For the LOVE of EMS, Who will Rescue our Frontline?

“The flashbacks don’t end when my shift does.”

“I can’t talk to a counselor—they don’t understand everything my job entails.”

“My co-workers won’t respect me anymore if they know the thoughts I deal with.”

“I can’t quit thinking about the faces of the people I couldn’t save.”

“If I show any weakness, I’ll get pulled off the truck or even lose my job.”

“What’s wrong with me??? I should be tougher than this!”

The Emergency Medical Service industry is one with a storied past, filled with historical trailblazers like Clara Barton, Abbie Sweetwine, and the famed Johnny & Roy. Since its inception, one thing hasn’t changed; in a field where the average career lifespan is 3-7 years, and the pay is roughly $16.50 an hour, it’s apparent that you’re an Emergency Medical Technician, aka EMT, because that’s what you really want to do. It is also clear to everyone that this career path takes a special breed of people and unfortunately, it’s becoming a dying one.

EMS students learn to care for people under a variety of emergency circumstances—classroom and in-field training hours prepare EMTs for the technical aspects of their job. What most of these bright-eyed and well-intended newcomers don’t receive in training, are lessons on how to care for their own health and well-being while taking care of others. 

    A 2004 study published in the Emergency Medicine Journal, showed that more than 20% of EMS workers surveyed in the U.K. had evidence of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) while another 2015 survey of EMS professionals published in a private US independent study titled, “What’s Killing our Medics”, showed that 37% (approximately 3400 people) had contemplated suicide. Even more alarming is of that number, 6.6% (approximately 225 people) had attempted to end their lives.

Based on these statistics, one can conclude that we’re facing a possible mental health crisis amongst our peers in the medical industry. It is becoming more apparent that, while our focus is rightfully engaged in patients across the country, we continue to ignore the frontline people who are working diligently to triage & transport them. Regardless of professional longevity in the field, reports continue to indicate that the burden of stress from a single incident or from years of accumulated calls takes its toll on every EMS provider.

    More statistics reveal that the emotional fallout of this profession is staggering. Why, in an industry where “psychological first aid” is desperately needed, does the EMS force find themselves turning to someone other than a mental health professional for support? A 2016 national survey of EMS workers by the National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians (NAEMT) showed that 58% were dissatisfied with the mental health services provided by their employer. Various reasons have been cited over the years: therapists don’t understand the ins-and-outs of the EMS profession, a fear of being fired because of perceived weakness, not wanting to talk about feelings in a group setting, and lack of support from management are among the common complaints.

    Thankfully, there are organizations across the country that are tackling this issue head-on, and they’re doing it with love and compassion. As one person stated, “We are all still human under the uniforms we wear,” and many of these organizations have been started by former EMS professionals who saw a need and turned to help their own. When workers receive appropriate care, results are overwhelmingly favorable. The “What’s Killing our Medics” study also reported success rates when EMTs are offered appropriate counseling accommodations.

CISM= Critical Incident Stress Management EAP= Employee Assistance Programs

Thankfully, there are independent resources available to EMTs across the nation. Below is a sample of support-providers offering care to EMTs in need of council.

•    The website for C.A.R.E. (Courage Affects Responders Everyday), based in Atlanta, GA, provides multiple local and national resources as well as articles about PTSD and mental health.

•    The International Critical Incident Stress Foundation, Inc. offers training for people who are interested in becoming part of a crisis management team.

•    Safe Call Now is a 24-hour crisis service for all public safety employees, emergency services personnel, and their families.

•    The Code Green Campaign is working to spread awareness of mental health issues with first responders.

•    Reviving Responders is a group dedicated to developing solutions to the problems that prevent EMS workers from living their best, full lives.

    As we turn the corner into February, a month when we often focus on someone special and the love we have for them, let’s extend that feeling a bit further. Be a human mouthpiece and spread the word about the importance of mental health care for all first responders.  No frontline warrior should ever suffer from feeling isolated or misunderstood, and for a population who spends their lives serving others, the least we can do in return is to convey, “You’re not alone.” These heroes are human and it’s important to continue to offer resources that focus on reviving them.