I was thinking about the wide array of choices available to us for careers, and what variables someone considers before choosing a career.
It must be something special and unique for someone to become a first responder. Most of us do not pick a career where our job entails life and death situations on a regular basis. When we face danger, we turn to the first responders for help. While we all run away from danger, first responders rush towards danger. And they do that precisely to keep us safe.
When we go to work, there is a fair assumption from our loved ones that we are returning home at the end of the day. But for a first responder, that surety is tenuous.
First responder events are great equalizers. It doesn’t matter who you are, how old you are, how much wealth you have, or what is your background. The urgency for assistance at that moment of need is the same. A burning house, a suicide attempt, a health emergency, a domestic argument which escalated into physical harm, or a choking child all have exactly the same need irrespective of who needs help.
For a police officer, the danger is ever present. It doesn’t have to be an armed robbery or mass shooting to put that police officer at risk. Any mundane traffic stop for a broken headlight or for speeding, or responding to a domestic call, can very quickly become a life or death situation.
When a firefighter tries to extinguish a fire, they deal with real danger in that effort.
When an EMT rushes into a street gunshot scene, they expose themselves to great risk from the violence ensuing on the scene.
A nurse attending to a patient is very much at risk of contracting contagious diseases. We typically have not viewed health care workers as first responders. But I believe they are. Again, when we rush to the emergency room, they are the first ones to respond. We turn to them to help us and save us, and they literally hold our life in their care.
Unfortunately, first responders are now leaving their profession in droves. Many of them feel that their services are not much appreciated by the community. And COVID has made this much worse. They are overworked, and many feel that the pay structure doesn’t adequately compensate for the stress or the risks they take. The result is exhaustion, hopelessness and trauma, which are all contributing towards burnout in every state.
According to the National Volunteer Fire Council, there are 700 fewer firefighters in Minnesota over the last five years, and that need is very acute in small rural communities. Police officers are retiring early or leaving their profession, and the pool to replace them is now much smaller.
A Star Tribune analysis says that about 60% of Minnesota’s Certified EMTs did not provide patient care in 2021, suggesting they left the workforce. Similarly for our 3,730 paramedics, 15% show no record of working in 2021.
For the nursing profession, the situation is very acute. Physical stress, low pay, emotional distress, and elevated work environment risks are all contributing towards burnout. They feel unappreciated, and the unrelenting demand on their time leads to a sense of hopelessness. No amount of training can prepare a nursing graduate to zip the body bags of multiple dead patients and console grieving family members repeatedly, especially when these deaths could have been avoided.
The vast majority of recent COVID hospitalizations and deaths were unvaccinated. And this is happening precisely when the overall number of nurses are shrinking, and the need is increasing.
In Minnesota, 30% of RNs are age 55 and older, while 16% nurses plan to leave or retire in five years or less. What can all of us do to help? We need to take personal responsibility for our health and well- being, and do what we can not to have to call a first responder. That means obeying all laws, practicing safety in our everyday activities, teaching safety rules to family members and making sure that we all have fire alarms, extinguishers and CO detectors at home.
If we are pulled over on the road by a police officer for any reason, that means following directions from the police officer. It also means that we do everything we can to stay healthy and lead a health-conscious lifestyle. And yes, that includes being vaccinated against COVID. The vaccines are not bullet-proof to provide immunity against COVID, but the data overwhelmingly shows that a vaccinated person has a much lower chance of being hospitalized or dying.
Society typically defines a hero as someone who selflessly strives to save someone else irrespective of any personal risks. They willingly put their lives at risk to keep someone else safe. And yes, we usually reserve that reverence towards our brave men and women in the military.
I’ll submit that the folks who are serving in the police force, firefighting units, hospital staff and EMTs also fit that definition. They are all heroes in my book — and what they willingly do is also a great expression of their patriotism. So the next time you run into one of these first responder heroes, I’d urge you to thank them for their service in keeping us all safe.