Recently there was an article about the 60-day suspension of Ellenville EMT Stephen Sawyer from the Ellenville First Aid and Rescue Squad, a volunteer agency. To summarize the charges, a pediatric seizure call came in and although there was a paramedic who responded directly to the scene, there was no available operator for the ambulance. After three attempts to find a driver and the unavailability of mutual aid, Sawyer drove the ambulance to the scene and transported the patient, patient’s mother, and paramedic to the hospital. The problem comes in that Sawyer is 20 years old and the Agency policy is that drivers must be at least 21 years old. The Agency took action for the violation of the policy with a 60-day suspension and a demotion from being a Youth Advisor for Sawyer, who promptly resigned from the Agency on the spot. Needless to say, when the story was made public on a local Facebook page it garnered over 400 comments and 1,200+ “Likes” from a public clearly supporting Sawyer.
There are a few serious problems with this story, but I think that it also illustrates the absolute misconceptions the public has about EMS. Allow me to explain my reasoning.
First things first, Sawyer broke the rules. That volunteer organization requires you to be at least 21 to operate the vehicle, and I see nothing wrong with that rule. For that matter, I often think that ALL agencies should require you to be at least 25 years old to drive. The original article takes great pain to highlight that Sawyer drives ambulances for a private company and works part time as a police officer, where it is assumed he drives a police car, but that doesn’t necessarily change is emotional maturity. Because let’s be honest for a second about ambulance accidents, the vast majority of them are preventable and are caused by the emotional imbalance of adrenaline pumping through our veins. It’s a natural biological reaction and the one that most often gets us killed in the line of duty, not to mention the people we jeopardize doing it. I have no issue with the regulation and only wish we could make the age higher without incapacitating our ability to provide service. In this there really is no debate, Sawyer is guilty.
Next, let’s talk about the penalty for the offense. Honestly, I think a 60-day suspension is a bit harsh for the infraction on the outside. One of the issues we have here is that we don’t know if either a) if he’s had prior disciplines and b) what the discipline policy is at the agency. According to the Ellenville’s Captain Gavaris in this article, there were in fact previous infractions including one that occurred that very morning when Sawyer reportedly instructed another ambulance crew to take a second call that had come in instead of waiting for the responding medic to arrive at the seizure call and decide on whether or not there would be an ambulance needed.
Discipline in volunteer agencies is a tricky thing. If you’re too heavy handed with it, you incapacitate yourself because no one wants to volunteer anywhere that creates more trouble than value. Time is valuable for people, and if you’re a volunteer agency doesn’t recognize and respect that then you’re going to have problems… like getting an ambulance driver for a pediatric seizure call. If you’re too light with it, you end up with people running amok in the community under your agency’s name and decreasing the value your agency offers in both level of care and professionalism while increasing the liability it carries with such reckless behavior. Discipline needs to be outlined clearly in an agencies policies. I am a big believer that if you set the behavioral expectations at the beginning, provide the explanation of what will happen when those expectations are not met, and then follow through with it then your agency will be far ahead of many others.
Finally, let’s take an honest look at Sawyer‘s resignation. I understand why he did it. He was hurt by the decision of the board for being punished when he did something he, and the court of public opinion agreed, thought was the right thing. For that matter, the demotion may have been the straw to break the proverbial camel’s back as opposed to the suspension. If it is more of a hassle to donate your time at an agency than its worth, then you absolutely should resign, but it should be done properly with notice and not in the heat of the moment at a disciplinary hearing. All this really showed is that he is emotionally immature as suspected, probably shouldn’t be driving the ambulance, and proved the Board’s assumptions right.