EMS lessons from our founding fathers

Do we have it within ourselves to create a future that is worthy of our past?


We don’t have to look very far to see that our emergency services are in the middle of a bit of an image crisis across the United States.

In response to the fatal police shooting of black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., a recent front page of USA Today bore the headline, Both Whites and Blacks Question Police Accountability. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram were awash in debates over police use of force, racism in public service and the right to bear arms.

Enter the name of any branch of public service into the YouTube search box and you're bound to find an almost endless stream of public service professionals caught on video being callous, rude, profane and sometimes even violent towards the public, and even each other.

This is a good time to take a step back, take a deep breath and remember who we are, where we came from and why we each choose this as our profession.

While there are many individuals calling for America’s emergency service professionals to reinvent themselves in a new mold, I disagree. I think we need only remember where we started and move back toward our roots.

The beginning of a nation

In the heart of Washington D.C., right there on the National Mall is a grand building known as The National Archives. There, you can view some of the most significant documents ever created in the course of human history.

The Magna Carta? They have it. The Emancipation Proclamation? Yup, it’s there too.

But for all of their historical magnificence, none of those pieces of parchment can hold a candle to the three documents sitting at the head of the grand rotunda. They are collectively known as the Charters of Freedom.

In the dim half-light of the rotunda sit the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, side-by-side. You can walk right up and peer through the glass at the faded date atop the Declaration of Independence: July 4, 1776. You can make out the signatures of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin on the bottom of the last page of the Constitution. You can even see corrections to original drafts of the Bill of Rights made by James Madison’s own hand.

That last document gets a lot of attention in the media today. It seems like every banner-waving protester on the street and every political pundit on TV has something to say about the Bill of Rights.

Much like angry teenagers wanting to stay out just a bit later, we’re all very passionate about our rights. But I think we in public service should take pause at the words at the top of the Constitution, instead of the signatures at the bottom or the list of rights written two years later.

“We the people”

There at the top of the Constitution, in the largest font used on the entire document, are the three words, “We the People,” followed by what is commonly known as the preamble.

Those first three words sent a shockwave across Europe and around the world. Over two centuries later it’s hard for us to imagine how revolutionary it was for the framers of the Constitution to base the legitimacy of our new government on “the people.” For a world weary of rule by aristocracy and wealth, “We the people[RM1] ” was like a bolt of lightning. It shook human political history to its core.

And then the founding fathers laid out what would be needed to form this “more perfect union.” They listed five things. These are important. For our nation to survive, we would we need individuals willing to:

  1. Establish justice.
  2. Ensure domestic tranquility.
  3. Provide for the common defense.
  4. Promote the general welfare.
  5. Ensure the blessings of liberty.

And then they made a point to say that this document was not just for them, but for all generations to come. You see, long before any of us were born, the threads of public service were woven into the very fabric of our nation. Before the framers of the Constitution said one word about personal rights or liberties, they called Americans to service.

A call to service

If you have any doubts about their intentions, you need only look at their own lives. The signers of the Constitution were some of our first volunteer firefighters.

Among them are organizers of the rattle watch and some of our first efforts at community policing. They were doctors and lawyers, inventors and scientists. Most of them gave everything to our new nation and to its people.

Public service isn’t a danger to the Constitution. It isn’t a necessary evil of government. Public service is a necessary good. If not for individuals who choose to dedicate their lives to serve others, our nation could not survive.

I don’t care what branch or type of public service you are in. It doesn’t matter if you think your job is suppression or protection or medicine or prevention or policing or rescuing. The heart of what you do is service.

It doesn’t matter if you’re writing parking tickets, enforcing codes, taking drunk college kids to the emergency room, responding to fire alarms or making sure people can run a marathon without being blown up by a make-shift bomb.

Regardless of how important or insignificant you see your role in emergency service, if you are a public service professional, then service is at the heart of what you do.

Go stand in front of the nearest mirror and say these words to yourself: “I am a public servant.” If it doesn’t sound quite right say it again. Say it until it means something to you. Say it until you can say it with pride.

Public service professionals don’t need to reinvent themselves, but some of us may need to be reminded where we came from and what our purpose is to this great nation.

Only then can we honestly look to the future and ask ourselves what might be the single most vital question of our time. Do we have it within ourselves to create a future that is worthy of our past?

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