There is an epidemic going on right now that has been festering in various forms, for decades. Its symptoms include a lack of accountability, indecision, apathy, failure to honor who we really are, playing the victim, and perhaps worst of all, sitting quiet and idle when the world needs us to stand up and contribute to a greater good. This epidemic is due to a deficiency of courage.
Courage is a mindset. It is not an inherited super-power nor an exclusive gift of a few heroes among us. Courage is a chosen behavior. It is the conversion point between our deepest beliefs and our actions. It is what makes some people step forward and change the world around them for the better; when sitting passively safe, uncriticized and comfortable was also an option.
Courage is often mistaken as the absence of fear, when in fact, the opposite is true. Fear is prerequisite to courage. It is because we fear life’s challenges and that we have our own internal doubts that we can bring forth a courageous state of mind.
“Fear is a reaction. Courage is a decision.”
Fair warning - this might sting a little. First, here is a short summary.
Say the words complacency in EMS, and most of us will nod in unison and conjure images of the “corner cutters” that work in the profession. These are the providers that know the policies and they know the protocols, but when in action, they deviate from the expected - pretty regularly. Their practice gets sloppy and their patient care delivery becomes a liability. Their attention to crew safety parameters gets lowered, situational awareness becomes hazed with distractions. When they cut enough corners, when they continuously drift from the established protocols and consistently deviate from safety practices someone eventually is going to be hurt or worse. In the end, overtly complacent providers in a profession as complex as first response are dangerous. It is worth repeating here and posting on the walls at our stations - complacency kills.
All of this is pretty well understood and agreed upon. At some point we, the ‘rule followers,’ feel pretty good about ourselves after we have the conversation on complacency. We fist bump and say things like “yeah, I know providers like that,” or “we should weed them out,” or “if they’re not here for the right reason, there’s the door, man.” More fist bumps ensue.
But, what if after all the lectures at the conferences and all the safety notices at the work meetings, and after all the corner-cutting hazards have been discharged from the profession - there is still another level of complacent providers left?
Wait for it - I am talking about us, the rule followers.
What they are, what they are not, and where we need to go.
The patch represents competence, not excellence.
Line up a dozen first responders with the same patch on their shoulders and we can declare all of them competent. They passed the course and then the tests and then they were awarded the patch. Competence, check mark.
Excellence is another level.
Excellence is the compound made of refined practices and effective human principles.
It is knowing both how to do things right and when to do the right thing. It begins inside of us, in our values and it takes form in the world, through our actions.
Excellence is the step by step realization of our own potential as both responders and useful humans in a community. Excellence is the property outside of our comfort zones.
Never stop improving. Never stop learning. Never stop reaching.
The badge doesn’t speak for us, our actions do.
Patches and badges do not embody courage or integrity- our decisions and our actions do. Everyday, every call, every moment in front of another person is that very unique opportunity that this profession affords us - the chance to leave things better than we found them. The chance to make a positive impact on another’s life. Regardless of the uniform or the vehicle we arrive, it is our deeds that will make the difference.
Commit to never missing that chance.
The badge is bestowed authority, not leadership.
Quite honestly, a given rank does not equate to the ability to lead. True leadership is not a position that is attained, rather, it is a service that is given.
Leaders inspire and elevate others, they highlight the cause and they take down barriers to allow others to improve themselves. Leadership is not permission to do less, it is a heavy responsibility to do more.
Having trouble finding leaders around you? Step up, set examples in your work, challenge yourself and your fellow responders. Teach with full respect, listen with deep intent and humbly lead from the middle.
The job marks out the tasks, not the mission.
The mission is to bring the best of humanity to the worst of conditions. This is not easy on any given day. That is why first response is a calling, not a career. This work requires accountability to our neighbors and a commitment to prepare, respond without bias and always be improving.
Fact - better people make better responders. We need to strive to be the responder we would want answering the call of our own family’s emergency.
The patch represents legacy, not completion.
