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When OUR caring stops: Recent headlines highlight a troubling trend

How have some members strayed so far from our basic duty to care for our citizens?


“One key ingredient in our success is actually giving a damn. Caring. Wanting people who need our help to get better, not worse, not get trapped, not burn up, not stop breathing – the basics,” writes Goldfeder.

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When you read some of the stories and headlines in the last few months or so, you have to wonder what’s going on? Such simple, basic fire, rescue and EMS responsibilities seem to have been forgotten, with some people in our field having lost their way.

In so many respects, understanding our job is pretty easy. People call us for help, often at their worst moment. We respond as quickly as we can to do what we can to turn that bad moment around. We often succeed, but of course, sometimes we don’t.

One key ingredient in our success is actually giving a damn. Caring. Wanting people who need our help to get better, not worse, not get trapped, not burn up, not stop breathing – the basics.

But yet …

Failing to perform the basics

Two Illinois EMTs will soon be tried on first-degree murder charges after a patient they strapped face down to a stretcher suffocated. If convicted, the two EMTs could each face 20 to 60 years in prison. Not only that, but from the moment they encountered the patient, they could not have tried harder to make it clear that they had little interest in helping the patient – or even doing their jobs. As captured on police bodycam footage, one EMT told the patient “get up NOW” numerous times. She then stated, “I am NOT playing with you tonight!” and “You’re going to have to walk cause we ain’t carrying you!” and “I am seriously not in the mood for this!”

The patient, Earl Moore Jr., was in withdrawal from alcohol and hallucinating. The police bodycam footage shows officers trying to get Moore to his feet to walk out the door for medical assistance, and then placing him in a prone position on the gurney.

An autopsy revealed that the patient died of “positional asphyxiation” and that he had two broken ribs, which the state attributed to being strapped in so tightly facedown.

The EMTs claimed the patient was combative, but the video shows the opposite. Moore just needed some help and compassion. Kind of what the public perceives emergency personnel to be – helpful and compassionate with a splash of competency.

In another case that made headlines, two Memphis (Tennessee) Fire Department EMTs failed to assess a patient’s condition when they arrived, while their lieutenant who rode with them to the scene remained in the vehicle with the driver. An internal review of their conduct found that all three “violated numerous [fire department] policies and protocols.”

A statement from the department read in part: “[The EMTs’] actions or inactions on the scene that night do not meet the expectations of the fire department and are not reflective of the outstanding service the men and women of the Memphis Fire Department provide daily in our community.”

“There When You Need Us.” This phrase is on every Chicago Fire Department fire and EMS vehicle – a clear statement that they will be there when someone needs them. It’s a good reminder. Actually there are probably few fire departments or EMS agencies that don’t have some kind of mission statement to tell the public we are there for them.

But does the public need the reminder or do we?

In 1971, the late Dennis Smith wrote the best seller “Report from Engine Company 82,” and one of his statements within always resonated with me – and I’m sure with you as well:

“The only real sure thing in this town is that the firemen come when you pull the handle on the red box.”

These days, it’s when people dial 9-1-1, but it’s the same thing. When people need help – urgent help – we are pretty much all that’s left between them and the end.

The expectations are simple. The late Chief Alan Brunacini reminded us: “Be nice.” That works anywhere and anytime.

So what goes wrong?

I’m no psychologist, but I do have a fairly decent ability to see stuff, and what I see is something we’ve discussed here before – the normalization of deviance. This occurs when people are “allowed” to deviate from expected behavior to something else and when there are no systems in place to keep us all in line.

Some examples of normalization of deviance in action:

  • When we dump both verbally and literally on a patient.
  • When we fail to supervise but yet get paid to supervise, and have no problem accepting the pay for work not done.
  • When we skimp on apparatus and equipment checks by pretending we did them.
  • When we do what we want to do on the fireground, regardless of what the boss orders.
  • When the fire sounds like “BS” and we act like it.
  • When what the policy says and what we were trained to do becomes foreign in our day-to-day actions, and the more we get away with it, the more comfortable we become in our non-compliance … and the more we do wrong, the more it seems right.

Turning around the ship

Different experts claim different solutions but generally agree that creating a culture of honesty, communication and continuous improvement are a big help in turning this ship around.

But how and by who? Is that done by a memo? Does the chief (staff chief, field chief, company officers or union and association leaders) send out a memo requiring this be done? Is it an order? How does this play out in real life?

It’s easy to read headlines and come to conclusions. It’s when we dig a little deeper that we start to identify how critically we need systems in place to prevent bad behavior because in some organizations, it may be easy (or common behavior) to do some of the above-listed things without getting caught or even caring. And of course, when we get caught, we are overwhelmed with the emotion to care more than we ever have. But by then, it’s too late.

What’s ahead

In the next column, we’ll try to identify some of the reasons why some of our own fail to care about the job, those they serve and about the job itself.

Let’s end with another quote from Dennis Smith:

“There’s satisfaction in knowing that you’re doing something for somebody, you’re doing something that’s important.”

This quote from the 1970s may have inadvertently identified exactly part of our problem today.

Read more about normalization of deviance:

Chief Billy Goldfeder, EFO, a firefighter since 1973, serves as deputy fire chief of the Loveland-Symmes (Ohio) Fire Department. He also serves as Lexipol’s senior fire advisor and is a member of the Fire Chief/FireRescue1 Editorial Advisory Board. Goldfeder is a member of the Board of Directors for several organizations: the IAFC, the September 11th Families Association and the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF). He also provides expert review assistance to the CDC NIOSH Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program. Goldfeder is the recipient of numerous operational and administrative awards, appointments and recognitions. He has served on several NFPA and IAFC committees, has authored numerous articles and books, and presented several sessions at industry events. Chief Goldfeder co-hosts the website
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