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Check in on your people

A firefighter charged with urinating on a medic’s belongings is a sign of a problem left brewing for too long

A Kansas City, Missouri, firefighter is facing felony charges for allegedly urinating on the property of a Kansas City Fire Department paramedic. According to the reporting by the Kansas City Star, a KCFD paramedic noticed a “strange smell” in her office. She noticed that several items, including paramedic books, a CD player and a boogie board were wet. When she used a white paper towel to dry the items, the white paper turned yellow, and the strange odor suddenly made sense. Urine.

Investigators gathered samples of the, at the time, unidentified liquid and sent it to the crime lab for testing. Not only did the crime lab test for and confirm what the substance was, they also tested for DNA, which was a significant enough match to another firefighter that a warrant for his arrest was issued. He has been charged with felony harassment causing emotional distress and felony property damage.

I have two thoughts.

First, my entire EMS defense practice is predicted on one of the most basic tenets of America: every person accused of a crime is presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. The firefighter at the center of this story is surely presumed innocent – for now.

Second, are you kidding me?!

It is true that for generations dating all the way back to the beginning, pranks among members of EMS and fire agencies have been part of what makes this the greatest, most fun, most camaraderie-driven environment outside of the military.

Neatly folded uniform shirts soaked in water and placed in the freezer, emesis basins filled with water and placed carefully on the sun visor, and all the various insertions of Tabasco are just some of the things that have brought us all closer to one another; that made us family. One legend from my day – who shall remain nameless, may he rest in peace – once wired another crewmember’s personal vehicle brake lights to the car’s horn for refusing to make dinner when it was his turn. All the way home after the shift, every time he tapped his brakes, his horn sounded – in LA traffic. I’m certainly not condoning such behavior, but I did laugh.

However, urinating all over someone’s office is not a prank, it is disrespectful, unfunny, disgusting and entirely illegal. If the firefighter in this case is proven guilty in court of these offenses, getting fired will be the least of his concerns, though he will be fired. If proven guilty, the cost of defending both the criminal and civil cases – yes, he can expect both – will be quite hefty and he will probably find no cover from the agency or its lawyers. Even more likely, the restitution for damages, both actual and punitive, could equal everything he has; house, savings, retirement … everything. Was it worth it? I cannot imagine that it was.

For as much as I participated in the “fun” of station life in EMS, including raw chicken feet in jumpsuit pockets and a “Just Married” sign on the back of an ambulance, it was all in fun and, while lines may have been approached, they were never crossed. Silly pranks served to bring some light into the darkness; some levity against the weight of what we were actually seeing day to day.

This was different; angry; personal. Of course, I have no idea what it was that led to the alleged office pee party, I wasn’t there, but it does not require psychic powers or Sheldon Cooper’s intellect to recognize that this was (allegedly) born of something deeper and darker; something that (allegedly) needed to be managed much, much sooner.

Indeed, this incident is truly unfortunate on so many levels and we will all watch from the sidelines as this plays out and, hopefully, take away some very valuable lessons.

First lesson: don’t pee on other people’s stuff at work.

Second lesson: remember the first lesson.

Notice the subtle changes that indicate something is wrong

The third, and maybe most important – yet less obvious – takeaway from this case should be that it is time for every agency to do a comprehensive inventory of how their people are doing. This (alleged) incident didn’t just happen; nobody just decides to pee all over a coworker’s office one day. If it is proven true, this was brewing. Were there warning signs? Burnout? PTSD? Changes in mood or behavior? Looking back, I wonder what his coworkers saw in him without necessarily knowing what they were seeing?

Maybe it is time for the EMS industry, as a whole, to take a closer look at the humans who accept the challenges of being there when nobody else can or will; of absorbing the pain and suffering of others in the – often fruitless – attempt to cheat the reaper, and the long-term toll it all takes, no matter how gradually.

Thankfully, mental health is not the tabu subject it was for generations, and more providers are comfortable asking for help. However, we have a long way to go, so we should all be watching and looking out for each other as well as ourselves every day. Maybe it is a good idea to enact practices for leadership to check in with frontline providers and for everyone, regardless of level, to check in with each other – nothing fancy, just check in from time to time. It does not have to be formal and probably should not be in writing; just a cultural shift toward caring for one another; a cultural shift toward noticing subtle changes in one another and preventing such incidents from ever happening; a cultural shift that begins today with you who are reading this column.

Be alert to these phrases and ready to be empathetic and non-judgmental

The firefighter accused in this case will work his way through the legal system and his road is going to be long and expensive, and very uncomfortable, but yours does not have to be. Nor does that of your coworkers, your EMS family, if you spend the energy to look for and see the warning signs … and then do something. columnist David Givot, a seasoned EMS employee with three years of law school under his belt, is looking to the future of EMS. He has created as a first step toward improving the state of EMS through information and education designed to protect EMS professionals nationwide.