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How compassion on the job leads to efficient outcomes on scene

While every situation is different, most people are more receptive to a sympathetic approach than an authoritative command


“We have a moral imperative to behave compassionately toward the people we encounter in our job,” writes Willing.

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At the end of a very busy shift throughout the city – car wrecks, gas leaks, kitchen fires, heart attacks – we received a routine call for a suspected overdose. We’d been up most of the night and were worn out, as were the paramedics from the private company who also responded to the incident.

Because we arrived at the scene at the same time, we let the paramedics approach the patient first. The young woman, “Tracy,” was crumpled up on the bathroom floor, half dressed, crying and sick, but the lead paramedic was in a hurry. He didn’t have any patience for Tracy, who huddled by the toilet, her head in her lap. “Get up,” the paramedic told her. She didn’t move. Agitated, he put a hand under one of her arms, roughly trying to pull her to her feet. “Come on, let’s go,” he said. Her rubbery legs collapsed under her, and she fell back against the wall.

At that point, my crew stepped in. We got down next to Tracy on the floor and introduced ourselves. We asked if she could get up with help and go out to the couch. She said she could, and with help, she did. We helped her with her shoes and coat. She told us that she suffered from mental illness and her overdose on prescription drugs had been accidental. We promised to pass that information along at the hospital. Two of us supported her as she walked on shaky legs down the stairs of the apartment complex to the ambulance.

Within minutes, Tracy was on her way to the hospital, but before the ambulance left, I pulled the paramedic aside. “Why are you treating her like this?” I asked him. He told me that this was the only ambulance left in the city and he felt pressured to expedite the call.

Compassion as a gateway to efficiency

I came away from that call with lingering feelings. It bothered me that the paramedic had been so harsh with the patient. She was only 24, she had a chronic illness, and she was upset but still basically cooperative. His lack of compassion for her was morally wrong in my eyes.

But his manner on the call was also bad work practice. Whereas he saw a compassionate approach to this patient as a waste of time, it was our compassion for her that actually expedited the call – which was his goal. Had we not gained this patient’s trust, she might not have tried to walk with us, and we would have had to carry her down two flights of stairs on a stretcher. If the paramedic had further antagonized her, she might have become fearful and uncooperative, necessitating police backup. All these outcomes would have been a direct result of the paramedic’s unsympathetic approach, which he thought was saving time.

I believe we have a moral imperative to behave compassionately toward the people we encounter in our job. It may be just another call for us, but for most people, it is the worst day of their lives. The people calling us could be our parents, our children, our neighbors. We owe it to them – and ourselves – to acknowledge their humanity with compassion.

But compassion is the practical choice, too. We will always function more efficiently and with better results if we have the trust and cooperation of the people we encounter on the job. Creating a basis of compassion in our work increases our effectiveness in every type of emergency we deal with. Not only will we work better, but we will also be better. In the end, we will reap the greatest benefit of this approach within ourselves.

This article, originally published in August 2022, has been updated.

Linda Willing is a retired career fire officer and currently works with emergency services agencies and other organizations on issues of leadership development, decision making, and diversity management through her company, RealWorld Training and Consulting. She is also an adjunct instructor and curriculum advisor with the National Fire Academy. Linda is the author of On the Line: Women Firefighters Tell Their Stories. She has a bachelor’s degree in American studies, a master’s degree in organization development and is a certified mediator. Linda is a member of the FireRescue1/Fire Chief Editorial Advisory Board. To contact Linda, e-mail