I’m the new guy, and I’m holding your department’s purse strings. But don’t worry. I think public safety is just as important as the next guy does. I mean, who isn’t proud of our police cars? Who doesn’t think fire engines are neat? An ambulance? Ugh. That’s a little different. No one wants to face their own mortality, but I guess people need them.
Now keep in mind, I didn’t get elected on a public safety platform. Maybe I was elected on concerns about local zoning issues and commercial development on the north end of town. Maybe I was elected over a bond issue or protection of a watershed. Maybe it was all about education, local transit or simply reducing government to its smallest possible size.
But hey, like I said, everyone thinks public safety is important. Everything should be just fine, right?
So what would you say to this newly elected leader? Does it matter if he or she knows anything about your department and what you really do? Does it matter if they have more than just a casual understanding of EMS and the unique needs and challenges of your service as compared to police and fire?
Let’s assume it does matter. Let’s assume that the more thoroughly they understand your department and EMS in general, the more likely they are to support you in the ways that you need them to.
How then, do we talk to them? How do we help them understand? Is it their responsibility to come to us and learn? Should we sit and wait for them or should we drive the process? Do we lean on our post-9/11 hero status to exert our importance and relevance? We can certainly tell them how important we are, and we probably will. But every other entity that looks to them for funding will be saying the same thing.
In EMS we have some unique ways to communicate not just what we do and how we do it, but more importantly, the impact that we have on the very people we’re all ultimately here to serve. We don’t just have to tell them. We can show them. And we can do it in several powerful ways.
There are a number of tools we can use to achieve this goal. An added benefit to each method is that we’re not only showing our elected officials, but also our collective community members as well. And when we talk to our community members, we’re strongly reinforcing our message to our elected officials. And if there’s anything elected officials pay attention to at election time, it’s what the voters are talking about. Have you given those voters a reason to talk about the importance of the service you provide? Simply put, if you’re talking to your community, you’re also talking to your elected leaders.
Method 1: Engage Local Media
Emergency responders have a long history of putting up a wall to media when they arrive on scene to cover an event. That could be one of the biggest tactical errors we make as public safety entities. There are undoubtedly reasons why some may feel resistant to media coverage of a scene. Maybe there’s an assumption that they’re just there for exploitation. Certainly we’re inclined to protect the dignity of our patients. Maybe we’re concerned about their safety, or maybe it has more to do with not wanting to subject ourselves to the scrutiny of our peers.
Regardless of the reasons for resistance, let’s look at the benefits of cooperative engagement with media. Keep in mind that just like us, the reporter was dispatched to the scene of the call to do a job. The best case scenario for them is acquiring a few facts from the authorities on what happened and what’s being done about it. That equips the reporter to provide his or her audience with the most accurate narrative on the incident with information directly from the people in charge. That gives their media outlet credibility, which drives viewership. And viewership drives advertising sales. That’s their motivation.
Our motivation? That’s easy. By cooperating, we allowed them to portray us as capable professionals who care about the community, and we demonstrated that we are on scene and mitigating the problem. We have instilled confidence in our community by carrying ourselves in a knowledgeable and professional way. By showing our community, we have also shown value and worth to our elected officials. You could never even begin to buy the commercial time you just got on the 6 o’clock news.
It’s surprisingly easy to engage media in an effective way, but there is also plenty to learn. Search for Public Information Officer (PIO) courses that may be offered by your state emergency management offices or other local entities.
Method 2: Engage Social Media
Let’s make this a two-step process. Step one: turn off the urge to aggressively run off the citizen with the cellphone, camera, tablet or drone. Everyone has a right to record anything out in the public domain. It’s not a HIPAA issue, and it’s not for us to stop. So what if someone posts a clip of us on Facebook? At least that clip shows us taking care of our patient instead of letting our emotional and aggressive reaction become the story. If you want to advocate for your patient, minimize their exposure instead of fighting the photographer.
Step two: create social media channels for your department. There are thousands of department examples to draw from. Reach out to your community. It’s how people communicate now. Show them who you are, what you do and why you do it that way.
Method 3: Put On a Survivor Celebration
Cardiac arrest resuscitation with good neurological outcome has increased dramatically in many areas of the country. Now that’s certainly good for a variety of reasons, but included in that list is the fact that it provides a unique opportunity to demonstrate value to your community in a way that’s easy to understand, yet has very dramatic impact.
Think how moving it would be to have a survivor speak to your board. Here we have a person who was clinically dead, but is now standing there talking about how much your staff means to them. And they’re not using charts, facts and figures. They’re speaking from their hearts in a way that connects from human to human. They personify the value of EMS, and they want your elected officials to hear them.
There are a variety of ways to conduct a survivor celebration. It can be as simple as a survivor and family speaking alongside their responders at a council meeting. Or it could be a small media event that offers photo ops, interviews and maybe even hands-only CPR demonstrations for media.
For larger systems with higher numbers of survivors, the celebration may take the form of a larger community event that stands on its own. An important component to such an event is inviting elected officials, including having the mayor or chair of the commissioners serve as a host or speaker.
There’s another reason to have them speak. Elected officials typically make a lot of appearances. Make sure you coordinate with their staff members so that you can provide talking points for them prior to the event. This actually gives you a method to help shape the script that your elected officials will use to talk about your department. How many other opportunities do you have to tell the people who fund your budget what they should be saying to the public about your department?
Granted, cardiac arrests represent a tiny percentage of our everyday calls. And there are some responders who may find it disingenuous to prop up a cardiac arrest survivor as representation of an entire EMS system’s work. That sentiment is well understood, because there are so many positive impacts made every day by more routine interactions, and it’s important we find ways to cite those accomplishments. But cardiac arrest survival is worth consideration for a public celebration because of the powerful impact that their stories have. People can relate, and those people include elected officials.
Method 4: ‘State of EMS’ Address & Ride Along
National EMS Week is a really good time to request 15 minutes to address your local board. Ask them to declare a local EMS Week. Then spend 10 minutes reporting your system’s performance. Show them some data points that are important for EMS to measure and that benchmark your department’s performance. Help them learn that there are some really important measures beyond simple response times. Then show them some things you’re working on. Next year remind them about those things and show how you’ve made them better. It’s a data-driven world. Collect it and use it.
Don’t forget to offer a ride along. Nothing speaks to the multitude of challenges and objectives in EMS more than those elected officials seeing it firsthand.
Using these combined methods, we have spoken to both the heads and hearts of our community and elected officials. We didn’t just tell them we’re important, we demonstrated value through both objective and subjective means. When that newly elected official sits down for the next budget process, ensure that he or she has a good understanding of what you do and why it matters.
Jeffrey Hammerstein is a paramedic and Chief of Community Outreach/EMS PIO at Wake County EMS in Raleigh, N.C.