be noted that most medics are not licensed doctors: With a board-issued license come guarantees against felony conviction and fraud and the rest of a long line of lists strictly banned for professionals. With a state-certified physician, for example, patients can search online for the entirety of that doctor's medical history -- including malpractice evidence.
Kelsey Whipple Zoe Williams (center) runs as a medic at an Occupy Denver march against police brutality.
"To take an example from the Old West where they had snake oil salesmen, if you select this care without a license and there's a bad outcome, it's all on you," says Marschall Smith, medical board program director at the Department of Regulatory Agencies. His line of work monitors state-certified physicians, who must re-apply for approval every two years. "The most important thing is to look at the service you're getting, know who they are and look at their credentials. Licenses provide protection to the public, and you have to be a good consumer."
At the professional level, the Colorado Street Medics maintain a neutral relationship with city police and a positive one with city paramedics, street medic Zoe Williams says.
"We know who they are and that they're there, but we really don't have any interaction with them," says Sonny Jackson, public information officer for the Denver Police Department. And Colorado Street Medics would prefer to keep things that way.
At large mass events, the Colorado Street Medics have collaborated with the Denver Health paramedic team on organization and other medical strategies.
"Denver Health has a basic familiarity with the Colorado Street Medics through our brief interaction with the organization during the planning stages of the Democratic National Convention," Scott Bookman, chief paramedic with Denver Health, notes in an e-mail. "Denver Health hasn't worked with the street medic organization in an official or unofficial capacity since then."
The street medics themselves refute this last part -- they've stayed in touch since -- but they prize the relationship. In other cities, collectives and professionals have been known to develop adversarial relationships.
"For us, it's important to gain consent and to make sure that anyone we work with gives us permission to help before we do anything," street medic Connor McFarland says. "We worry about the police and the EMS way after that."
More from our Follow That Story archive: "Colorado Street Medics: Meet Ann Hirschman, one of the earliest teachers of street skills."