From the day you got the call that you were hired until the day they hand you a retirement plaque, a public safety career is one few citizens will ever experience, we only represent about 2-3% of the population. You will have experiences and memories that may only make sense to those who have walked a similar path. How many police, fire or paramedic candidates are asked during the interview why they want the positions … only to answer “to help people.”
In the Fire and EMS branches of public safety, helping people will be the bulk of what you do. Stress experts tell us those who routinely deal with hurt people seem to “absorb” some of the pain the victims feel and often carry the heaviest load of stress. Cops, on the other hand, tend to see the very darkest side of society, and see them at their very worst moments. I don’t consider any one branch of public safety more important than another, but when the firefighters and medics encounter threatening situations, they call for the boys & girls with the guns. While I’ve worked all three branches of public safety in my long career, most of the time I was carrying a gun.
A week ago my wife and I were at a local diner for some supper and one of the local newspaper reporters stopped by my table, we graduated from High School together 48 (Damn!) years ago. The reporter said, "gee, Dick, I see on the upcoming council minutes they will be voting on a new Police Chief and Fire Chief ... where does that leave you?" My one word answer was, "retired."
Saying that word in public triggered a vague memory of a line from a John Wayne movie. I looked it up and the exact quote from Rooster Cogburn is - "I am REtired, RElieved and REjoicing!" I will now use that line myself.
John the reporter went on to say he imagined I had lots of fond memories of 46 years in public safety. Frankly, all the memories which flashed through my mind right then were recent bad ones. I’ve had 46 years experience of seeing the bad side of our society and the horrible things people do to one another.
The most recent bad memory had been one evening when I was walking to my car in the parking lot to drive home. The police shift commander sprinted breathlessly past me towards his patrol car and said, “baby not breathing.” There are not enough years of experience to harden you to a call like that, so I followed the Lieutenant the few blocks to the scene. My firefighters were already going through the door and paramedics from the ambulance service arrived within a minute. The Lieutenant flashed me a thumbs down sign as a screaming young mother ran into the front yard trying to light her cigarette. One look at the meth-head mother told me this would be a shaken baby death, or worse. The skull fracture at the autopsy the next morning pointed to the mother and when her phone was searched, she had been online seeking ways to conceal an infant death. How to make it look like SIDS or some other natural cause. A rare charge of 1st Degree Murder – premeditation - and a 5 month-old infant who never really had a chance.
I left the scene to drive home and had to stop a couple of blocks away where no one could see me crying. Those are the memories, scars really, that we carry with us from the job we do. That image almost overpowered my filter as I answered John’s question about having 46 years of good memories.
With a little work I can recall once saving a newborn infant from harm by dislocating the drunken father's thumb to break his grip on the child he was threatening to kill. As I handed the baby to its screaming mother, my partner took the father to the ground, rather roughly, and we handcuffed him. If I had been unable to break the father's grip for another second ... well maybe I saved a tiny life that night.
At a father/son domestic argument, the grandmother in a wheelchair ignored the ruckus and continued eating her pancakes. While trying to separate the 400+ pounds of father and son, I heard grandma choking behind me. Turning, I saw she was grabbing her throat, choking, and turning blue. I ignored the argument, lifted grandma from her wheelchair and executed the Heimlich maneuver, with no success. Then I applied the technique vigorously. The mouthful of pancake popped free, and grandma sucked in a huge breath followed by a loud moan. I had heard ribs crack on the second thrust, but she was breathing. I keyed the shoulder microphone and said I needed rescue squad and ambulance at my location, NOW. Luckily, the argument ended. When the supervisor arrived, he was relieved to find an old lady with sore ribs. He said, "knowing you, I figured you had shot someone!"
I can find other positive memories on the hard drive if I look, but John's question at the diner had triggered a thought which would become this article. In our business we see good things and bad. We need to put a big red circle on the calendar marking the good events so they are not shoved to the back of the hard drive by the bad ones. The bad ones are more caustic and damaging at first, but our mental self-defense mechanism will eventually bring the good memories to the front.
Stress debriefings are now common, and mandatory if I am in charge. Awards for the brave things our people do can be a mixed bag of emotions, but overall accomplish good things when done fairly.
At the very end, I went through a tough stress load when I refused to go along with the Mayor’s new mandatory COVID vaccination policy. It looked like we would lose at least two good cops and I refused to take part in their demise. I ended up leaving a few weeks early, burning leftover vacation time to cover it, but I simply could not enforce a policy I felt was both unconstitutional and needless. One of the cops, who is leaving for another department without such a policy, one of the finest cops I had, thanked me. He had heard of an argument I had with the Mayor in the parking lot, when he followed me out from a heated discussion in his office. I offered the mayor the chance to fire me, but he declined. There was nothing I could do to save the officers from their fate for refusing, but I damned sure wasn’t going to be a part of that action.
I’m gradually coming down off that stress load, my blood pressure is close to normal. If you stand on solid principles and fight for your responders, you may face a similar decision someday. The profession we love will kill you if you let it. So, don’t let it. Toughen your mind, pray for strength and trust that our brain is not good at recording long-term pain, it fades with time.
As leaders, we should have enough time on the job to realize what our officers, firefighters and medics are dealing with every day. Our job is to minimize the effects of bad days and try to bolster the power of the good ones. Hopefully, we have learned to do this better than the old timers who were retiring when I started.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of BowMac Educational Services / RSI Inc.