An Ode to the EMS Whacker

You’ve probably seen him wandering the exhibit hall at an EMS conference, or sat next to him in a lecture.

He’s wearing a uniform shirt or jumpsuit from his volunteer agency, complete with Minitor pager, at least 100 miles from home. And he’s got the Batman belt and trauma shears on his uniform pants, because you never know when you’ll have to cut someone’s clothes off, or punch a car window, at an EMS conference. If the Bound Tree rep gets himself stuck inside one of the Wheeled Coach ambulances on display, he’s prepared to swoop in and save the day. Don’t get in his way.

His uniform is festooned with more patches than a NASCAR driver, attesting to his mad ninja skills as a tactical swift-water hazmat high-angle confined space technical rescue BLS provider.

Whatever the hell that is.

And you see him listening raptly to the sales pitch of the exhibitor selling hi-resolution BluRay Arytenoid Blaster 9000 video laryngoscopes, even though he’s an EMR from a vollie rescue squad in a state that still has the EOA on the list of required ambulance equipment. And he politely asks the guy afterward for some promotional materials and his business card, to take back to his chief when he goes home. “Sure, scan my badge, buddy. Send me everything you got.”

He’s avidly watching the Rescue Task Force demonstration in one corner of the exhibit hall, even though, judging from his weight and the mobility scooter he’s perched on, the last EMS call he ran was during the Reagan administration. And he’s never run a multiple shooting… ever.

But he’s salty, Lord he’s salty. He’s been there, and done that. He’s seen it all. After all, his squad ran 300 calls last year. And they transported almost half of ’em. He was the lead EMT on at least 25 of those calls. He’s seen stuff, man.

And he’s in your lecture, asking questions that demonstrate his understanding is limited to circa 1990 EMS practice.

We’ve all seen that guy. Rolled our eyes so hard we can see our occipital lobes at that guy. We’ve sighed and made jerk-off motions behind his back whenever he asked one of his inane questions in a lecture you were enjoying, before he spoke up.

He’s the EMS whacker, the most reviled and ridiculed member of our profession. Some would even argue that guys like him are proof that what we do is not a profession.

But you know what else he is?

He’s at an EMS conference in a major convention city, paying exorbitant rates for hotel rooms and meals, hundreds or thousands of miles from home. He’s paid more in cab fares in the past three days than he paid for gas in the past month back in Podunk, Maine.

And he’s likely doing it on his own dime.

He’s wandering the exhibit hall in wonder, looking at all the fancy doodads and equipment he never had, wishing his squad could afford such stuff. And some of it intimidates the hell out of him, makes him wonder when EMS passed him by. And that makes him sad, but he believes the young guys in his squad need wisdom and direction, so he hangs on and does what he can.

And it’s entirely possible that there are no young guys in his squad; just a few old diehards, all over 60, all responding to the infrequent pager tones, wondering why the young folks don’t have the community spirit he and his fellow dinosaurs had. He’s lost, and he doesn’t understand the current generation, but he’s willing to meet them halfway, if only someone would show him how.

He’s organized more bake sales and car bashes and womanless beauty pageants than you’ve been laid in your thirty-something years in this world, and he’s hoarded every penny raised to keep diesel in the ambulance and buy the next box of bandages.

He asks inane questions, yes, and that EMS has passed him by. But they’re earnest questions. He wants to learn. He wants to catch up, and he knows the few calls he runs are not enough to keep him sharp. And he may be skeptical, but if you convince him that your skill and passion for teaching matches his passion for learning, he’ll listen. He’s not an easy sell, but if you earn his respect, he’ll listen to what you say even if it challenges everything he thought he knew about EMS.

He requires that you prove you’re worth his time if you want to change his mind, and the first step in doing that is demonstrate that he is worth your time.

Way too few lecturers are willing to make that effort.

And all those patches and pins and doodads he’s wearing on his jumpsuit, at the convention 1000 miles from his service area, where there is zero chance he will run a call?

They represent pride. Pride in what he does. Pride in who he is. Pride in the people he associates with. When did pride in your profession become a target for ridicule?

Yeah, all that stuff seems a bit too self-congratulatory, and that’s not your bag. You pride yourself in being a quiet professional that does the job well without need for adulation. Rendering quality care is reward enough.

But who are you to question how his pride manifests itself? Does the fact that he wears his on (both) his sleeves somehow mean that he did nothing to take pride in? And if we’re honest with ourselves, every one of us had his patch, pin, doodad and tee shirt phase. We had our I Love Me wall, with all our certificates framed and displayed on it. We had that drawer full of Racin’ the Reaper tee shirts. And if we didn’t, it’s likely because our EMT instructor disdained those things, and we wanted to emulate him, not because we were above such nonsense.

We got rid of the tee shirts as we matured, but we fail to realize that he hasn’t. He runs fewer calls in a year than we ran last month. He’s still in the adolescence of his EMS career, patient contact-wise. And what’s so wrong with immaturity, anyway? Children are immature, but they’re a welcome reminder of joy and wonder. Who among us wouldn’t trade his well-worn Littmann scope and beloved duty boots for just one day to reconnect with the starry-eyed, idealistic EMT we used to be?

The whacker is still that guy.

Teach him a little circumspection and wisdom, but damn, open yourself up to reliving that long-lost adrenaline rush vicariously through him. It can even be fun.

And yeah, if the whacker is your Chief, getting anything done in your department can be a chore. He’s hidebound, and stuck in the past, and keeps you from dragging your department into the 21st century. He needs to go, as close to 1985 as possible.

But he doesn’t need to go. He needs to hang around. Maybe not in a leadership position, but he still has boatloads of knowledge capital. He still has desire. He wouldn’t be here if he wasn’t. He’s the conservator of your department’s traditions; some of them are good, and some are bad, but you can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Your department is going to be poorer, not richer, when he’s gone.

If you want to change things, you need to engage him, not oppose him. You need to find some common ground, because just as surely as you struggle to understand him, he’s struggling to understand you. If you can sit and share a cup of coffee, you both might learn that what makes you both tick isn’t very different after all.

He’s an EMS whacker, but being a whacker isn’t such a bad thing. The worst we can say is that they are full of misdirected passion and zeal.

In a profession with more than its share of apathy, we could use a little more passion and zeal.