An old paramedic named Steve Steele and his partner, Jen Horner (who's not old, thank you), brought their big grins into my office a few weeks ago and asked me to check out the flag above our station. Steve and Jen are consummate professionals: all business. They're the kind of people you hope show up at your house when you have your big one. I've been trying to get them to lighten up for years, because they never seem to be having any fun.
Actually, that's not completely true. OK, it's a lie. These two are great people, the kind you would want to help you through your big one. They're serious when they need to be, but otherwise ... not!
There, flapping in the breeze at the top of the flagpole in place of the Stars and Stripes, was the skull and crossbones of Jolly Roger, that icon of pirates (and those shallow, sissy pretenders, the Oakland Raiders).
These two had organized a somber flag-raising ceremony with the other crews and hoisted him up there with about as much dignity as he probably deserves. We left him there all day, and people had a good time over him. Best of all, the kids at the big public pool behind our station, who ride their bikes through our parking lot, noticed him right off. They loved him, and they laughed all day long.
Now, you may think that's unprofessional, Life-Saver -- flying a pirate flag over a community-owned 9-1-1 ambulance facility, even just for a day. It's probably not one of those things for which you'd want to seek your chief's permission. But in this case, the station wasn't visible from a main road. The garage bays were full of clean equipment, well maintained and ready to roll. And the quarters were full of wonderful people, all way ahead of their CE requirements, properly certified, alert and looking sharp.
This is such a serious business, and we need to take it seriously. But we should try not to take ourselves too seriously. You've probably worked with a few people who expected you to function like a machine, your every action orchestrated by protocols -- memorized, so you didn't have to think. But that's not life. Great EMS comes from good thinkers with great instincts and great hearts. When they don't need to be absolutely serious, they need the freedom to exercise those big brains and fool around a little.
Those kinds of people are smart enough to engineer lots of reasons to laugh that don't hurt anybody's feelings, affect the performance of their duties or jeopardize anybody's safety. For instance, some bosses are just dying to have their offices decorated, or their computer keys moved around a little. You can make 'em say "happy birthday," if you combine the "h's," "a's," "p's" and "y's" from two identical keyboards. The keys just pop off and snap into place (although it's probably best not to mess with laptops). Bosses need to be trained observers, too, and we all know that requires practice. They have to get it somewhere.
You can even enlist the help of people's families. I know a crew who gave somebody's spouse some white silicone caulking compound to put in his sandwich one night, right there between the lettuce and the bread. It was nice and rubbery the next day, when he took a big bite out if it in front of a whole day room full of trained observers. That warranted a contribution to the station's cuss bucket, and you can bet they enforced it.
In my experience, people love to be surprised. (You do, right?) Surprises break up monotony, and they keep our lives interesting. Use a surprise to remind somebody they're important to you, and you create a memory they'll treasure (Arr-r!) for a lifetime.
There are plenty of other reasons to laugh that don't come at anybody's expense, and when somebody thinks of one, it should be welcomed. I think routine laughter in the hallways is a sign of health in any organization, but especially in EMS. It tells you people are having fun. We all need that.
Lord knows, we don't do this for the money.