Traditions can be very powerful. Some, like Thanksgiving, are embraced by an entire society. Others shape images and public perceptions, like those of military institutions and our colleagues in fire protection and law enforcement.
EMS, by definition, is very young. Modern EMS began in the 1960s, so the early organizations are at most 40-some years old. Because most EMS agencies in the United States today have a short history, they lack tradition and ceremony. It is time for the EMS community to acknowledge the importance of tradition, both within the service and as part of what it presents to the community at large.
Traditions are beliefs, customs and practices taught by one generation to the next. A ceremony is an activity infused with ritual significance and performed on a special occasion.1 Many EMS agencies struggling to survive think they are too young to have traditions and don't have time for ceremonies or organizational special occasions. That just means no one has taken time to attend to these concepts.
For the past decade, EMS agencies have struggled to recruit and retain members, both paid and volunteer. One issue that comes up repeatedly when talking about careers in EMS, particularly with those individuals who are contemplating leaving EMS for the fire or police services, is the lack of an "organizational culture" or sense of brotherhood. They see EMS agencies as not committed to their people, thus not inspiring loyalty in return. EMS becomes a "McJob" that fills space and time until something more meaningful comes along. This tells me EMS leaders haven't recognized the importance of making their personnel feel special, and they've overlooked the need to celebrate the organization's successes and special occasions. Making members feel as though they are a part of something special adds to a sense of belonging that may contribute to improvement in organizational stability and member longevity.
Developing and, more important, maintaining ceremonies and traditions takes effort, but beyond the time involved, the little it costs is well worth paying to produce benefits both inside and outside the organization.
Many organizations and professions like the military, law enforcement and the fire service use swearing-in ceremonies to mark the induction of new members. While your EMS agency might not be required by law to administer an oath, there is generally no bar to doing so. Even private organizations can ask new members to pledge to support the mission, vision, values, goals and rules of the new employer. This activity carried out in the presence of VIPs, friends and family forms a lasting impression on both new and old members who participate. It conveys a sense of personal and organizational commitment, pride and professionalism.
Promotions are similar cause for celebration. Organizations celebrate the appointment of new leadership, and the individual promoted celebrates his or her professional achievement. Morale and esprit de corps are enhanced by publicly recognizing the event. Since most agencies provide some sort of regalia (badge, insignia, different color helmet) upon promotion, presenting them forms a logical basis for a simple ceremony. In community-based organizations, election of new leadership is often associated with a banquet or other ceremony. From the newest member to a new officer or chief, having a loved one or a respected colleague "pin on" the badge or insignia of a new position is a moment of pride and appreciation for the person being recognized.
The retirement of a serving member is a special occasion that presents a number of opportunities for the organization to recognize the member's service, both formally and informally. The agency can present the retiring member with mementos of service (shadow boxes with badges, patches, and awards), plaques and certificates of appreciation. Social events provide an informal opportunity to gather, eat and perhaps "roast" the retiring member.