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Why the media singles out wrongdoing by firefighters, EMTs

Do the right thing because it is right, but also do the right thing because your job, supported by the currency of public trust, depends on it


This article was originally published in 2017.

Over the years, I have heard firefighters and EMS personnel say that they are sometimes treated unfairly by the media. Specifically, I hear this complaint: “The headline said ‘Firefighter arrested for DUI.’ They never write ‘Accountant arrested for DUI or Mechanic arrested for DUI.’”

That’s right, they don’t. And for good reason.

Firefighters, EMTs and paramedics are among a very small population that people trust implicitly. When they show up at a stranger’s door, they are let into the home with no questions asked.

On medical calls, people answer their most personal questions without hesitation. On an emergency scene, people will let emergency responders care for their children without fear.

Bank account of implicit trust

This implicit trust is critical to the mission of emergency response. If people did not trust firefighters in this way, they would not let them in. They would not give paramedics information. They would try to find other ways to handle critical incidents in their lives.

And here is the most important aspect of this trust relationship. When you as a firefighter or paramedic walk into someone’s home today, you did not personally earn the trust that person puts in you. Instead you are withdrawing from a bank account of trust that consists of deposits made over years and generations by you and other firefighters, EMTs and paramedics in other places, which lead people to believe that firefighters and EMS personnel in general are worthy of their trust.

But what happens when this relationship is broken? What happens when an individual firefighter does something to damage that sense of trust?

Withdrawals from the public’s implicit trust

As one example, consider what happened a few years ago in Las Vegas. A fire department captain there was criminally charged with sexually exploiting an underaged girl, at the fire station. As a result, that particular fire station was removed as a “Safe Place” for at-risk youth, a designation held by every other fire station in the city as well as numerous other locations.

Firefighters and paramedics are by necessity interchangeable. People who call 911 don’t get a choice about who responds - they don’t get to say, “Well, I want Ralph to come, but not Jimmy.”

In most cases, 911 callers have no idea who the individuals are who come to help them. They don’t know what station or shift they are assigned to. In some cases, they may not even be clear about what fire department is responding.

So in the Las Vegas case, an entire station lost its status as a safe haven, even though the offending individual is no longer there. And almost certainly, this taint extended to the rest of the department and beyond.

When firefighters and EMS personnel break the essential bond of trust with the public they serve, they may be doing it only as individuals who are making bad decisions or committing crimes. But the effect extends to the whole of the fire service community, grand larceny on the bank of trust. Other firefighters, EMTs and paramedics will have to answer for those individuals whether they like it or not. They will have to make more effort to repair the trust that was broken.

That’s not fair, some may say. I didn’t do anything wrong. Why should I have to answer for that person?

The answer to this is simple: in the eyes of the service community, you and that person are essentially the same – nameless, uniformed first responders who require the unqualified trust of the public in order to do their jobs.

Is this fair? Maybe not. But it is reality.

Firefighters and EMS personnel should do the right thing because it is right, and that is what the vast majority of them do every day. But firefighters and EMS personnel also need to do the right thing because their jobs, supported by the currency of trust, depend on it.

Take your department in the direction you want. Get expert advice on how to effectively lead your fire department. 20-year veteran Linda Willing writes “Leading the Team,” a FireRescue1 column about fire department leadership.