Quite simply, we stand on the shoulders of giants. Those before us blazed trails, they discovered, they made a difference, they made mistakes, adapted and pushed forward. When we put on the patch, we are taking our place on this progress path. We now have a duty to move forward, over, around and right through the obstacles and the adversity.
To note, I was very careful to not use the word ‘tradition’ where I used the word legacy, as traditions are often just an excuse for reactions without thought.
Our profession, for sure, benefits from protocols and standardization. But, we must balance this with a strong situational awareness to the effectiveness of our practices. What is working and what is not? To move forward, we need to observe, assess and adapt. We need to listen to thought, debate with reason and make impactful decisions with all of the information.
What about our principles? To move forward we need to regularly take out our convictions, and vigorously shake them down to look for unhealthy biases, prejudices and assumptions. “The way we have always done things” doesn’t fly here, when lives are on the line and there is a better process awaiting discovery. There simply are no absolutes.
All of this leads to one patch, emblematic of a much larger group that faces challenges together, grows through just struggle and rallies to answer the call of those in need.
This patch does not assume leadership, but rather, inspires us to step forward.
This patch does not symbolize perfection or completion, but rather a state of constant evolution. This patch does not pretend to have a perfect legacy, but it does provide a powerful glimpse of what is possible.
This patch represents the encompassing first responder values of purpose, integrity and courage.
This patch represents service. This patch represents opportunity.
This patch, when it is all said and done, unites us as a profession and as the community we serve.
This patch was made possible by unmeasurable sacrifice.
We should work to earn this particular patch, in and out of uniform, everyday.
Stay safe everyone and do amazing things.
We are about to witness one of the most contested and complex ‘back to school’ seasons in modern times. All Summer, families across the nation have been struggling with the decision to either send their students back to brick and mortar schools or to keep their students at home and continue enrollment in the continuously developing forward learning programs.
Despite the benefits and deficits of each option, anxiety is palpable across the education landscape as students, teachers, administrators and families scramble this week to adjust to a ‘new normal.’ This year’s students are returning to mandatory masks, empty seats on school buses, hand sanitizing stations, no shared supplies, limited hands on labs and eating lunch at a classroom table, by themselves. There will be limited sports, music and arts. There will be no pep rally, no Homecoming, no school play and no school dances. Hallways will be traversed one grade level at a time, one way, single file, 6 feet apart. Many more students will experience the first day of school from the kitchen table, through the screen of a laptop.
It would not be too much of a stretch for one to say that the immediate future for this school year is unknown, the back to school plan is ever changing, the implementations will be at times, chaotic. The overall mood, could for sure, be described as dark.
“In a time of turbulence and change, it is more important than ever that knowledge is power.”
-John F. Kennedy
However, we can all say that we are sending our students back with confidence, because America’s teachers will be there with them. For generations, teachers have represented the demarcation between a disordered and unknown world and a life of confidence and potential. I feel it is time they get their own thin line.
This entire pandemic experience is going to make us better.
In the end, it will all come down to the decisions we make and the way we choose to move forward.
So here’s a story about my father, boats, and holding our course.
My dad served in the Navy when he was young and it was beyond obvious to anyone that ever met him, the impact that his sailing experiences had on him. The Navy had left him with a passion for the water.
From ocean faring on a massive battleship to fishing the local lakes where we grew up, to cruising the mighty and magnificent St. Lawrence River, when we had the time, the water was the place to be. We always had a family boat, from speedy family ski boats to the simplest aluminum fisher. Each boat was bought used, had older model motors and often times after market equipment, but to me, every one of our boats represented the perfect manifestation of proficiency and preparation.
My dad would equip, maintain and prepare a boat like nothing else. His decades old engines were tuned to perfection. The gas tank was rarely below full and the boat was always clean. Safety items were non-negotiable. There were the standard items like life jackets, ropes, lights and oars, but there was also always spare gas, a hand scribbled parts lists and the most reliable item of all - his tool box.
