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Why fire, EMS providers should watch ‘The White Helmets’

Experience the violence and destruction in Syria through the eyes and voices of volunteer first responders who rush in to search for victims in the rubble


The Syrian Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets, operate in the country’s war-ravaged opposition areas.

AP Photo

EMS and firefighter recruitment videos are routinely chided for over-emphasizing explosions, trauma and dramatic patient rescues. “The White Helmets,” a new Netflix documentary short, might be the rare example of when a video actually matches the reality for the volunteer responders of the Syrian Civil Defense organization.

The 40-minute video, mostly filmed with handheld and helmet cameras, is a compelling glimpse into a group of men who have dedicated themselves to saving their neighbors. The filmmakers follow the volunteers from their homes to their station and then into the field to look for and rescue bombing victims. The most dramatic scene is the rescue of an infant from the rubble of a collapsed structure.

The rescue scenes are interspersed with interviews of three volunteers who discuss the ongoing war in Syria, why they joined the White Helmets and what they hope to accomplish. The filmmakers also follow along as the rescuers spend a month in Turkey learning search and rescue and fire suppression techniques.

For EMS providers and firefighters, regardless of your political opinions about the causes or solutions for the war in Syria, here are four reasons “The White Helmets” is a must-watch documentary.

1. Urge to help others
Some people are willing to run toward danger, rather than away from it. Even when others ignore a person in need, we have a special character trait to help others to whom they are not closely related.

One of the most humbling experiences of my life was standing on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho where the Good Samaritan administered first aid to a man who had been robbed and beaten. The members of the White Helmets, like you and me, belong to a tribe of caregivers that spans cultures, religions and millennia.

2. Prepare for collapsed structure response
Only a few of us have responded to a collapsed structure after a bomb detonation, but it is a possible response in any community. As you watch “The White Helmets,” identify and assess the risks of working on a rubble pile. Also discuss with your colleagues the PPE, communications and extrication equipment available to your department and your readiness to use it in the minutes after a multi-story building has been leveled by an accidental or intentional explosion.

3. Mission gives purpose and meaning
When surrounded by violence and wide-scale destruction, the mission to serve and save others is a powerful motivator. The responders shown in the video find meaning in serving others. A daily work schedule, uniform and being part of a group adds purpose to life. Watching “The White Helmets” may remind you of why you chose to volunteer as an EMT, firefighter or to make public safety your career.

4. Making a difference one person at a time
As I watched “The White Helmets,” I was reminded of the starfish story by Loren Eiseley. A young boy is seen throwing starfish back into the ocean. Thousands of starfish are washed up on the beach.

A man asks the boy why he is throwing the starfish back into ocean and tells the boy he can’t possibly make a difference by returning all of the starfish into the water. The boy picks up another starfish, throws it into the ocean and says to the man, “I made a difference for that one.”

The White Helmet rescuers reminded me that in an MCI our care starts with the single patient in front of us and we do the things for that patient that will make a difference — triage, treat and transport. Then we move to the next patient and attempt to make a difference for that one. Continuing to do our best for each patient we encounter and accepting we may not be able to save them all.

There is another parallel to the constant demands of EMS. Instead of being overwhelmed by worries of system abuse or non-stop calls — a never ending beach of washed up starfish — care for the patient in front of you.

The documentary ends with Abu Omar, a former blacksmith, saying, “In the White Helmets we have a motto. To save one life is to save all of humanity.”

Have you watched “The White Helmets” documentary? Share your top takeaways in the comments.

Greg Friese, MS, NRP, is the Lexipol Editorial Director, leading the efforts of the editorial team on PoliceOne, FireRescue1, Corrections1, EMS1 and Gov1. Greg served as the EMS1 editor-in-chief for five years. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a master’s degree from the University of Idaho. He is an educator, author, national registry paramedic since 2005, and a long-distance runner. Greg was a 2010 recipient of the EMS 10 Award for innovation. He is also a three-time Jesse H. Neal award winner, the most prestigious award in specialized journalism, and the 2018 and 2020 Eddie Award winner for best Column/Blog. Connect with Greg on Twitter or LinkedIn and submit an article idea or ask questions by emailing him at