Many years ago, when I was driving an ambulance for my local EMS provider, I was sure to maintain consciousness about what it was like for my patient in the back. While I was not directly providing care from behind the wheel, I was still in a position to make the patient as comfortable as possible by the way I drove. I would always be thinking “SMOOOOOTH” as I braked, turned, and accelerated; I always tried to drive like I was on ice, or like my medic was sipping a cup of coffee. My attendants were more vocally appreciative than my patients, but that can be expected; a trip to the hospital in an ambulance is seldom enjoyable.
Having ridden supine in the back of an ambulance, in a C-collar and strapped to a backboard, I assure you my careful driving efforts were a significant benefit for our passengers. Sure, I was safely delivered to the trauma center after the collision that evening, but arrived with nausea, and hand cramps from trying to hold on for the ride.
I only point this out because it helps support my lesson that just getting the job done is not enough. In the emergency services, we sometimes meet strangers during the most frightening, painful, grief-stricken times of their lives. Our response and actions are easily identified when they are heroic, relieving, and life-saving. As we all know, however, few of our responses provide opportunities for such lofty praise as heroes. Most of the time, we are meeting strangers during the most annoying, disruptive, inconvenient times of their lives. It is during these times where the little details must be attended to, not so much for the execution of a solution to the problem at hand, but for the bolstering of our image, trust, and support of the communities we protect.
Last night (or should I say, “early this morning”) I was jolted from my slumber by the piercing screams of the fire alarm sounding in my apartment building. Finally I get to play the part of the civilian during an O-dark-thirty fire alarm activation. My first thoughts were, “wow, they are right, these things are loud and obnoxious” as I scrambled for clothes to slip on for my orderly, obedient evacuation. As I walked down the hall toward the stairway, my next thought was, “where the hell is everybody?”
Once outside, I regressed back to my officer days and scanned the building for clues of the location, life safety hazards, apparatus placement, etc. There were no signs of fire or smoke, people “evacuated” to their balconies, and the moan of the fire department’s house siren in the distance. That’s when I had the chance to “people watch”. It was quite educational, and a bit entertaining. I was immediately grateful that I didn’t have pets, children, or the need to wear curlers in my hair. I was also proud of my understanding of how fire alarm systems and the fire service operate. Quickly polling the dozen or so residents that were assembling outside the main entrance, no one reported any indication that there was any fire in the building, even Johnny Helper who was panting from his heroic dash through the corridors.
Through the main entrance vestibule, I noticed the elevator recalled to the SECOND floor, I was quite certain that the first floor elevator lobby smoke detector was the culprit. The glowing red LEDs on the detector base verified the readout on the lobby fire alarm control panel that I was 100% correct in my assumption. After a quick mental self-inflicted pat on the back, I re-exited to join my neighbors and provide them with the reassuring news that the building was not likely burning down.
That’s when the bitching began. “What’s taking them so long?” was the question of the hour. I took the time to explain that despite living in the state capitol city, our fire department was 100% volunteer, and responders not only had to wake up and leave their homes as we did, but respond to the station, don gear, staff the apparatus, then make the drive to our complex. As expected, most people in the building thought ALL firefighters are paid and stay up all night dressed in their gear. The apparatus pulled into the complex in just over 6 minutes, which admittedly really does seem like a half an hour when you are the one waiting for them to arrive. Now it was time for me to stop “people watching”, and begin “firefighter watching”. Would they be efficient AND provide comforting reassurance to us? Let’s see…
Positioning the BRT (big red truck) in front of the wrong building didn’t score them any points, but it happens. Arriving with a crew of 5 was comforting, as I have been a part of much weaker responses. Crew members were somewhat ready for action with turnout gear, SCBA, and tools in hand; so far, so good… Then came the interaction with the residents … totally non-existent. This was a chance for the department to show why we should fill those envelopes during the annual fund drive, by showing just a whisper of compassion for the displaced residents; sadly, they did not. Please understand that I completely understand the annoyance of the middle-of-the-night AFA call. Unnecessary interruptions to a good night’s sleep for virtually no reason sucks…I get it! You are not here to entertain or babysit, I get it!
They entered, paced the hallway, pointed to the detector on the ceiling, and watched as the maintenance man (who thankfully arrived as quickly as they did) pressed the buttons on the panel, silencing the alarms and resetting the system. Job done, time to go! One by one, they exited the front door without so much as a word spoken to the bewildered residents. No reassurance that everything was OK, no comforting words to the elderly woman who was trembling from the stimulation of the alarm, NOTHING! The maintenance man must have attended the same charm school, not a peep from him either! I found myself doing their job. I answered a few questions, calmed a few nerves and tried my best to explain the situation to my neighbors. What I would not do, is apologize for the way we were just treated. In their haste to depart, they didn’t even recognize that the elevator recall was still engaged, and the car was locked open on the second floor. I dashed to the maintenance man’s truck (OK, I walked swiftly) to ask him to reset the elevator. He said he didn’t have the key to do it, the fire department does! “Um, OK, how about we go reset the entire elevator controller”, I asked? Naturally, he did not know how to do that, and was unwilling to learn.
The balconies cleared, and the lot was empty, the night was quiet once again. I stayed with an elderly lady and carried her walker as she slowly ascended the stairs to her apartment on the third floor. At least I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to improve my image, even if it was just for one person. Eva was extremely grateful for my patience, concern, and kindness. Maybe I should do an annual fund drive in the building? Hmmm?
My point is this… NEVER pass up the opportunity to show your compassion for your customers. The garbage calls are what we do most, shouldn’t we do them BEST? A kind, reassuring word or two after a nuisance call, a gentle ride to the hospital, an understanding ear for a complainant; these are the easy parts of the job we often neglect. People will forget what you do, but they will never forget how you made them feel!
ALWAYS BE SMOOOTH!