Ellenville Did the Right Thing. . .

Last week a news story made its rounds on internet sites and blogs about a New York State EMT who had been suspended for six weeks and then quit his volunteer department for what many called “doing the right thing.”  If you have not seen the article, feel free to follow this link.  Otherwise I’ll give you the Cliff Notes version of the story:

Twenty year-old Stephen Sawyer, a member of the Ellenville First Aid and Rescue Squad was at his station alone when a call came in for a four year-old having a seizure.  Sawyer, who is one year under the Squad’s policy stated age to drive but is an employee at a private EMS service in the area was the only EMT available that day when the paramedic on scene “called for an ambulance” for transport.  Unable to find any available mutual aid unit to respond to the call, Sawyer decided to take matters into his own hands.  Sawyer, referred to in one article as a “squad leader,” a member of the Squad’s communications committee and an advisor to their Youth Squad who presumably had knowledge of his department’s policy did what he “felt he had to do” and violated the 21+ driving policy, responded in an ambulance, and transported the patient to a local ER.

The response of the Ellenville First Aid and Rescue Squad’s board of directors was to suspend Sawyer for 60 days.  Sawyer then resigned from the squad on the spot.

In another article that interviews the Squad’s captain Mr. John Gavaris, the captain states the under normal circumstances, Sawyer might not have been suspended if not for his previous disciplinary record which was not focused on in greater detail.  The response both from his community and the social media EMS community was one of “online outrage.”  People felt that the 60 day suspension was too harsh and called from Sawyer to be reinstated immediately.  Although the argument could be made that 60 days is a pretty harsh sentence, I have to stand with the Squad on this one.  They made the right call.

Like it or not, policies exist.  Policies have to exist.  They are what give us structure and give us the knowledge that we need to make tough decisions.  Also, like it or not policies exist whether or not they seem to fit every situation perfectly.  Do I feel that Sawyer was most likely capable of driving an emergency vehicle to the scene and then to the hospital?  Sure.  Did his decision “save a life” that day?  Well, that I cannot tell you without knowing the true condition of the child.  I can tell you though that his decision violated a policy that he clearly knew existed.

Whether right or wrong, the policy was broken.  Have I made decisions in my career that slipped into that grey area or even into a situation where I clearly and blatantly violated a department policy because I felt like I was “doing what had to be done?”  You better believe I have.  The difference though was that when I made those decisions my next step was to stand on my own two feet and say, “Yeah, I did that.  I felt it was the right thing though.”  And I stood ready to take whatever punishment came next.

My previous service had some pretty questionable policies in place, and my current service has some that I do not agree with as well but like it or not, someone who has been there a lot longer than I have decided that things need to be done that way.  This leaves us with three options: follow the policy and live with it, violate it and take our lumps, or work to change it.  The third option is one that many will scream for but few will work towards so that really leaves us with options one or two.

Politics and policy in volunteer services can be sticky to deal with.  Many of them are not reviewed nearly as frequently as they should be and are based more on history and tradition than they are on right or wrong.  Early in my career when I was a member of my first EMS department, we had a rule on the books that said that if you were a member of the squad you could not belong to any other volunteer EMS or fire agency.   I was told that in the 1970s, there was a problem where when there was a fire or it was drill night it would be very difficult to get a rig on the road because people were more interested in taking the run for the fire.

A good friend of mine who had a long standing family history with one of the fire departments decided to secretly join their ranks and not tell anyone on our department.  While that was going on, I was fighting the battle as a new “regular” member (I was 18 at the time) to change the policy because I felt it was archaic.  Unfortunately, I was not successful as quickly as I would have liked to be.  One of the squad’s trustees found out about his dual membership.  The squad had no choice to suspend him and tell him he “had a choice” to make.  His choice was to stay with the fire department, resign from our department and join another one in the area.  We lost a great member who made more calls than most of the other squad members because of an outdated policy.  It was, however, a policy none the less.

Maybe parting ways with the volunteer service was the best thing for everyone involved.  Only time will tell.  Based on the fact that the article states that Sawyer was also a member of the youth squad he was an advisor for.  That leads me to believe that he had been a member for a little while.  It’s not easy to part ways with a service, especially a volunteer one.  It was a struggle I had when I finally resigned from my first volunteer department just one year shy of my “life” membership eligibility.  Thankfully, Mr. Sawyer did not lose paid employment because of this decision.  To the best of my knowledge, is career as a part-time police officer and an EMT with a paid service both have remained intact.

At this point, I feel the Ellenville First Aid and Rescue Squad should stand by their decision.  They have to, it is already made.  Also, it might be time to revisit the “how’s” and “whys” of this policy’s existence.  Stephen Sawyer felt he did the right thing; the EFARS should make sure they are doing the right thing as well.

I’m not the only one talking about this story.  Check out what Dave Konig has to say over at The Social Medic!