Author(s): John Montes. Published on September 4, 2018.

Taking It Too Far

Poking fun has long been part of responder culture, but it’s not always ‘fun’ for everyone

Those who have spent any time around firefighters, police, or EMS departments know that our culture involves a lot of good-natured ribbing. In some cases, that culture can cultivate camaraderie and can even help convey valuable lessons.

And sometimes it can go too far and can have terrible consequences.

When I was a member of Boston EMS, we frequently gave nicknames to members with embarrassing stories. The most prominent of these was an EMT we all called “Stabby.” He was given this moniker after he failed to check under the jacket of an inebriated person he found on the ground—something all EMTs are taught to do, without exception, in the academy. It turned out that the person was an assault victim with 11 stab wounds in his back, a fact that was only revealed later at the hospital. All the recruits were told this story on the second day in the academy, and knew instinctively that “Stabby” was not a nickname you wanted to develop, especially for a mistake like that. In fact, “Stabby” liked the name, owned it, and calls himself by it to this day.

But just because one person seems OK with a nickname doesn’t mean someone else will be; everyone’s line is different. At the academy, another EMS colleague of mine was injured during a dodge ball game and was thereafter known as “Dodge Ball.” He hated it, and I know it hurt him deeply. It doesn’t matter whether or not his co-workers meant harm; he didn’t like it, so the name calling should have stopped.

There are, unfortunately, tragic examples of what can happen when bullying persists or metastasizes into outright abuse. One is the 2016 suicide of Fairfax County, Virginia, firefighter/paramedic Nicole Mittendorff, 31, who endured online bullying and sexual harassment from members of her department, according to reports. Her body was found in a remote part of Shenandoah National Park eight days after she disappeared. Nobody will ever know for sure if the bullying caused her to take her own life, but what’s certain is that no one anywhere should have to suffer these types of attacks, especially not from those they work alongside every day.

While poking fun and needling coworkers is a longstanding tradition in our line of work, a much more important and cherished tradition for all emergency responders is the strong sense of family we share. We can still be a family without bullying each other. We can still learn from each other’s mistakes without being hurtful or ostracizing someone, and we can laugh at something embarrassing and funny without stretching it out indefinitely and hurting someone’s pride.

Department leaders and veterans need to lead by example and should speak up loudly where appropriate to show that acceptance is the culture, not bullying. Those who are the targets of unwanted taunts (even if no malice is intended) should feel empowered to speak out, and others need to respect it when they do. If the situation doesn’t get better, leadership should have clear policies and systems in place to address the issue. Everyone must know what the policies are, and they must feel comfortable engaging leadership’s help and support.

Above all, responders need to listen to each other and treat those in their department like family members. It’s OK to disagree with each other’s politics or lifestyle choices, or to have occasional misunderstandings. That’s what family does. But these normal human disagreements do not give us license to be mean, hurtful, or disrespectful. We are all working toward a common goal with the same mission. We can have occasional differences without losing sight of what matters most.

JOHN MONTES is specialist, Emergency Services Public Fire Protection, at NFPA. Top Illustration: Michael Hoeweler