Thursday, January 18, 2018

Emergency Response and Personal Safety

This blog grew out of a thread regarding police and personal safety on approaching suspects. It is part of a bigger issue in emergency response generally and one which keeps coming up in different forms. This is also not an official Sheriff's Auxiliary post because I want to be free to represent my own opinion here and not any specific organization's policy.

The assertion is--- and I have seen this made a number of ways--- that the #1 priority is personal safety and the Licensed Peace Officer (LPO) should do whatever they need to do (regardless of law or procedure) to go home to their families. I have even caught myself using close variants of it in training (though I do usually catch myself). I am going to look at this in the light of emergency response generally to show that it is subtly and dangerously wrong.

Is Personal Safety the #1 Priority?

If we did take this assertion to be true with LPOs specifically and with emergency response generally, what would be the logical result? If personal safety is the top priority, then the solution is simple: don't send emergency personnel into the field. Problem solved. In fact, there is no other way to satisfy such a priority.

Clearly, we do send emergency personnel into the field. Clearly as well, personal (personnel - either works) safety is important. So something else must be going on here. What is it? First, the assertion of priority needs to be corrected. Second, there is a misapprehension about the role of procedures and training.

Life Safety is the Mission:

Life safety of everyone (not just you) is paramount. This is, in fact, the mission. Being an emergency responder (in any capacity) does require a certain level of risk. Whether volunteer or professional, this risk is known when you sign up. It is not a secret. Whether paid or not, if one is not comfortable with some risk in order to accomplish the mission, then the proper response is to go home.

Most of us, when we decide to do emergency response, do it at least partly because we are motivated by a personal need to help others even at a personal cost. This almost has to be true of volunteers because very little else could explain our behavior. And, let's face it, emergency professionals, including LPOs, are seldom paid what they are actually worth: one could flip burgers and make what many paramedics make, without the stress, without the liability, and without the crazy hours. I have no idea what it would take to pay me to do a domestic call at 02:30 hrs as an LPO, but  it is much more than the officers I know make.

Personal safety is important. We train on safety all the time. For one thing, if we do not practice personal safety, we become victims and someone else has to go risk their lives to save our sorry behinds. And, we do want to go home to our families. There are times where we do not go into a situation (and the rules say we don't) because the risk is not warranted. But... and here is the important part... personal safety does not justify taking actions which actively endanger others. We call that 'cowardice'.

The Real Priority:

It is also not true that our first priority is ever our own safety. For one thing, when I am on the field with an LPO I serve alongside, my first priority is that they go home to their families. I expect, with many of those I work with, they are thinking the same thing in reverse (that is: they don't want to fill out the paperwork if they lose the useless volunteer). That's what a team is: we watch each others' backs. As a class, responders watch the public's backs--- or we should--- and that goes whether or not we are paid enough or appreciated enough. Which brings me to:

The Role of Rules:

We have rules and train to them because they protect lives. Sometimes bad rules (or rules which did not anticipate the circumstances) do get in the way of the mission and of life safety, but that means that the rules need to change, not that we should ignore them. When we do have to violate rules--- and sometimes we do--- the issue needs to be explained and examined so that we can adjust future rules and training. A process with no feedback loop is dangerous and worse than useless.

What if you work in a system where this is not true, where the rules are systematically bad and dysfunctional? Quit. Yes, really: if it really is that bad, it isn't worth your life and others to stick with it. Not for anything. A good supervisor, one who protects their personnel from bad calls upstairs, is priceless and if you have such a one, great, fight for them, but otherwise ¡Quit! and go somewhere else.

In emergency response, if you simply decide to not follow the rules, Bad Things(TM) happen, maybe to you, maybe to your fellow responders, maybe to the public.

And Here We Get To the Real Problem:

There is a corollary here, though, and it applies to everyone, not just the emergency responders: if we hold emergency personnel (including LPOs) to the rules, if we hold them accountable for breaking them, then we citizens need to be responsible for the rules that we control, the laws and policy that we set. When we set bad rules, or stick our heads in the sand and let it be someone else's problem, people die.

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