As I reached toward the siren-mode panel in the center of the dash to switch our deafening whelp to an ear-shattering wail, I unexpectedly found a gloved hand already poised on the control knob. “I got it partner,” said a happy-go-lucky voice from the passenger side. “You just focus on driveeeeeeeeeeeoowwww!” Like a gunfighter from the Old West, I used my lightning-quick, seasoned reflexes to thump the top of their dorsal hand with the head of my previously hidden 2′, heavy-duty, D-battery-laden halogen Maglight.

My rookie partner recoiled into a fetal position to the far right of their seat, subjected to the additional discomfort of having to hear my Clint Eastwood impersonation as I hoarsely whispered, “A man has got to know his limitations.” The lesson of “never touch another medic_s siren while driving hot” was still made painfully clear.

Personal space is the area surrounding a person, or that vicinity they consider to be their domain or territory. Call it a personal bubble or invisible boundary, but all human beings who interact with other species (including management) set distinct comfort zones of distance from others based on emotions, circumstances, cultures and specific relationships.

EMS personnel are used to downsizing their expectations for a reasonable salary, professional respect, sleep or a decent warm meal. But more than anything, we must adapt to a lack of personal space that would frazzle even an Oompa Loompa. And if it seems like that EMS ecosystem is getting smaller, you_re right; manufacturers are making ambulances more compact even though our patientsƒand yes, weƒare getting bigger.„

Ah, forced intimacy! What other profession requires you to work in an enclosed area the size of two coffins with an infectiously diseased individual in desperate need of a Tic Tac? It_s not like you can excuse yourself from the room for a breather while driving down the interstate at 70 mph. For the public, personal space increases when interacting with strangers. For EMS, the stranger the person, the more we_re forced to invade their personal space. (“Pass the haldol.”) The bigger the disaster, the more the general public wants to see and trespass into EMS_s personal space bubble. And dispatchers have no comfort zone, which is why they work in isolation.

Some distances remain consistent regardless of where one works. The space between two men is usually bigger than between two women. It_s even larger for a man and woman working togetherƒunless they actively choose to work a 160-hour shift together. American culture dictates a larger comfort zone than most others, unless they_re selling us oil.

Personal space is truly tested by those who work in systems that have chosen to ignore the Geneva Convention mandate banning torture. I speak of course of system status management (shudder, tremble, convulse). These crews endure each other_s company in a cab one-third the size of a prison cell for 12 hours at a time, drifting throughout their district with no place to consistently park and call home. Abandoned in the abyss of statistical data maneuvering, they await a purpose that only a dispatcher can provide.

While posting, they must adhere to personal boundary rules learned in a fashion similar to that of my rookie partner. These rules include: Do not rest your outstretched arm on the opposing chair. Personal items should not extend beyond one backpack. Personal drinking mug must fit in holder. Feet on the dash are OK as long they_re on your own side. Do not place your stethoscope on your partner_s side of the dash. No chew waste shall be stored in anything that resembles a beverage container.

There are also several auditory rules, including: Do not snore, regardless of how many shifts you_ve worked in a row. Do not sing along with the radio or your iPod, regardless of how good a singer you think you are. You should not make minute-by-minute updates on your cell phone to everyone in the universe of what you_re doing at that specific moment in time. No provider shall clip their nails at work. Do not scan every law, fire or EMS frequency outside this time zone. Open-mouth gum smacking or popping is not permissible. Do not excessively fold newspapers or flip magazine pages.

Olfactory personal boundaries include: Dietary intake should not hold predictable biologically fragrant consequences prone to ignition. No perfume, aftershave or aromatic deodorant should permeate beyond the owner_s nose.

Non-verbal ways your partner may signify you_ve trespassed into their personal space include: They construct a wall of books and coats between your seats. They string 1″ tape to divide the cab. They place the defibrillator pads under your seat cover. They communicate with you only via text. They yell “bad touch” if you accidently brush against them.

Some studies regarding personal space related to profession indicate the more affluent and respected a person is, the larger the personal space they_re entitled to. Maybe that_s why we in EMS work in millimeters and not feet.

Until next time, take a step back.JEMS

Steve Berryhas been a paramedic for the past 25 years in the southern Colorado region. He_s the author of the cartoon book series I_m Not An Ambulance Driver and invites you to join him and others of the EMS community to ride in the 2009 National EMS Memorial Bike Ride ( Visit his Web site to purchase his books or CDs.