When asked why they want to join the fire service, many applicants will say they want to help others and make a difference.
There are many variations of this answer, but all boil down to the simple fact that those entering the business believe that it is noble to help their fellow man. Obviously, when someone’s house or business is on fire, they are having a bad day. If their life or someone they love is endangered, it is much worse.
In today’s fire service world, firefighters will have many more chances to truly help someone when they have a medical emergency. If the answer to the job interview question was truly sincere, the firefighter should embrace opportunities to help citizens who have called for their assistance. Yet, too often, we hear firefighters lament the emergency medical services (EMS) aspect of the job and long for the day when they no longer must ride the “wagon.”
I will admit there are many extenuating circumstances that contribute to this attitude—for example, too many calls (above what is considered a reasonable number during a day or shift) and abuses of the system where callers who really don’t need EMS elect that option out of convenience. There are also “routine” calls that add to the monotony and frustration. It is hard to dispute some of these claims in some organizations. But, in many ways, this is what firefighters signed up for when they took the oath to “help” others. The issues mentioned here cannot be ignored and must be addressed when they begin to affect individual employees and service delivery.
You must separate routine firefighter complaints from legitimate concerns. When firefighters are just tired of going on these calls because they “signed up” to fight fires, then leadership needs to step in and address the issue. And when the concerns are real, leadership also needs to step in and take action to consider the employee and so service does not suffer. Regardless, EMS is a vital component of a modern fire department and requires the proper attention and maintenance to provide the best possible service and to preserve the employees’ health and well-being.
Often, when work becomes relatively routine, it is easy to start going through the motions and forget the accomplishments. In many ways, this occurs with the EMS aspect of the job. There is a need to pause from time to time to reflect on the accomplishments and take stock in personnel. Organizations must express their appreciation for the job being done, individually and collectively. While not all calls directly involve lifesaving, they are important to those on the receiving end. EMS is not only about the medical care provided but also is an emotional event for those having a bad day. While many calls appear to be mundane, firefighters need to know they are making a difference. Sometimes it is a big deal and other cases not so much but still important. Members know what is acknowledged and appreciated and respond accordingly. Frequently taking the time will let firefighters know they are appreciated, and the culture of the department very much knows the importance of EMS day in and day out.
In the medical profession, there are continual evaluations and studies to look for ways to improve. These adjustments necessitate changes in protocols and approaches to patient care. This is a good thing but also requires time and resources. In a constantly evolving industry, time, resources, and personnel are needed. For those seeking to provide optimal service, continual education is needed.
This does not mean what some have come to believe continuing education is—classroom hours so you can maintain your license. It is about learning of advancements in the industry and figuring out the best way to implement them in your organization.
This is challenging for those without adequate human resources. It is a challenge of cross-trained personnel. Firefighters need to maintain (and hopefully improve) fighting skills. The same is true of EMS. In both cases, the work is getting more complicated. There is a definite need for dedicated personnel for the continual study and research needed to be “on top of your game” as an organization.
There are potential opportunities in the future for strong EMS organizations. We can look to the current circumstances regarding the pandemic to know how valuable some fire departments are to their communities and how they are the “go-to” organization in certain circumstances. Since early 2020, many communities have looked to their fire department for direction for the response to this “medical emergency.” Those that were prepared reaped great benefit, both immediately and in the future. This only happens if there is tremendous respect gained from quality service. The aforementioned benefits will help with more than the EMS side of the house. Two things should be noted: Departments need to be readily available to provide assistance when requested, and they also need to look to the future for opportunities to secure their value.
With respect to EMS, the fire service has a definite competitive advantage. Departments are strategically placed to have a great response time. They have additional skills and tools to supplement many of the types of calls that include EMS. The advantages allow the fire service to be in position to truly make a difference in the moments that matter. Quick response with properly trained people and the necessary equipment not only saves lives but minimizes pain and suffering, shortens hospital stays, and improves outcomes when the patient needs rehab. All firefighters need to understand their value and accept the “not-so-exciting” calls along with the ones where their service changes the outcome for the better.
Some people in the fire service look at EMS as the last three letters of the word “problems.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Most of those who chose to work in the fire service knew that the majority of work they would be doing would be in the area of EMS. And, if they say they are in the business to save lives, they will have way more opportunities to do so while responding to EMS calls. Those in the fire service need to embrace the opportunity and continually look for ways to improve. It is more than competence but good bedside manner on all calls. The importance of customer service cannot be understated, and EMS provides great opportunities to show the value of the fire department and give firefighters what they say they signed up for—a chance to help people and save a life.
RICHARD MARINUCCI is the executive director of the Fire Department Safety Officers Association (FDSOA) and chief (ret.) of the White Lake Township (MI) Fire Department. He retired as chief of the Farmington Hills (MI) Fire Department in 2008, a position he had held since 1984. He is a Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment and Fire Engineering Editorial Advisory Board member, a past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), and past chairman of the Commission on Chief Fire Officer Designation. In 1999, he served as acting chief operating officer of the U.S. Fire Administration for seven months. He has a master’s degree and three bachelor’s degrees in fire science and administration and has taught extensively.