What to do when an emergency responder loses their cool

Here's how to help a colleague who is on the cusp of becoming a viral news sensation, putting their career at risk and embarrassing your department

The coach on the soccer field a few feet behind me was screaming at the referee, insulting the 10-year-old players on both teams and threatening the opposing coach.

Like most soccer complexes I've been to, the benches for adjacent fields were back to back. His escalating anger and verbal tirades had the rapt attention of every 10-year-old and spectator in a four-field radius. He was out of control with no sign of being able to regain his composure.

I walked up beside the man, who was a head taller and 100 pounds heavier than me, and when he glanced at me, I gently put my hand on his shoulder and very quietly said, "You and I are going to walk toward the parking lot."

Cops, paramedics and firefighters are constantly in public view.
Cops, paramedics and firefighters are constantly in public view. (Photo/AP)

"OK," he replied.

The anger and vitriol melted away from him as we walked away from the field.

Emergency responders behaving badly

Detective Jeff Payne, a Utah police officer and paramedic since 1983, became a viral news sensation when he handcuffed a nurse who refused to let him draw blood on an unconscious patient. Payne has since been fired from Gold Cross Ambulance and is on paid leave as the Salt Lake City Police Department investigates the incident.

As I watched the video of Payne inside the hospital, handcuffing nurse Alex Wubbels, I was struck by how many people – hospital staff, hospital security officers and police officers – witnessed the escalating incident. Much like my encounter with the out-of-control soccer coach, this incident was playing out in the midst of a crowd of somber, sober and sane adults.

You have likely been to a scene where a colleague sets a course of action that is rapidly building toward confrontation. This colleague, like Payne, usually rationalizes course of action as the only possible solution. The desired actions the patient, suspect or other responders are supposed to take are stated repeatedly and often with increasing volume and hostility. If uninterrupted, a chain reaction of events – almost always captured on multiple smartphone videos – leads to unnecessary verbal and physical confrontation.

If you have been in a situation like the Utah incident or have had an obnoxious reporter aggressively filming a scene, you know there are a lot of options. One of the options can ruin your career, while dozens of other options lead to another regular day on the job.

If you haven't been in a situation escalating to regrettable verbal or physical conflict, visualize the role you might play and how you might apply some of these guidelines.

Treat the emergency, if there is one

The Utah patient was unconscious at a definitive care facility. He wasn't going anywhere soon or quickly. This wasn't an emergency. There was plenty of time to step back and consider alternatives.

If danger is imminent, reduce the risks with the tools and training available to you. 

De-escalate the situation and the people in it

Out-of-control patients and suspects are easier to de-escalate because we don't have a peer relationship with them and we have a continuum of options, from verbal techniques to chemical or physical restraint, to nonlethal weapons. For an out-of-control colleague, start with some subtle body language, like a look of concern, a head nod to move away from the scene or pointing them away from the cause of their stress.

The most important step is to overcome your reluctance to get involved, to challenge a colleague or potentially embarrass another responder. Intervene early. Payne was on his way to a meeting with his supervisor, investigation or reprimand well before he handcuffed Wubbels.

Move away from the stressor

Invite your colleague to move away from the scene to discuss the incident or retrieve additional equipment. Visual and auditory separation from the cause of the stress – the nurse, patient or other official – might be enough to reset emotions and tactics.

I am not sure what prevented the other soccer coach from punching me in the face. I am glad he didn't, but the potential danger of a physical reaction shouldn't be minimized. Don't add to the stress by ordering, demanding, yelling or shoving. Calmly and succinctly provide an option out to your colleague.

Identify the desired outcome

Once you are away from the stress, discuss the desired outcome you are trying to achieve. Avoid discussing what has already happened. Instead focus on solutions.

Acknowledge many possible solutions

Once the desired outcome is clear, propose solutions to achieve that outcome. There are many ways to skin a cat or obtain a blood sample. Try asking, "If we were going to do this differently, how would we do it?"

Discuss and review the answer to work toward the desired outcome.

Hand over the incident

In many cases, the best solution is to let a peer or supervisor takeover. Once a responder has lost their cool on the scene, it's difficult to regain the trust of the patient, bystanders and other public safety personnel.

Apply the lessons learned

Cops, paramedics and firefighters are constantly in public view. Every response, public encounter and exchange is likely to be captured on a smartphone, dash cam, bodycam and surveillance camera.

When confrontational incidents become news, move quickly past analysis of who was wrong or who was right and into answering:

  • What would I do in a similar situation?
  • How would my employer or supervisor expect me to handle an encounter like this?
  • When and how should I intervene when a colleague is losing control?

Share your experiences and ideas for de-escalating an out-of-control colleague in the comments or send an email to editor@ems1.com. We want to hear from you and how you will apply the lessons learned from this incident.

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