Emergency response: The anger factor

In a climate that seems like it’s teeming with anger at all times, emergency responders must learn how to dial down the intensity

By Linda F. Willing

People are angry out there, which is really nothing new. People have carried anger for a wide variety of reasons for generations, centuries and millennia. What is new, however, is how people feel entitled and empowered to express that anger. Some of these behaviors can directly affect or even involve first responders.

Technology, social media’s role in upping the anger factor

When unhappy, angry people call 911, or are involved in an incident where emergency help is called, that anger can exacerbate an already dangerous situation. (Photo/USAF)
When unhappy, angry people call 911, or are involved in an incident where emergency help is called, that anger can exacerbate an already dangerous situation. (Photo/USAF)

There is no doubt that the internet and social media have stepped up the level of discourse, and often not for the better. People can be anonymously mean in online forums and there are no direct repercussions. This kind of strident, nasty communication can become a habit that bleeds over into everyday interactions.

Technology plays a role too. When every single event in someone’s life can be documented and posted for the world to see and comment on, it ups the stakes of ordinary conversation or disagreement. It is harder to just let things slide when there is a video of the argument out there for all time.

Unhappy people will often look for others to blame for their circumstances. When unhappy, angry people call 911, or are involved in an incident where emergency help is called, that anger can exacerbate an already dangerous situation. Firefighters and officers need to be prepared for the anger factor, both strategically and personally.

Maintaining firefighter professionalism, leadership under pressure

The most important thing to keep in mind is that your primary job is to maintain or restore control to a scene, including yourself, which can be difficult. Police officers are the most common target, but, in recent years, firefighters and EMS personnel have had increasingly adversarial contacts with the public. It is very difficult to withstand being called names, insulted, spat at or worse during an emergency response.

The key is to not take it personally and maintain your professional composure. Focus on your role, don’t allow someone to bait you into an argument and call for the support you need from law enforcement or other agencies.

Maintaining this kind of control under pressure or attack does not come naturally. You will need to be prepared, both through training and good leadership.

Training can include scenario-based case studies, role playing, skills training in things like self-defense and de-escalating communication and collaborative training with other agencies so that responses to difficult calls will be consistent and safe among all responders. If your department does not currently offer these kinds of training opportunities, ask for them and take the initiative to reach out to those who can help make it happen.

Company officers and those in other leadership roles need to understand the risks and be able to do a quick size-up of a scene for potential danger from those involved or bystanders. Those in leadership roles also need to create clear expectations among their crews as to what kinds of actions are desirable and what will not be tolerated, even under pressure. Leaders need to be able to make quick decisions to keep their crews safe if circumstances suddenly change.

Community relationships assist in mitigating damage

Spending the time and energy to develop good community relations before a crisis occurs can be a life saver when you need it most. If trouble is brewing in a neighborhood and anger is flaring to a dangerous level, knowing people in the community can make all the difference. If people know you personally, it is more likely they will see you as an ally instead of as the enemy “other.”

When considering how to handle escalating anger among the public, it may be useful to remember the Phoenix Fire Department mantra of “Prevent harm. Survive. Be nice.” Your primary job is always to prevent harm, mitigate damage and never make a situation worse. Surviving means being vigilant about safety – of your crew, yourself and those involved in the incident, and being nice can be a very effective tool in meeting those first two goals.

At best, conversations and interactions tend to end the way they start. Many people out there are angry and looking for a fight. Don’t give it to them. Be calm, professional and pleasant as you look for ways to defuse a situation and mitigate harm. Preparation is key in meeting this critical goal in emergency response.

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