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

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?

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