The Blue Campaign: Combating Human Trafficking in Our Own Communities

(This article first appeared in the March 15, 2012, On Scene as the issue's EMS column. Curtailing human trafficking remains an international priority and a growing area in which the fire and emergency service can play a key role.)

In EMS, we get to see people at their best and worst. It’s rewarding to deliver a healthy baby, resolve a patient’s crisis or have an accident victim walk into your station and thank you for saving them.

However, we also have to deal with the drug or alcohol overdoses, homicides and suicides, child abuse and domestic violence. If we can have a positive effect on these patients, then that’s certainly a plus, but more often than not, the end result is less than desirable.

We see so many different things, and while we are not law enforcement, we do have a duty to report certain cases that may be criminal in nature, such as child or elderly abuse, potential terrorist activity or domestic violence. One such area that we might not think about, though, is human trafficking.

The Department of Homeland Security created the Blue Campaign to help combat human trafficking, which is defined by DHS as, “the use of force, fraud or coercion to exploit someone for labor or commercial sex,” and it certainly includes minors.

This is not just an overseas or Third World problem. It’s a problem that exists here in the United States today.

Denver, January 2012: 14 people were indicted on 70 counts of operating and patronizing a human trafficking ring that involved children being used for prostitution. This was occurring all over the state, ranging from Denver to the western slope of Colorado.

Utilizing the global Blue Heart and Blue Blindfold programs as a basis, the Blue Campaign has three specific areas: prevention, protection and prosecution. DHS has created a fourth P: Partnerships.

The agency has begun reaching out to fire and EMS organizations to help improve awareness about human trafficking and this campaign. Since we’re on the front lines, we may be seeing, but not recognizing, patients who are the victims of human trafficking.

These victims can present as everyday patients. Some signs and symptoms include the following:

  • Bruises, open wounds and scars in various stages of healing
  • Infections due to a lack of medical attention
  • Sexual organ trauma from working in the sex trade
  • Chronic musculoskeletal issues from forced manual labor
  • Cardiac or respiratory issues from forced manual labor
  • Malnourishment
  • Phobias, panic attacks or mental issues as a result of mental abuse or torture

Other indicators are considered by these questions:

  • Is the patient with another person who seems to be in control of the patient by speaking for him or her, physically or mentally restraining him or her, etc.?
  • Is the patient submissive in the presence of this other person?
  • Is there a language or cultural barrier that inhibits effective communication?
  • Does someone else have or possess their driver’s license, ID or passport? Does the patient have identification?
  • Are they appropriately dressed? Is personal hygiene an issue?
  • What are the living and working environments like?

These patients need our help, and we may be the only ones who can recognize the signs and symptoms to intervene on their behalf. Sure, there’s always the risk that we may be wrong, but this risk isn’t any different from when we deal with suspected child or elderly abuse.

We do this job to help our fellow human beings, and with that does come an element of risk. But if not us, then who? Law enforcement isn’t always notified and they don’t always respond to every EMS call, but we do.

So, take the time to learn a little more about this campaign. Pass on the information to the rest of your members to improve their awareness on this subject. A runaway teenager and an observant school-resource officer brought down the Denver ring. You or one of your people may be the next ones to help stop this in your community. The question is, are you willing to intervene?

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