For the last year or so, I have been providing commentary and information in this forum about ambulances. The ambulance is a fundamental component to an EMS organization, regardless of whether you are a small volunteer department or a large urban system. The ambulance is often what the community sees of the agency. It’s that image they have of who you are. They often relate “their ambulance” to “their community” when they see it on the road or on the television. As agencies, we are proud of our ambulances, displaying our name on all sides, usually in reflective vinyl so that no one misses who we are, both day and night. The ambulance is, without question, our most recognizable public symbol. But is it the ambulance that defines us? Does the age, color, size, or brand of the ambulance establish truly how the agency is perceived in the community? Does a shiny new truck equate to higher quality service? Does an older truck mean that one can expect a less professional and clinically excellent level of care? The answer to each of these questions is an undeniable no. The people that staff those trucks, who answer the calls and provide the service, are what defines an agency and it is those people who are responsible for the perception of the agency in the community. The responsibility of ensuring that the department has functional, efficient ambulances belongs to the leadership. The responsibility of ensuring that the perception of the service in the community is both functional and efficient belongs to everyone. But what happens when not everyone takes this responsibility seriously? The impact can be significant.
We have seen a trend in the United States over the past few years of an increasing level of civil protest and hostility. This hostility in many communities has led to violence and injury that have resulted in the response and involvement of EMS. Many of these scenes have resembled a battlefield more than the streets of our hometown that we are accustomed to. This environment is admittedly very stressful to responders. It is a stress that we cannot take for granted and one that personnel at all levels of an organization must both proactively recognize and aggressively address.
The trend of hostility has evolved to where all of public safety is now perceived by some to be the “bad guy.” Recent posts by activist groups in various social media outlets have called out responders in addition to law enforcement as potential targets of domestic violence. And while we must be respectful that a potential threat exists against us, we must continue forward with our primary mission. However what we must avoid at all cost are actions by members of agencies that lend credibility to such threatening statements, that can be perceived as being antagonistic to those groups, and that can potentially increase the threat to EMS personnel everywhere. Unfortunately, we have seen numerous examples in the news recently where public safety personnel, through poor judgment coupled with raw emotion, have posted on social media statements that serve to damage the positive and neutral perception that we must have in the community to be safe and effective — that we are there to serve all in the absolute best manner possible.
This past July, three EMS personnel in South Carolina were terminated and a fourth resigned after posting statements on social media that their employer stated were “threatening and could be taken as the county having individuals, who because of their bias, may adjust their care — and that erodes public trust and is unacceptable.” Three of these employees were terminated and one resigned after the agencies’ investigation. Actions were also taken against three fire personnel in the same area for similar posts. It is, as the county stated, the “public trust” factor that we can never lose sight of. During the previous month a veteran EMS District Chief in Tennessee was disciplined for “posts on his Facebook page perceived as racial, stereotypical and or threatening toward some members of the public.” Once again, action was taken by the employer after the employee engaged in an activity that was determined to jeopardize the public trust.
So what is this “public trust” that is deemed to be so valuable? As public servants, a term used generally to define those that work directly for or in a role on behalf of the government, there is a well-established expectation that because a society is dependent upon you to provide a necessary service, that you should perform your duties in such a manner to benefit everyone, and not just one or more individuals. It is the notion that since anyone is likely to need the service or services that you provide, as a public servant, you should maintain the position that you can and will perform your duties in a manner that is transparent to all needing your assistance. Public trust can be best explained as a bond. It is a bond between agencies and the members of the community they serve that gives them assurances that they can depend upon us when they need us. And by “they”, this refers to all members of the community — regardless of any social category one can be affiliated with. It is this trust, this bond, that as public servants we must commit ourselves to maintaining. Without it the necessary trust can be lost. We need that trust to ensure our safety. The community needs that trust so that they know they can depend on us when they need us the most. As a public servant, you are who you are whether you are at work or not. Your actions out of the workplace will directly reflect upon your agency, your profession and your professional status to be able to accomplish your job.
The work done every day on the ambulance is difficult. We must assure ourselves that our actions don’t serve to increase that difficulty. In these uncertain times, there are potential threats against our safety and security that we cannot ignore. By not respecting the “public trust” we are accountable for, we can damage the reputation not only in our own hometown, but in other communities as well. Work every day to preserve the image of your agency and its perception in your community. Uphold the public’s trust. Do the right thing. Don’t disappoint your peers, your community, and definitely don’t disappoint your ambulance.