In the aftermath of unnecessary violence: Service and safety through the eyes of a first responder

In the aftermath of unnecessary violence: Service and safety through the eyes of a first responder

by: Amina Chaudary

About 12 years ago, I worked as a volunteer Emergency Medical Technician (EMT). I was part of the first-responder team sent out on 911 calls or any other medical-related emergencies typically met by police and law enforcement. I had recently graduated from college and was looking for ways to serve my community that were consistent with my core beliefs and helped people in need.  These were skills that I felt would be critical for a humanitarian aspiring to always be the good Samaritan.  And challenge me it did. It taught me to think quickly on my feet while staying calm and focused and keeping those around me equally calm and reassured.  I would also have to take in a great amount of data visually while listening intently and making split-second decisions.


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I signed up with the Montgomery County system in Maryland and trained extensively in emergency medicine and basic firefighter training.  After a rigorous six months of full-time training and examinations, I was certified and joined my local station, the Bethesda Chevy Chase Rescue Squad.

One of the requirements of a volunteer EMT was to take one or two overnight shifts at the station per week, running sometimes three or four calls a night on a variety of emergencies: falls, injuries, car accidents, pedestrians struck, heart attacks, seizures and more.  The shift would start around 7 p.m. and by 7 a.m., I was physically exhausted but somehow recharged from the night of work.

Every time the alarm would ring, there would be a moment of anticipation, nerves setting in, a sense of foreboding about what we would find and what we would be expected to do.  The ride in the back of the ambulance was usually silent.  And once we got to our location, we would hit the ground running — pull out the stretcher, bring our medical bags and, upon seeing our patient (if even conscious), say the overly practiced opening lines, “Hi, my name is Amina, I’m going to help you. Can you tell me what you are feeling?” We rapidly checked the patient’s pulse, eye movements and breathing, scanned the scene for clues as to what happened and scanned their body for blood, all important observations made in a matter of seconds.  Decisions had to be made, almost immediately.  Needless to say, I witnessed graphic, potentially hazardous, scary and unpredictable circumstances with every call I ran.

While there were many routine calls, there were also some intense situations and experiences that linger in my thoughts to this day.

*A young African-American male, probably in his early 20s, was having a severe asthma attack.   In the middle of a huge snowstorm, the paramedic, driver and I made our way through almost a foot of snow, up three flights of stairs carrying all our medical equipment and into the apartment of this young man, who was leaning forward gasping for air, unable to talk.  We administered emergency medicine to help open his airway, and put him on a chair stretcher to carry him down the stairs where the ambulance stretcher was waiting for him.  As soon as we got outside, he coded – stopped breathing.   For a few seconds, I saw him reach over and try to grab the paramedic as we ran to the ambulance, a look of pure terror in his eyes, mouth gaping with no air coming in or out. The muscles in his body tensed up, his spine arched backward and suddenly, he slumped.  In the back of the vehicle I administered CPR, pumping air into his lungs while pushing down against his sternum, entirely on my own as the paramedic struggled to stay in his seat.  The driver was careening through local streets at what felt like 100 mph. At the hospital, emergency doctors worked on bringing him back for over two hours.  He suffered severe brain injuries and his family made the difficult decision to let him pass.

*We arrived at a scene where a car was flipped over, the driver pinned underneath, and dozens of residents from adjacent streets gathering to watch. He had been severely intoxicated and crashed into another car. We were on the scene with dozens of firefighters, first responders and police officers and spent over an hour to extricate him from his car.  Both drivers were rushed to the hospital and survived.

*We answered a call about a 12-year-old boy with chronic seizures. By the time we had reached him, his seizure had been going on for several hours.  In the back of the ambulance on our way to the hospital, we watched his poor body shake uncontrollably but couldn’t do anything more to help him other than transport him and wait for the seizure to pass.

*We received a call for a woman who we were told committed suicide by overdosing on drugs.  Law enforcement helped us open the lock to her apartment, but she wasn’t inside. The scariest and most disturbing part of that call was searching the ground just under her balcony, amongst the shrubs, for her body in case she jumped.  We searched the entire apartment complex with the police for several hours.   We finally found her in the stairwell, in and out of consciousness and took her to the hospital escorted by three police cars.

These experiences trained my instinct to offer help wherever I can.  Off duty, I witnessed a car hitting a pedestrian and ran to assist.  I’ve also seen a car being struck from behind and forced into oncoming traffic. In that instance, I parked my car, ran over and spoke with the driver to calm her until paramedics arrived.  She was disoriented with blood running down her forehead.  A few weeks later, she mailed me a letter saying how much she appreciated my help in keeping her calm.  Running to the scene of an emergency became a natural instinct.

