Whatever you do, don’t call paramedics and emergency medical technicians “ambulance drivers.” It’s like calling a nurse a “doctor’s helper” – they’re so much more than that.
Take Durango Fire Protection District paramedic Laila Foster, for example. She and her colleagues work 48-hour shifts. Some nights she hardly gets any sleep. She is trained in both firefighting and life-saving techniques, although she specializes in the latter.
Foster is just one of thousands of trained emergency medical responders being recognized this month for National EMS Week, May 19-25, which was established by President Gerald Ford in 1974. And there’s been a trend in firefighting circles in recent years to address the stresses that impact the mental health of emergency medical personnel, said Durango Fire’s EMS Chief Scott Sholes.
“I would say there’s a huge emphasis on (mental health), and unfortunately, the emphasis is relativity new,” Sholes said. “There’s been a growing national trend to recognize that that was missed from before, that we didn’t pay attention to people’s emotional well-being and didn’t really recognize what the actual stressors were.”
Foster has been working with DFPD for about six years as a paramedic, the most advanced non-hospital medical profession, she said. She and the approximately 50 other paramedics employed with DFPD are capable of performing a range of medical procedures, from sedating people to performing minor surgery. And she often does it while bouncing around in the back of a moving ambulance.
The job is often stressful and calls are unexpected, Foster said. Everyone has calls they don’t like to go on – pediatric emergencies and suicides are particularly difficult, she said.
“There’s no place on scene for us to cry with people,” Foster said. “They want us to be calm and controlled. ... You have to separate yourself from the emotional aspects.”
Emotions are human, and so are emergency medical personnel, Sholes said. But there’s a stigma in the firefighting profession that “you need to be tough enough to do the job,” he said, which discourages people from talking about their feelings. The best way to defeat that stigma is to make mental health part of the firefighting process, Sholes said.
“First, you make it acceptable, then you make it available,” he said.
Foster trained and worked in search and rescue operations out of Silverton for years before accepting a career position with the DFPD. Her passion for emergency service grew organically from those experiences, she said.
“We all do the job because we thrive in it. ... It’s stressful in good and bad ways,” Foster said. “None of us are immune to it; we’re just really good at dealing with it.”
It all comes back to training, support and a unique ability to make sense out of chaos, she said.
Training comes first and foremost. Without it, firefighters, EMTs and paramedics would have the tools to fight fires and save lives, but they wouldn’t have the experience to do it. All DFPD employees are required to work out at least once per shift, keeping their bodies in peak physical condition to react to physically demanding situations.
The training works as a framework with which to analyze a situation and decide what is the best course of action to save someone’s life.
“It gives us a place to start,” Foster said.
The training also helps DFPD employees analyze chaotic situations and break problems into smaller, easier-to-tackle tasks, Foster said. It’s important to go back to basics sometimes, especially when the situation seems insurmountable, she said. If things get out of hand, that’s what the chain of command is for, she said.
But when the sirens stop and the reports are filed, paramedics, EMTs and firefighters are often left to deal with traumatic memories and all the feelings associated with them, Foster said. That’s why it’s so important to have support, Foster said – someone to talk to about all the troubling thoughts that can come with intervening in life-threatening situations week in and week out.
Foster said she has a few colleagues who she feels comfortable speaking with. Sholes said DFPD has put an emphasis on peer support systems, encouraging people to talk with colleagues about their feelings.
Foster sees a therapist a few times a year, just as she would visit a family doctor for a checkup, she said. When she’s not working, she focuses on a good sleep schedule, lots of activity and exercise, Foster said.
DFPD employees work two days on and then have four days off – “It’s important to get away,” she said.
The shared traumatic experiences bring firefighters, EMTs and paramedics closer together, she said. Crews joke a lot, often playing “good hearted” pranks on each other or poking political buttons.
“I laugh every day at work,” Foster said. “Once you earn the respect of people, you become part of the family.”