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Are slogans in EMS a bad thing?

At first glance, they seem pretty cool, but what happens when the catch-phrase does not match the conduct?

​Updated August 11, 2014

"Proudly Serving the City of…"  — "Commitment, Compassion, Care" — "Professionalism, Integrity, Pride" — "Honor, Service, Excellence"

These are a few of the types slogans I see all the time on the sides of EMS vehicles both public and private service; carefully selected descriptors intended to instill some degree of confidence in the general public that they are in good hands.

At first glance, they seem pretty cool. When people see me or think of me, I would love for them to feel some of those things.

To a great extent, mottos, slogans and catchphrases work. A regular person with no experience or contact with EMS can be easily programmed to believe that the agency is committed to being the best of the best and will take comfort in that belief.

But what happens when the catchphrase does not match the conduct?

I'm sure that when it appeared the LAPD was beating Rodney King senseless, the words "Protect" and "Serve" were not first in the minds of viewers. In fact, the LAPD's image is still recovering from that incident. Nearly two decades later, I still hear people say that the LAPD will "…treat you like a King – a Rodney King" and the department continues to fight an uphill battle to show the public that they truly do intend to "Protect and Serve."

For EMS providers, the disparity is usually much more subtle than a videotaped beating.

The filthy ambulance that is staffed by two unshaven slobs whose shirts are food-stained and un-tucked and they are posted in a convenience store parking lot smoking cigarettes and reading Playboy does not do much to demonstrate the "Professionalism, Integrity, Pride" promised on the side, and the public notices.

Likewise, it's counterintuitive for the crew that arrives in a squad emblazoned with "Commitment, Compassion, Care" to do everything possible not to transport the homeless guy with chest pain in the middle of the night.

My favorite may be the apparatus adorned with a large "Proudly Serving the City of…" parked in front of the adult "book" store. I can't make this stuff up.

Your slogan can and will be used against you

You can bet that when a provider's conduct, performance or integrity are challenged in court, the slogan by which they are supposed to live will come up … and then what do you say?

Of course, there are countless providers who do more than just embody the mottos; they believe and live them. I know providers who far exceed the adjectives and adverbs painted on the side of the rig. Unfortunately, their great deeds and incontrovertible image can be quickly buried by those who do not.

Nevertheless, despite the obvious reality that the connection between the slogan and the conduct is inconsistent at best, management loves them.

My humble opinion, backed by experience and not science, is that managers love slogans and mottos because they are an inexpensive and very simple way to look good to the politicians on whose vote their livelihood depends; they are an exercise in "feel-good" politics; a rolling reminder of their good intentions. Well, as a dear friend once told me a long, long time ago: The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

When a provider, ostensibly committed to excellence negligently harms a patient or when an agency priding itself on integrity is caught in a cover-up that goes all the way to the top, the length of the fall can be multiplied by the degree of contradiction to the motto by which they are supposed to be operating. Simply put: the higher the standard to which you claim to hold yourself, the longer your fall when you fail.

So, EMS should quit using mottos altogether? No.

Lowering the standard to meet performance is never the answer. The answer is: Raise performance to meet the standard, and then raise the standard and do it again; the answer is training, supervision, and accountability.

If your agency is going to "Proudly Serve the Community of…" then everyone from the chief to the groundskeeper needs to know what "proudly" means and how "proudly" is achieved. Then "proudly" needs to be trained and supervised and everyone must be held accountable to the same "proudly" standard. After a year or two or three of consistently living "proudly," it will become the culture.

And then everyone wins.

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