Hamlin’s ‘on-duty’ emergency highlights the importance of support systems
Whether NFL player or firefighter, when one of our own goes down, the impacts are amplified beyond our routine responses
Just days ago, we watched in disbelief as Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field during a Monday Night Football game in Cincinnati.
As emergency crews performed CPR and applied an AED, both teams’ members kneeled to show respect, solidarity and support for their fellow player. As of this writing, doctors have reported that Hamlin is showing signs of “remarkable improvement” and his breathing tube has been removed.
What makes this cardiac arrest different that the thousands of others the fire and EMS providers deal with every day? There’s a simple answer that we’ll address shortly, but I’d like to take the discussion a step further, beyond the rhetoric about medics “just doing what they do.” Let’s consider the support offered to fellow NFL players following such incidents and, similarly, how we in the fire service handle the impact of incidents where one of our own goes down.
Providers at the ready
As context to my perspective on this incident, during my tenure in Prince George’s County, Maryland, the fire/EMS department was responsible for all fire and EMS services at FedEx Field, home of the Washington Commanders. I was the special operations chief for several years, and our Special Events Unit trained for hours on end on high-angle rescue from the upper bowl, rappelling on the outside, and preplanning significant events and on-field emergencies. We prided ourselves on the services we provided and knew that with every game, millions of eyes were on our providers. In other words, I understand how seriously these members take their job – and how they are viewed through a critical lens.
Following Hamlin’s mid-game medical emergency, I had the opportunity to speak with Cathy Lanier, chief security officer for the National Football League (NFL), to gain some clarity and perspective about the incident. Lanier noted, “We play 272 games a year, and nothing like this has happened since the 1970s.” That’s over 10,000 games without such an emergency.
Despite some reports to the contrary, Lanier said there was never a doubt about discontinuation of the game from the NFL’s perspective. NFL executives are responsible for connecting with team owners and coaches to chart a course forward during significant events. Lanier briefly addressed the behind-the-scenes intricacies involved with “calling” a game – everything from regional transportation to sponsorship issues and other details that aren’t connected to the topic at hand today but factors that leadership must navigate nonetheless.
While overall team and facility security is coordinated through Lanier, the provision of EMS varies from city to city within the NFL family. And although we’ve heard a lot about Hamlin’s patient care, which included on-field resuscitation, we’ve heard little to nothing about the crews providing that life-saving treatment. (We’ll have more on the service provisions in a future article.)
Ultimately, those EMS providers did what providers do – just with millions of eyes watching them. That is what made the response different from the thousands of other calls we run daily.
Further, as a result of that spotlight, those millions of eyes translated into a surge of requests from around the country seeking information on hands-only CPR and AEDs. From that perspective, let’s look at this as an opportunity. I always appreciate the opportunity to educate our communities about fire and EMS safety and prevention, and many agencies and organizations have posted links to CPR classes, urging individuals to seek training. It is unfortunate that it takes such a big event to provide us the opportunity, but let’s face it, we need all the help we can get spreading our messages.
Beyond the attention drawn to EMS personnel in this critical moment, let’s consider the support provided to fellow players – and how that relates to our own support systems.
I haven’t spoken to a single person who disagrees that the football game should have been stopped and players sent home. Why would anyone be shocked at the game being canceled? After all, what typically occurs in the fire or EMS service if one of our own suffers a cardiac arrest event on duty? I am not aware of a single instance where the crew or partner of a provider in cardiac arrest was required to work for the remainder of that shift. While we can’t “cancel our game,” we do indeed send our crews home. And isn’t that how the NFL responded? When one of their own went into cardiac arrest “on duty,” NFL and team leadership recognized the impact on everyone involved and essentially put Hamlin’s crew off duty. It was the right call.
The difference for fire and EMS providers is that we see cardiac arrest and similar calls all the time. When we handle a cardiac arrest event, isn’t almost everyone else around us distraught? And yet we continue to work, call to call. If it’s a non-partner cardiac event, sometimes we ask for help, but most times, we go about our business, stock the unit, and go on to the next call.
We know our job is one that often requires that we run back-to-back critical calls. It is what we do, and if we don’t do it, well, there is no 912. That fact doesn’t mean that we don’t have reason to pause for our own stress and mental health well-being from time to time. How that well-being check manifests varies widely from organization to organization and, frankly, from an effectiveness perspective, leaves much to be desired.
When I spoke with Lanier, she talked about the NFL’s EAP program and third-party services currently being provided to players, coaches, referees and others involved in this incident. Sound familiar? There is much more we can do to help our crews, whether facing an on-duty emergency or something else that challenges their mental health.
One thing that’s not helpful is creating false equivalencies. And yet, since Hamlin’s injury, we have heard many within the fire and EMS services opining, some with great indignity, comparing the game and the NFL’s actions as it relates to our delivery of fire and EMS services, specifically the thousands of cardiac arrests we deal with every day across the United States.
Some of these talking heads are quick to mention the pay differences between NFL players and EMS professionals. Yes, EMTs and paramedics are typically woefully underpaid and, in my opinion, particularly in comparison to professional athletes. But the fact is that you and I cannot control what athletes are paid any more than we can control what the NFL does or does not do within their organization. That’s not how the world works. As such, I suggest that it’s time for many to BAFTK – Back Away From The Keyboard!
We provide a service, whether we’re paid or volunteer – emergency services for people who are arguably suffering their darkest hours. Then we load up and serve the next, and the next, unless we can’t for whatever reason: mechanical breakdown, equipment deficiency, incident proximity and, yes, even our own physical and/or mental capacity.
Do our EMTs, paramedics and firefighters deserve more compensation? Yes. Do we need to do a better job at mental health services for our providers? Yes. Should we use this incident as an opportunity to raise awareness of citizen CPR and AED use? Yes. Should we use this incident as justification to compare our salaries with professional football players? Keep dreaming.
We must continue to focus our energy where it matters – the mental health of our members, our teammates. And while the fire and EMS industry has made significant strides in providing mental health services for our members, there is much more to do.
Prioritize your health
Let’s keep up the business of providing service any time, anywhere, for any reason we’re called. Grandma Jones expects and deserves the best service, no matter her pay or celebrity status – but so do you. Remember to prioritize your own health and the health of your crewmembers. Like the Buffalo Bills, we must have our teammates’ backs.
Note: If you need help coping with a specific incident, talk to your supervisor or a fellow member as soon as possible. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. It is OK to not be OK. There are myriad mental health services available across the board, including the new national mental health hotline. Pick up the phone and dial 988 to be connected to mental health counselors.