First Responders are Underrated – Why Empathy is More Important Than Ever

I recently finished reading a terrific new book, Humans Are Underrated by Geoff Colvin. Each chapter made me think about the emergency services, technology, and how we interact with each other and the people we serve. Colvin’s main point is that the essential skill of the 21st century is not technology-focused as most would assume. He believes it is something most of us would not expect – the non-technical trait of empathy. Luckily, this is a skill possessed by the finest emergency services providers. And that is why first responders are underrated.

Firefighters are underrated? Wait a minute, aren’t firefighters universally admired? After all, there’s the saying, Everyone loves a firefighter. And surely you’ve heard this one; What do cops and firefighters have in common? That’s right – they both want to be firefighters! Around the world, firefighters hold a special place in the hearts and minds of the public. Look at any poll that asks people to name the job they most respect. Firefighters, police officers, and our armed services personnel always place in the top ten. So, why would we be remotely considered underrated?


Can’t Get No Satisfaction

These days we’re always connected to at least one device, but we are still people with human needs that cannot be completely satisfied by technology. Before you think I’m heading toward some bawdry firehouse humor, let me be clear: this specific human need is empathy, the need to connect on a human level with others. This is where I’m discovering technology alone comes up short time and again. Colvin cites the U.S. military as being on the cutting edge of the emerging high-value skills of social interaction. DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency that ushered in the Internet Age, has programs designed to study the science of social interactions and human dynamics. Even DARPA is interested in more than just cool gadgets.


Good Technology, Bad Technology

The fire service uses innovative technology to solve problems and execute their mission. Yet technology continues to be the proverbial double-edged sword. On one side, technology has given us great solutions like Emergency Reporting (yes, I’m a little biased). It’s the most trusted RMS tool out there. And I personally consider Apple products to be on this good side of the blade, too!

But the troublesome part of living technology focused lives is when we find it difficult to leave our electronic bubble. Look up from your smartphone the next time you wait for a flight at an airport. Sure enough, nearly everyone else is engrossed in what is taking place on their device only inches away from the next. No one is connecting with each other, everyone is engrossed in their individual screen. As someone who delivers training for a technology company, I can attest to the power of empathy. The value of face time (not FaceTime) with people when teaching technology use is essential. At Emergency Reporting, our success comes from the personal interaction with each other and our customers. Onsite training events continue to be effective training, even though we deliver similar training over the web. Why is in-person training often more successful? We still need human interaction to get the most of out of technology because relationships matter.


Empathy Defined

Colvin explains empathy as the ability to discern what some other person is thinking and feeling, and responding in some appropriate way. The way we respond to others can be as varied as the thoughts and emotions we’re trying to figure out. The key here is that the response is appropriate. When I sense a student is confused by a certain aspect of our system, my appropriate response is to figure out why he is confused and adapt my teaching style to his learning style. That’s something our support team and trainers strive to do every day. It’s not always easy, but it is always empathetic and the need for empathy has never been greater.

A study cited in the book reveals a significant decline in empathy from 1979-2009. A large chunk of that decline occurred after 2000. Perhaps modern social networks aren’t so social after all if they’re decreasing this trait. This may be a reason many well-known companies state empathy as a desirable trait in job postings. And these are often for positions making over $100,000! Has your department recognized empathy as a valuable quality in new recruits?


Staying Relevant

This brings us back to why firefighters are underrated. Empathy may be a soft skill, but it’s a crucial one. Especially when many fire departments are running over 90% EMS calls. Good fire departments will continue to be respected for their technical excellence, but great departments will couple that technical ability with compassionate service. Empathy is what will set the standard of best. After all, when Mrs. Smith brings cookies to the fire station, it’s not because we got the IV on the first stick or prevented water damage during overhaul. It’s because she remembers how well we treated her and her loved ones. When someone is having one of their worst days, she will remember you for your empathy most of all. When someone needs help with our system, we will exceed expectations only if we are empathetic. That’s the nature of our industry today.

Go ahead, enjoy your gadgets and marvel at the latest technological advances in our industry. We live in amazing times. With technology playing a supporting role, the fire service is uniquely positioned to deliver empathetic service to communities that are experiencing less and less of it over time. And that is why first responders are underrated, if only by a little.



Want to receive training on Emergency Reporting’s technology and experience our staff’s empathy first hand? Learn about our Regional Training Conferences.