Yet, beyond the nautical gear, tools and gas, was the true mainsail of our boat life; my old man’s presence. The most valuable nautical asset ever in our family boat was the sum and substance of his experiences, interests and curiosities about the waterways. My dad was a student of the entire process. Maybe that’s why we also call a boat a craft.
Regardless of a pleasure cruise, a fishing trip or a simple ferrying of camp supplies, he would read the water and the skies continuously. He would study the depths and the shallows, call out the perpetual landmarks on shore and he always gave the known shoals plenty of berth. He knew when to be on the throttle and when to let her skim. In those rare events where nature defied prediction, I always admired the man’s ability to adjust to the storm and navigate on.
“A ship at harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are for.”
Something feels different.
What the hell is it? You tell me.
Fear? Anxiety? Uncertainty? Panic? Loneliness?
My neighborhood, your neighborhood; I’m sure they look very similar. Empty parks, empty streets, no kids at school bus stops, vacant campuses, restaurants and stores are all closed and even if we do get out of the house, we find people in masks passing each other, further apart than they ever used to.
It’s like we’ve all been placed into a national ‘time out.’
“Go stand in the corner by yourself. Think about your decisions. Think about what matters.”
Nothing like a global pandemic to serve as a great big, stinging slap in the face reminder - we do not control what happens. We only control our response.
So lets do this. Let’s take on the crisis, reframe things and tell ourselves what we’re really feeling.
You have a patch on your uniform, some alphabet soup after your name and certificates in your file. Every shift you roll to the scene in powerful machines that announce ‘help has arrived.’ You have all the acronyms and protocols rehearsed and memorized. On scene, you know how to put one objective in front of another; you can even adapt a little along the way. Maybe you have ‘seen a thing or two’ in the past few years, experience is really piling up. You know how to do the job, you know where to go and you know when to be there.
Your career feels like a full cup. Now what?
You didn’t come this far...
To wrap up our series on responder values, a short story:
A young couple decide to go for a walk along a quiet sandy beach, just before sunset. Hand in hand they stroll along the edge of the warm surf. The waves leave soft white lumps of foam before they recess back to the sea. Ahead of the couple on the beach, an old man is also walking. He is moving slowly, almost gingerly along the water’s edge. Every few steps, he stops, slowly bends over and picks something up, then walks into the surf about knee deep, places that something into the water and then goes back to his slow stroll along the beach.
He does this over and over. The young couple, curious, walk closer behind the old man to see what he is doing, so intently.
Grit. Four letters, a crisp and terse pronunciation, grit might be my favorite responder value to appraise. It can bring up a lot of imagery; sleeves rolled up, dirt on your hands, sweat on your face, fatigue in your eyes, a load on your shoulders. However, grit is not saved only for cowboys, wild land firefighters, oil platform workers or special operation teams. Grit, as a value, in its simplest form, is found where shit gets done. Teachers, delivery persons, volunteer project managers, hospital maintenance staff, stay at home parents, the crews on the trash trucks in our neighborhoods and yes, especially you, the first responders - can all be examples of grit.
There is a lot already happening on scene by the time we set down and step off of a medevac helicopter. All the major rescue services are already in place: police, fire rescue, EMS; all deep into their work. As a medical flight crew, we are often the last to arrive, as the call for the highest level of patient care available takes place after the seriousness of the scene has been determined.
Tonight, the seriousness was staggeringly obvious as soon as we walked up.
An SUV had struck a stopped tractor trailer from behind at a traffic light on a local highway. The SUV was halfway under the rear of the trailer, pinned in an almost unbelievable wedge of sheared metal and glass. The roof of the vehicle had already been removed, chains and stabilization braces in place. Emergency lights everywhere, strobing the entire scene in red and blue. A dozen responders were surrounding the SUV, working to free the still entrapped driver. Then I see the sheet draped stretcher, just to the right side of the vehicle.
This is already a fatal scene.