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The Star of Life: a shining symbol of what it means to be in EMS

This symbol shows that we belong to something important and we are part of the power, strength and knowledge of every EMT

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The Star of Life symbol defines EMS with it’s branches.

As a child, I remember seeing the Star of Life symbol on other people’s clothing and vehicles. I liked what I saw. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I hoped that I would be able to put one of those decals on my car when I was old enough to drive, or sew a patch on my jacket and wear it with pride.

It never occurred to me that I could simply go out and buy a patch or decal, but I confess that I spent countless hours with my Crayola crayons making my own. Many kids find their red crayons disappearing below the lip of the box, for me, the blue ones went first.

Many of the medics and EMTs I know are a lot like me in that regard. We see that symbol as far more than a neat little design, and though reticent to admit it publicly, regard it as highly as firefighters regard their Maltese Cross. The symbol that defines EMS is more than a cute logo, it has meaning.

The Star of Life was originally designed and governed by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The serpent and staff in the symbol portray the staff of Asclepius, an ancient Greek physician deified as the god of medicine. The staff represents medicine and healing, with the skin-shedding serpent being indicative of renewal. Each of the Star of Life’s arms have meaning, each an integral part of the whole:

  • Detection
  • Reporting
  • Response
  • On-scene care
  • Care in transport
  • Transfer to definitive care

The Star of Life is a universal symbol of emergency medical care. We place it on our ambulances, uniforms, trauma and med bags, sometimes our personal vehicles, and most of us have at least one T-shirt with the symbol on it. It can also be found on road maps and highway signs indicating the location of or access to qualified emergency medical care.

Anything that becomes oversaturated loses its meaning. Do you remember ignoring car alarms after hearing the annoying squeals, horn blasts and sirens for the hundredth time? Or, if you are as old as me, remember when a tour shirt from The Rolling Stones, The Who or the holy grail of tour shirts — Led Zeppelin, actually meant that you were there, rather than an easy online purchase or a quick grab from a big box store sale rack?

Some people may abuse the symbol, using it as a prop or an advertisement for emergency maintenance services. There isn’t much we can do about it. What we can do is wear the symbol with pride, on and off duty, and understand the responsibility and weight that the symbol represents. Anybody can order anything these days, and things bearing the Star of Life are no exception.

The Star of Life is more than a decoration

I’ve always seen the symbol as something more than simply a decoration, or something money can buy. The longer I am involved with EMS, the more important the symbol becomes. I like the sense of belonging to something bigger than myself, and what the Star of Life represents is exactly what I need to belong to. Those moments between a 911 call being made and the arrival of trained medical help seem like an eternity for an injured person or the family of an ill loved one. But when a person wearing the Star of Life appears, that caregiver represents all of the power, strength and knowledge of every EMT who ever earned the Star of Life.

My guess is, if you have taken the time to read this article, you are one of the people in EMS who take the Star of Life symbol seriously. We have a vital role in public safety, and we have earned a seat at the table with police and fire. It’s kind of funny how even we sometimes think of ourselves as the second tier of defense in a world growing increasingly hostile. Having worked in tandem with firefighters and law enforcement for a quarter century, I have the luxury of knowing first hand that EMS is equally important to the welfare of the citizenry during a crisis, and sometimes more.

The Star of Life is a powerful symbol

But not just anybody can deliver what the symbol represents. To the person in need of EMS salvation is all that matters, and hope comes shining through in the form of the Star of Life. I try to never underestimate the power of symbolism. People like us know exactly what it means, but far more importantly, we know exactly what it means to the people who need us, and even to the ones who think they never will.

  • All of this is well and good, but what does the Star of Life mean to you?
  • Do your expectations for yourself increase when wearing the Star of Life? Or is the star simply a cool cross with a snake in the middle?
  • Do you use the Star of Life as an accessory, perhaps on a piece of jewelry, a tattoo or a decal on your car hoping to be recognized by other public safety professionals?

If you have an opinion, please share your words and beliefs with me and other EMS1 readers in the comments. I would love to hear what others think.

This article was originally posted on Jan. 7, 2016. It has been updated.

Captain Michael Morse (ret.),, is the bestselling author of Rescuing Providence, Rescue 1 Responding, City Life and Mr. Wilson Makes it Home. Michael has been active in EMS since 1991 and offers his views on a variety of EMS and firefighting topics, focusing mainly on the interaction between patient and provider as a well respected columnist and speaker. Captain Morse is a Johnson/Macoll fellow in literature from the Rhode Island Foundation.