"He's just a bum!" - Regaining compassion in First Responders.

It was one of the very first calls of my career.  The deafening tone that caused an instant adrenaline rush was followed by a monotonous voice.  “Person down” was the incident description from the dispatcher.  There was an immediate response from the men on my crew that day; a chorus of groans and eye rolling.  I wondered how two short words could create such disdain among these men.  “This is going to be bullshit” one guy exclaimed as we walked out into the bay.  I wondered if he’d had this Nostradamus ability since birth or after a science experiment gone horribly wrong.  We jumped into the engine and drove to the location of the gravitationally challenged individual.

Upon arrival, there was a small framed man lying prone on the pavement.  Two police officers were already on scene and my crew stepped up to join them.  “Oh surprise, surprise!  Another bum!” I heard one of them mumble.  One of the police officers proceeded to continuously push the man with her foot shouting “buddy, get up, get up!”.  The man was clearly unable to get up, obviously unconscious and unaware or our presence.  I had had enough of the way the call was going so decided to initiate an assessment seeing as noone else had even checked to see if he was breathing.  After establishing that his vitals were within normal limits, I began to search his pockets to look for clues as to his identity.  

My hand found a piece of paper, which I pulled out and unfolded.  It was from a lab and showed the results of a recent blood test.  The man had just learned that he was HIV positive.  I’m pretty sure that every judgemental person on that scene would most likely have got drunk after hearing that kind of news.  This man was lying on the side of the road, having been given a death sentence and the men and women he paid to protect him were treating him like some sort of subhuman scum.  Now let me point out that this is one of the absolute lows of my career and is far from the norm in most firefighters, police and EMS crews.  It was the perfect storm of disgruntled people having a bad day.

I have worked some of the most desperate neighbourhoods on the East and West coast.  The men and women who walk the streets vary anywhere from angels to demons and everywhere in between, but they are all still people.  Any first responder who has walked into a filthy crack den with expensive cars outside and children running around in filthy clothes and empty stomachs knows that those kids don’t stand a chance.  We are blessed to be raised by one or more parents that gave us the tools and confidence to follow our dreams and serve our communities.  The children we see didn’t dream of becoming drug addicts, homeless or turning to prostitution.  These men and women are our most desperate brothers and sisters, victims of a twist of fate or just poor life decisions.

Our society is suffering from a malignant cancer in the form of selfishness and a lack of compassion.  This is a sweeping generalization and there are many men and women who do not fit this mold.  That being said, there has been something missing the last decade that has hurt us not just in our community, but in our profession.  The compassion for our fellow man has been dampened by news stories of welfare abuse and greedy corporation fraud.  We are raised in a competitive society where you must “destroy the opposition” and be victorious.  This has bled into the First Responder arena where burnt out firefighters, paramedics and police officers become numb to the suffering.

Now understand, this is not me standing in a glass house throwing stones.  I have to constantly check my own heightened sense of self importance.  I wear the badge of a profession that is pretty well respected by complete strangers.  There is an allure of the power that comes with this responsibility.  To me, what I love about the fire service is that when it hits the fan, there is no prejudice, whether cultural, racial or socioeconomic.  A person in need is a person in need and we are there to make their worse day ever a little better.  Historically, tragedy has brought people together, created the much needed tribe that we as a culture are missing these days.  9/11, the London bombings and the Pulse shooting are just a few of the terrible events that brought communities together, circumnavigating cultural bias.

I think we can learn a lot from the communities that banded together during these tragic times.  To me, that is the true essence of humanity.  This year has been one of the worse for this concept.  The coveted position of commander in chief was fought over in a way two five year olds would be spanked for and sent to their room without supper.  We signed up for fire academy, medic school or police academy so we can help people.  As Joel Salatin mentioned in the interview, First Responders are at the fringe of society.  He is right, we see the tears in the fabric of our community.  This also goes both ways though and we can either inspire or infuriate the people that we serve.  I truly believe that we have the power to help our neighbours rediscover their humanity, compassion and sense of community.

We are dying for a tribe in 2016.  I believe this is the underlying reason that Crossfit and mud runs are so popular.  Deep down, people are good and want to do good for others.  As first responders, this is one of the key ingredients to good mental health.  Nothing feels better than helping another human being and expecting nothing in return.  I am proud to wear my badge and stand side by side with like minded first responders around the globe.  We are role models whether we like it or not and our actions are magnified by the eyes of those who look up to us.  Compassion is taught by all religious doctrines and was practiced by their prophets.  We have a responsibility to be the person that our community thinks we are.  We can truly affect our countries for the better if we just hold ourselves to the same high standard.  

“Our human compassion binds us on to the other, not in pity or patronizingly, but as human beings who have learnt how to turn our common suffering into hope for the future.” - Nelson Mandela.

Picture of Larry DePrimo of NYPD.

Homless Fisherman by Diado

Listen to Sebastian Junger talk about our tribal yearning on the Podcast next month.