It was hot, summer, and nighttime. The air was muggy and familiar, like the embrace of a well-known relative. It hugged my skin, smothered my hair, and did everything but swirl in the headlights of the ambulance as we made our way thru the city streets.
It’s a college town and even when the students are home for the summer, downtown is a busy place on a hot summer night. The truck I was on back then commonly staged downtown between certain hours. Tonight we pulled up to our customary spot, engaged the parking brake, turned off our headlights and got comfy. Notified dispatch we were staged, the particular cross streets, and commenced to people watching.
Anyone who’s ever sat in an airport or any busy place knows that people watching far surpasses most things found in any magazine. My partner and I had this dorky game we’d developed somewhere along the way, born of hours of living in the cab of an ambulance. We’d notice a couple of people and we’d begin ad-libbing their dialog.
A young man and young lady making their way down the street. Heading for the parking ramp next to our staging spot, she is purse-lipped and booking it. Her head is down and her footsteps are sure. She isn’t dressed to go out, unlike the young man. He’s clumsily doing his level best to keep up with her, but it’s apparent he’s not at the top of his game. He’s dressed with a little more care than she is, and he’s gesticulating. This does not help his attempts at speed walking.
My partner: “baby, she’s just a friend! I swear!”
Me: “whatever. And your cell phone is broken??”
Partner: “I didn’t know you called. I didn’t even know you were back in town tonight!”
Me: “clearly! I’ve had it!!”
Et cetera. You get the point. We amuse ourselves in this fashion for a while with various passersby. Our windows are up, our truck is in high idle, we aren’t rude about it. We’re just two people passing time, trying to be unobtrusive about sitting randomly on a corner in a very large white vehicle and reflective stripes. We get our share of inebriated folks stopping to talk, or laugh, their reactions as varied as you can imagine. Most, though, are too wrapped up in their own realities to notice us.
Then the tones go off. Undulating up and down, up and down, we snap upright and re-click our seat belts home. Disengage the parking brake, put it in drive and wait to see where we’re heading.
There’s a street fight with reportedly upwards of 40 individuals. Requesting medical to standby until law enforcement arrives. We stage a few blocks back, and as a newish medic with maybe a year and a half under my belt, it’s the largest group of intoxicated people I have dealt with. Multiple squad cars arrive and park, their pulsating lights adding to the drama of the scene. Groups are separated and individuals are questioned.
“Send in medical, officers on scene advise safe to enter.”
My partner takes the big bag and I grab the monitor. We head in. A few people are down on the ground and we each begin to assess. There’s one officer who remains with his back to us the entire time, and what catches my attention is that he stays very much next to us. He positions himself roughly halfway between us but very close to our space. I attend to my patients and my partner to his. We radio MedComm for additional run numbers and explain to each patient their right to transport as well as their right to refusal of such, when they deny need to be seen in the ER. We explain that they may have injuries that are underestimated by them, due to intoxication or adrenaline not worn off yet. We examine and explain and call physicians to get medical clearance for refusal of treatment. They sign, each of them, we have vitals recorded.
This takes some time, as you can imagine, and I’m sure as most of you reading this know. The entire time this officer remains with his back to us. Standing there, face impassive. He’s an older gentleman and his chevrons indicate that perhaps he isn’t familiar to me because he’s not one of the young officers we deal with often on our night shifts.
When it’s all over, mumbling young people are drifting home or to parts unknown, and we’re packing it up. I thank the officers in my proximity. This officer begins to walk toward a squad car and I can’t resist. I ask him his name and introduce myself, saying I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting him before. He’s very kind and I finally just blurt out in some undoubtedly ungraceful manner, asking him why he kept his back to us the whole time and was just kind of by us.
He replied, “Large fights like that can be unpredictable, sometimes they break out again. You two were busy, so I watched your back.”
Feeling like an idiot, I thanked him again and shook his hand. Grinning, he said, “just doing my job, anytime.”
The media can play up stories of officer brutality. TV can air footage of experts who dissect police officers in America today. I could tell you handfuls upon handfuls of stories where officers had tears after a child call, when their CPR made it possible for us to effectively go to work upon arrival. Stories of officers denigrated and ridiculed by subjects in custody so awfully that my breathing quickens and my stomach clenches; still they are polite in return. I’ve seen officers give everything they’ve got to myself and my partners, the citizens they protect, the fire department personnel.
The brave men and women of law enforcement face more than personal danger from offenders on the street. They face a mounting sentiment in our society, perpetuated by many avenues of public opinion and a few over-hyped cases. A sentiment of resentment and disrespect, blatant bias and sometimes outright threats. Yet when we drive the city streets on hot summer nights, when we walk into homes with our heavy bags and cardiac monitors, when we kneel in the middle of a just-ceased street fight, they have our backs. They embody the inter-jurisdictional and multi-departmental safeguards, which let all of us do our jobs without fear. Often at great cost to their own safety, home lives, mental health and other ways we’ll never know.
So, from the safety of a cab in a white box with reflective stripes, I thank them for letting me know I can safely do my job. They have our backs. We who are in EMS ought always to recognize them, thank them on a scene, respect them and speak up when the integrity of their profession is not recognized.
We are honored to work with the men and women of law enforcement, and God forbid they ever need us, we have their back as well.