As an editor and writer for NFPA Journal, I frequently research topics that are objectively depressing. Fatal fires, catastrophic incidents, natural and man-made disasters, you name it. In the vast majority of cases, though, the tragedy du jour happened despite best intentions. There was no ill-will; nobody wanted something bad to happen. Sadly, that isn’t the case with the January/February NFPA Journal cover story, “The Toll of Violence.”
When you talk to EMS personnel and read incident reports, it’s truly shocking to hear the horror stories of the violence most have suffered at the hands of their patients—the people they are trying to help. Across the world, when EMTs and paramedics rush out to provide help, they are increasingly met with fists, insults, spit, teeth, kicks, and threats, far from the gratitude I think most people would expect. For many, a career that started as an earnest desire to do good has turned into a kind of hell. Too many responders, I learned, are wrought with anxiety, depression, and fear; some have become so jaded that they no longer care about the patients they serve.
“First responders have higher rates of suicide and substance abuse than the rest of the population, and people are asking why,” John Montes, an NFPA employee and longtime Boston paramedic told me for the story. “It’s the concept of death by a thousand papercuts, and those assaults are big papercuts. People are starting to see this as a big issue, and it’s finally starting to be brought out into the light.”
The good news is that the increasing exposure of this problem has resulted for the first time in real efforts to learn more about why violence against responders happens so frequently, as well as efforts to come up with strategies to reduce it. In reporting this story, I spoke with leaders in EMS, police, and fire, as well as academics, researchers, and responders themselves. They paint a frightening picture of what it’s like to run calls in today’s world, the strain it causes, and where we are headed if we don’t do something to lighten the load (hint: it’s not good).
This issue is important on so many levels, not just for the humans on the other end of those punches, but for the entire emergency system our society relies on. I would encourage you to read “The Toll of Violence” to learn much more about what’s happening and why. For a more in-depth look at the research being done at Drexel University to try to better understand the issue, and to enact strategies to help responders, read my accompanying piece, “Responder Advocate.” Both are in the new January/February issue of NFPA Journal.