Back From A Short Italian Hiatus

My wife and I got back Thursday from a whirlwind tour of Northern Italy which included stops in Milan, Florence, Venice, and Trieste.  The time away gave me a chance to reflect on a number of things, particularly the issues we face in American society in comparison to those in other societies, and even more so, as it relates to the fire and emergency medical services.

One interesting observation, that I am going to keep short because I have a lot of catching up to do: When I would introduce myself to any number of my Italian colleagues from the emergency medical side of the house, I would often get quizzical looks, and almost confusion in regard to why I was introducing myself.  When I asked to see their ambulances, in every cases it was more along the line of "why would you want to see in there?"

When I appeared in a fire station and introduced myself as an American firefighter, I got hearty handshakes, lots of questions, comparisons of patches, badges, uniforms and other stuff.  Each apparatus and each compartment was opened up for my inspection, even when I didn't have time.  Even when neither I nor they spoke a common language, the firefighters figured out some way to communicate.  There was no indifference.

I am very aware that this was a VERY short time frame and a very small sampling of individuals, but it did occur to me that even though almost every one of the EMS folks were polite, they seemed distant and a little skeptical.  In EVERY SINGLE case of meeting a firefighter, I was taken in, hugged, given uniform articles without any solicitation, and a detailed discussion (even if I didn't understand it) ensued about what size our community was, what our staffing was like, etc.

In regard to EMS, having been a paramedic for 25 years and having even worked (not only as a paramedic, but as a chief officer) in third party systems, I am entitled to my observations.  I can say without bias that each has its merits.  I also think that a lot of how the service is provided depends upon the community and it's own needs.  But I can also say from my direct observation, that there seems to be a different mindset between the two, and when I can detect that readily even in four large Italian cities, it starts becoming a trend.

If I introduce myself to a Fire/EMS agency member, I always say I am a "firefighter paramedic".  If I introduce myself to emergency medical personnel, I say I am a "paramedic".  If I introduce myself to fire department personnel or to the general public, I say I am a "firefighter", mostly because "paramedic" doesn't always translate into the same job description from place to place.  But as important as both elements of my job are, and as much as I think that emergency medical service operations are a major component of my day in comparison to fire operations, I guess I will always be a firefighter first, if anything, because that's my family heritage.  Doing EMS wasn't an afterthought, it was just part of the package of being a firefighter, as far as I have always been concerned.

I want to dig into this a little deeper, but I wished to permit some of you to weigh in as well.  What observations do you have on the difference?  If you think there is a difference, why do you think the mindset might be different?  What challenges do emergency service leaders face in supervising firefighters in contrast to emergency medical personnel?

Thanks for reading and I look forward to hearing from you.  Keep it civil, please.


  • Mike Schlags says:

    Interesting observations that provided insight for when I travel to Italy next year. Great read brother!

  • Peter Lupkowski says:

    I too love to compare services when I travel to my ancestral homeland in Poland.  I must concur with your findings.We visited fire stations volunteer and career across Eastern and Southern Poland.  Literally hundreds of hours of lost vacation exploration time as my wife likes to remind me.  But in every station it was truly like I was a family member coming back to visit.  Comparisons, pictures, trucks, statistics, exchanges, helmets, patches.  You name it they shared it and held it as a personal affront if you did not take what they were offering, stay and eat, or take pictures of their new apparatus, equipment, or protective clothing.  A mirror image of how I hope visiting firefighters are treated in my dept.
    On the EMS side at the hospital or medical clinic the small station wagons that were staffed by physicians when we first started visiting are now European van style and staffed by nurses, paramedics, or persons termed “medical workers.”  We found it difficult to talk shop with the staff, even though fluent in Polish, because they always refer any questions to a supervisor.
    While I cannot specifically pin down the reason for the difference in reception and attitude I believe the ambulance staff are suspicious of anyone trying to get information about their service.  One of my cousins who is a physician explains that they are responsible for drugs and the patient’s life and feel everyone is trying to catch them in a mistake.  While that may be true I would love to compare paperwork and protocols just to see what else is being done in the field.
    Next time maybe we will try to approach them off duty to see if that makes a difference.

    • Yeah, I don’t know what the issue was because I am always careful not to act like I am an “American Firefighter” or “American Paramedic”, like that should make me better or different than they are. I always try to approach others with a sincere curiosity for how they deliver their service and how they feel about the job, as well as if they have better ways of doing things than we currently do them.

      Of all the warm firefighter receptions I got was trying to get directions as to what gate to use as we came up to the stadium where we were going to be seeing Springsteen play. I didn’t identify myself as a firefighter but these guys were genuinely helpful and energetic, so I followed up by saying thanks, telling them I was a firefighter, and handing them one of our patches. You’d have thought I handed them the Crown Jewels; they were showing it around and oohing and ahhing over it. I had a good laugh and went into the concert; I wish I would have had time to visit them for a little longer as they seemed like a great bunch of guys.

      My favorite story ever, though was going into a station in Mexico. Long story short, they wanted the shirt I was wearing and I told them I would bring them one the next day. They gave me a shirt anyway. When I got back to our condo, the shirt was too small, so when I came back with my shirt, I tried to explain to them it was too small (back then I knew no Espanol). The officer figured out what I was trying to tell him and he said something to one of his guys, who literally took the shirt off his back and handed it to me. I’d bet you’d never see that in an American fire station (“What? You want me to give him MY shirt?”).

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