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Home > Topics > Safety

Does pranking belong in EMS?

Pranks and practical jokes are often defended as core elements in building esprit de corps and maintaining tradition, but they may come at a cost to EMS provider and patient safety

By Greg Friese, EMS1 Editor-in-Chief

Last Thursday, an EMS1 newsletter featured a video titled, "Climbing the pole before bed."

In the video, a probationary firefighter/paramedic is told he needs to climb up the fire pole. The video ends with the rookie being doused with a bucket of water and then covering his face with talcum powder that was coating the towel he was given.

Most of us will find this to be a harmless prank. I laughed out loud after he spread the white talcum powder all over his face. No one got physically hurt. He seemed more than willing to do as was told, and I suspect he had to have known something was up given the number of people photographing his attempt. It didn’t look like a radio or smartphone got soaked. They didn’t get paged out to an emergency in the seconds after the prank was over. As we say on the basketball court, "no blood, no foul."

Nonetheless, I have mixed feelings about this prank, the video being posted to a video sharing site, and promoting the video.

Pranks and practical jokes are often defended as core elements in building esprit de corps and maintaining tradition. If I had to suffer some indignity and humiliation as a rookie, then the next set of rookies should have the same experience. You can probably find dozens of similar videos on video sharing sites and fire and EMS blogs as a celebration of culture and tradition. As I look back on my own team experiences, the leaders and colleagues I respect the most are the ones that built my confidence, set me up to succeed, and gave me opportunities to shine in front of my peers. They applauded me publicly and scolded me privately.

Pranks might lead to hesitation during training or an actual incident. Trust and respect are at the very core of team-based emergency response with hierarchical leadership. If I ask a peer or a subordinate to complete a task, then I don’t want them to have a momentary thought of mistrust that I might be setting them up for the next gag. A moment of hesitation could be injurious to a safe and effective response.

"Just messing around" can easily escalate to teasing, bullying, and harassment. We all know there is a line between just messing around and actually causing mental, physical, or emotional harm. The problem is that we often don’t see the line until it has been crossed.

Because retaliation is often wrapped into pranks and practical jokes, the situation can quickly evolve beyond the intent of the original prankster. I have witnessed incidents where the pranking continues even after the original prankster steps out of the tit for tat because the planning, execution, and consequences have evolved beyond their comfort level.

We all have a different threshold of what is and what is not hazing. I am pretty sure the different stakeholders of your agency -- from the newest recruits to the most experienced officer, and from the chief of the organization to the policy makers in your community, and finally to the people you serve -- all have a different idea of what is and what is not appropriate. Do you know where the line is?

Finally, a knee jerk response to this video would be for the department leadership to ban recording videos in the fire station. Instead, I would call on the fire department leadership to harness the obvious talent of their personnel to record a video that is informative, entertaining, and communicates the value of the fire department to the community. Use social media as a force for good.

We want to hear from you. Is there a place for pranks in the station? Have you been harmed by a prank that crossed the line? Should be promoting more prank videos?

The comments below are member-generated and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of or its staff. If you cannot see comments, try disabling privacy and ad blocking plugins in your browser. All comments must comply with our Member Commenting Policy.
Rogue Medic Rogue Medic Wednesday, November 30, 2011 8:48:47 AM Pranks are for children, not for responsible professionals. This is one of the reasons we have so far to go to be professionals. We are not even close to good at predicting the consequences of our actions, but we expect that things will go exactly as planned..
Matt Kiefer Matt Kiefer Friday, December 02, 2011 2:55:31 PM While I agree that pranks are for children, I can honestly say that in our line of work, its a way to relieve stress, especially after a tough call. The majority of us are professionals due to the fact that we can.
Jane Tucker Salman Jane Tucker Salman Friday, December 02, 2011 4:24:23 PM Sorry, but "pranks" are for adults, "tricks" are for kids! Best way to relieve stress.
Glenn Brock Glenn Brock Friday, December 02, 2011 8:18:11 PM I was in the US Navy for 8 years. That's where pranks and practical jokes were born. I'm 52 now and alot more street smart now than I was back then. I never had the opportunity to go to college so I joined the Navy. In the Navy back in the late 70's on into the 80's jokes of all sorts were common somewhere on a daily basis. Most were tolerated, bye and large it was a fact of Navy life. When someone was injured, or damage to government property was involved, it was hushed or covered up. Not these days. Now it's an open forum for lawsuits. Times change, people do too. But when a joke goes to the extent of which a majistrate, or any court is involved, things that were hillarious then, aren't so funny when the words "ALL RISE, COURT IS IN SESSION" are spoken. Trust you me, you wil shit your pants right where you stand. I guarantee that. You will feel like a close range target at the local county fair shooting gallery once those lawers and attorneys are set loose. And all that stress and pressure could have been prevented. Try this, go ask your supervisor this, "Hey Sam, is it ok if we play a prank on Joe, you know... the new guy..say next friday afternoon, me and the boys"? What do you think his answer would be? Times have changed, if it's about team building, or relieving pressure, make it something else. Like a copetition. But when one engages in pranktivity, one is walking a veeery thin line on even thinner ice. If you value your job, your carreer, your reputation and your pride, DON"T DO IT. Glenn Brock
Rez Medic Rez Medic Saturday, December 03, 2011 8:33:58 AM ED staff once greased our steering wheel w KY... and we almost hit a brick wall in front of the ED when we got called out and could not grip the wheel.....
Greg Friese Greg Friese Sunday, December 04, 2011 11:42:26 AM Glenn, well said.
Greg Friese Greg Friese Sunday, December 04, 2011 11:43:44 AM Relieving stress, especially after a tough call, is really important. We all need and benefit from using our own preferred method for stress management. Being the butt of a joke or the victim of a prank might not be a helpful stress management tool.
Glenn Brock Glenn Brock Sunday, December 04, 2011 2:17:30 PM Greg Friese, thanks Greg, I hope somewhere along the line this message saves someone some grief... -g
Rogue Medic Rogue Medic Monday, December 05, 2011 8:50:23 AM Jane Tucker Salman, If you need stress relief, why should we think that the person who is on the butt end of the prank doesn't also needed stress relief? Maybe having dumping something on a stressed coworker, or whatever not really adult behavior is involved in the prank, provides you with stress relief, but why should we think that what is stress relief for you is also stress relief for others? If you need stress relief, try a prank on yourself. Maybe you will relieve everyone else's stress.
Greg Friese Greg Friese Thursday, December 15, 2011 10:37:33 AM Most fire department's probably don't want their department name and "culture of hazing" to appear together in the same headline
Rhonda Radandt Rhonda Radandt Tuesday, February 14, 2012 6:53:11 PM VERY well said... as if you took the words right out of my mouth! Thank you for having the courage to put them in print!

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