I wonder how many people know the life of a first responder, the things they are exposed to and the reality that they live with. A student in a university class on violence and conflict recently asked me, how do police officers deal with the stress of the job. I pointed out that medical staff, nurses and doctors, paramedics, fire fighters and police officers deal with people at their maddest, baddest and saddest, routinely exposed to things that are beyond the normal human experience. They see things that they don’t want to burden their family or friends with, so who do they talk to, and when do they unburden themselves?
First responders are the tip of the public service spear, first to arrive at some of society’s nastiest problems, dealing with humanity at it’s worst, they exemplify some of humankind’s best. Police and firefighters, like soldiers, must come to terms early in their career with the sacrifice they may be called upon to make at any given moment. And make no mistake, when they sign up, their spouses and families are signed up along with them. But it is important to point out that all public servants, in all their varied roles, sacrifice for their work, whether it be in public office, clerical or administrative roles, dealing with some of society’s worst problems. To me, and I think most civil servants, public service means committing to serve, putting community well-being first. First responders represent the epitome of service, literally knowing they could be called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice. But, most of their work is more of a slow burn, dealing daily with conflict, victimization and administration, two minutes of terror followed by eight hours of paperwork- as the saying goes.
They have to be stoic and professional at scenes of violence, the calm voice and steady hand for people during the worst crisis of their life––over and over again in any given tour of duty, and then never really having a chance to scream themselves; Public speaking when they are afraid, humble and uncomfortable, but the message is so important to say; Taking shit, “I pay your salary” and just smiling when people tell you their speeding ticket story; Being called a racist when you’ve dedicated your life to fighting racism; Tedious investigations and endless paperwork, so court cases don’t fail; Leaving family, no matter if it’s Christmas, an anniversary or birthday, to help other people with their crisis, managing a threat to public safety, or making sure a crime is investigated; Working and guarding the community while everyone else in the City sleeps except for criminals, drunks and cabbies; Safeguarding someone’s dignity when they are attacking yours, protecting them while they are assaulting you; Taking an eyeful of pepper spray, being tazered, and practicing self defense tactics on each other, so they you know what it would feel like if you ever have to use it on a criminal; Going into a dark building to search for intruders, knowing that a colleague recently caught a two-by-four in the face in the same scenario; Intervening in a fight when a terrified person has called for help, with the memory that you recently did the same thing and while you were putting the cuffs on him, she changed her mind and attacked you from behind; Facing a crowd in protest, allowing them to spit on you, swear at and berate you, hoping you see it coming if someone throws a rock or chemicals or a malotov cocktail from the crowd, knowing you are there for their protection; The proverbial, running towards danger when everyone else is running away.
The unsung support roles are just as stressful, the nurse’s aide who cleans up all the blood and medical supplies in the emergency room, getting ready for the next emergency while a grieving family from the previous one is still in the other room, the dispatcher who listens helplessly to the high-speed pursuit, desperate citizens calling for help, the officer voicing for backup while they are being attacked, or the firefighter down in a smoke-filled building, and the list goes on.
It is the greatest honour to have such meaningful work protecting community, the opportunity to practice pure compassion for people, even if it puts you in harms way; but folks should know it is a privilege that comes with a cost. It is a calling that cannot be described well without the term love, love of humanity, love of community and gratitude for the opportunity to serve a pure purpose in life. That is the unvarnished truth for most first responders.