On duty, we were accompanied by police to all our calls and interacted with them, getting to know many of them personally. The shared experiences created a bond between us volunteers and the other members of the first-response units including the paramedics and police.  As a member of the team, my religion, special requests for time to pray and to sleep in female-only quarters for the sake of privacy, and special needs for my choice in uniform or dress were never an issue or point of concern.  I was one of them. And the cops and firefighters did not even look twice at me while I was on duty. I was part of the inner circle and they would stand up for me and protect me and my needs.  Several members of my team were offended and protested when a publisher of a book titled What’s Inside an Ambulance refused to use a team photo that included me because of my dress.  The station ultimately used those photos in its annual fundraising drive, and recently informed me that it proudly hired an African-American Muslim woman wearing a scarf. Diversity and respect for all beliefs and practices continues to be celebrated.

Whenever we returned from a call, we would feel a great deal of pride and accomplishment, and well deserved, I may add. People who do this work sacrifice a lot.  I am proud of the nearly two years that I was a volunteer EMT  and look forward to doing so again.  I am proud of all the wonderful people I worked with and those who continuously give their lives and time to do this hard work.

And yet, in this post Eric Garner and Mike Brown world, I also find myself reflecting on where there may be “holes” in the system that I engaged in for a short time.  In the service of people and in the camaraderie that developed amongst the first-responders, it is very possible that a sense of authority emerged. For those who were seeking our help, we knew what to do, and for those who might disturb our efforts, the police had our back. While this was necessary for us to do our jobs, I can easily see how this sense of authority could lead to split-second decisions that may seem reasonable in the heat of the moment, but perhaps not so after the fact.

If I consider my experience in the context of the militarization that took place in Ferguson, MO, over the past few weeks, or similar kinds of police actions in other parts of the U.S., I get an uneasy feeling about how sometimes the actions of first responders or law enforcement can both seem right for them at the time, but be very wrong in hindsight. Add into this the massive buildup of firepower in weapons and armored vehicles ostensibly for the purposes of protecting the safety of the public, it is understandable how things can get out of hand.

First responders, people with authority or those charged by the public with keeping the peace and keeping us safe will always be predisposed to thinking they know the right thing. That can lead to a total breakdown of communication, so much so that people may lose their lives unnecessarily.

Screen Shot 2014-09-22 at 12.54.56 PMIn the years after my EMT work, I was in many situations where I needed to listen.  I interviewed people in my media work and in the launch of The Islamic Monthly, and, on the side, counseled people suffering traumatic incidents.  I was the go-to person for friends and family who needed a trustworthy person they could confide in but also someone who would just listen.  In the play-by-play of Eric Garner’s video, we see him talking to several undercover cops in Staten Island, N.Y., saying over and over that he did nothing. They are not engaging, or even interacting, perhaps trained to not provoke.  But the moment backup comes, he is put in a chokehold and pinned to the ground.  Communication totally breaks down.  Bystanders are helpless, and have no way to communicate or publicly advocate for their friend, their neighbor, because they are “them.”  Law enforcement knew what was right and carried it out.  You hear the young man who recorded the incident eventually saying dejectedly that all Garner had been doing was breaking up a fight.  You hear Garner say repeatedly that he can’t breathe.  And yet somehow the protocol continued.

It’s the same story with Mike Brown, the unarmed teenager shot by officers in Ferguson, or with countless other similar incidents that happen, sadly enough, regularly in America today.

And in the incidents I am hearing about what is happening to American Muslims around the nation, I fear the worse.

The truth is that better communication could have changed what happened to Garner and Brown.

My reflective position on this is that there may be two things first responders could implement. One is training that helps people in positions of power during potentially tense, interpersonal conflict with the public to recognize this pre-disposition and not allow it to inform poor judgment. It is always easier in hindsight to recognize when poor decisions were made, but we all also enter situations with our own personal biases, good or bad. Training that helps identify what these biases are and how they might inform split-second decisions could mean the difference between doing the right thing or the wrong thing.

Second, the availability of heavy weaponry at a local level makes the discharge of a single gun seem almost meaningless. Yet that gun is more than enough to take someone’s life. No one would argue that safety is important. However, in the wake of events surrounding Ferguson, we should question whether the amount of firepower available at the local level is indeed making us safer, or whether it is contributing to the climate of fear that sends us down a vicious, never-ending cycle. Part of demilitarizing our neighborhoods is also eliminating some of the heavy weaponry available to law enforcement.

The challenges that first responders face in complicated, tense and time-constrained situations can be innumerable. The pressure is on to make the right decision, where the wrong one can have grave consequences. There are ways that we can work so that first responders or law enforcement can indeed make the right decision every time.  In the same way that diversity was celebrated and my beliefs welcomed, I was listened to, when I was within the system, so too can this be put it in to practice when on calls regardless of the incident.


Photo by Jay Mallin at JayMallinPhotos.com



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