‘Remember what you witnessed’: Memphis is a wake-up call for emergency services
I know Memphis Fire, and while the inactions of three members should not reflect on the entire FD, we must learn from these fatal errors
As a former deputy fire chief who ran the Memphis Fire/EMS system for 10 years, I watched intently when the videos of Tyre Nichols’ interaction with first responders were released by the City of Memphis. Like many of you, I watched in horror as he was tazed, pepper-sprayed, repeatedly kicked in the face, and punched numerous times. It was gut-wrenching to hear him repeatedly call for his mom.
Even though I have been gone from Memphis Fire for eight years and now serve as the fire chief of Champaign, Illinois, I have many friends and acquaintances who still work for Memphis Fire. That is one reason why I turned down CNN’s request to go live with Don Lemon to provide analysis the night the videos were released. I would not do that to Memphis Fire or any other fire department.
Rumors become reality
Several weeks ago, before the nation knew about the death of Tyre Nichols, the rumors started leaking out of Memphis about his beating and death, plus questions about the EMS response. They were just that – rumors. Nothing was confirmed. And if you have been in the fire service long enough, you know that by the time a rumor gets through three or more fire stations on different shifts, it is never close to the truth.
Unfortunately, the rumors I heard about medically trained firefighters standing around, rendering little or no medical aid to Mr. Nichols, while the company officer sat in the engine until much later in the incident, played out in front of my eyes as I watched the videos.
For close to 20 minutes, Mr. Nichols lay on the ground, slumped over, was propped back up or slumped again while two firefighter-EMTs did little to nothing to medically aid him until the ambulance arrived. I had to go back through the video several times and dissect down to the minute and second of what I was seeing.
If you saw videos, you may at first think that the two firefighters walking into the scene with medical equipment were firefighters working on an ambulance and that ambulance was out of view of the camera since there were only two of them. But you would be fooled. They were assigned to Engine 55 in the Hickory Hill area of Memphis. Unit 28, the ambulance, was still en route.
Memphis traditionally staffs four on an engine. The reason why you only saw two firefighters is because the company officer and driver sat in the engine about a block away.
Four days after the video was released, Memphis Fire Chief Gina Sweat fired the company officer and two firefighters for violating numerous departmental policies and protocols. I am sure the State of Tennessee will also take action against their medical licenses.
The incident is a wake-up call for the entire fire service.
EMS as the primary role
The attitude among some firefighters that we fight fires and when not fighting fires, we also go to medical calls in our spare time is primeval, cavalier and out of perspective. Over time, it has gotten better but being assigned to the ambulance should not be treated or thought of any less than being assigned to an engine, truck or rescue.
I know there are many EMS calls where we question why someone called an ambulance, but I think we can agree that for every fire or sprinkler alarm that goes off, there’s not always fire there either.
The reality: Delivering emergency medical care is the primary role of most fire departments. As some say, we pump more oxygen than water.
Understand that there are cameras everywhere these days. The police have body cameras, plus there are security cameras, dash cameras, cameras in stores, outside stores, doorbells cams, cameras outside homes – they are everywhere. And then there are people with camera phones. My fire investigators often find evidence on someone’s doorbell cam when they are investigating a fire that occurred across the street from the camera.
Never forgot that your actions or inactions, like that of a football play on fourth and inches, can be played back and dissected by many from probably many different angles and perspectives. It is not only your actions or inactions that are captured but also your attitude. Consider the actions on a police body camera of two Springfield, Illinois, paramedics, who were recently charged with first-degree murder of their patient.
As we’ve heard before, treat all your patients like you would treat your mom. Now you can add this: Treat all your patients like your mom is watching. No doubt, the firefighter-EMTs’ and the company officer’s actions would have been drastically different if their mom, dad, sister, brother or child was laying there instead of Mr. Nichols.
The role of the company officer
This is a wake-up call to all company officers. The company officer has been described as the most important person in the fire department. And rightfully so. Their actions, as well as their company’s actions are on full display every day. The fire department is judged solely based on what citizens see of your company, how they look, how they perform and how they treat others. They and your company are the ambassadors of the fire department.
So as company officer, sitting in your engine a block away from the scene, is not the place to be. Your place is at any scene, managing it.
We invest a lot in company officers, and we expect a lot of them. Not only are you the ambassadors from the fire department, but you have been handed the responsibility of an expensive piece of fire apparatus and a fire station that may be worth millions of dollars. But more importantly, you are responsible for the health and well-being of your company members. As a company officer, you have an awesome responsibility – so act like it! Don’t sit in your engine or turn your back on your responsibilities.
I worked in Memphis Fire for 10 years, and I know the caliber of the chiefs, company officers and firefighters. Do not judge a department based on the actions of three people and one call. Memphis Fire runs more than 150,000 runs a year with dedicated professionals and civil servants. If you think they are any less dedicated than yourself or your department, you would be wrong.
Finally, do not disregard this wake-up call. Remember what you witnessed in Memphis, the termination of two firefighters and a company officer, and judge against your own actions. You don’t want to be the next responder making headlines on CNN.
You’ve seen the footage – Now what?: Part 2
Teaching points from the ‘malpractice or murder’ case: Action steps for EMS practitioners