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EMS Gets the Spotlight in New Reality Shows

First Responders Live is a live in-depth look at firefighters, police officers, EMS providers, and first responders who put their own lives on the line as they race to save others. Producer Dick Wolf’s series, which debuted in June and airs on Fox, embedded cameras in multiple cities across the country to document “a night in the life” of these units.

Baton Rouge, La., is one of the cities featured on the show. Chad Guillot, the city’s EMS administrator, says his department was approached by the producers of First Responders Live, 44 Blue Productions, about being part of the project.

“We had a previous relationship with them from participating on a show they produced last year that has been successful on a different network,” says Guillot. “They liked Baton Rouge because of the type of service we run and the volume of calls in the parish.”

Guillot felt the “live” format was an interesting take on these types of shows. It also offered a different look at what first responders do and how they work together on calls, he notes.

“We always want to promote the work all first responders do and especially like the idea of highlighting the men and women of our service,” he says. “This is one of the toughest jobs a person can do, and we feel it helps the general public understand the challenges paramedics, firefighters, and law enforcement face every day.”

Partnerships, Trust, and Teamwork

Lacey Spencer, an East Baton Rouge EMS (EBR EMS) paramedic, and her colleague Stacey Pruitt have been among the responders featured on the show.

“I’m humbled to have the opportunity to represent our profession to the nation,” says Spencer, who has served the Baton Rouge community for a decade. “Stacey and I set out on this adventure with hopes to showcase how first responders serve their communities. This job isn’t about the individual medic, it’s about partnerships, trust, and teamwork. We hope to deliver a positive message and be an example of one such partnership.”

First Responders Live not only shows how crews treat patients who call 9-1-1; it also focuses on the paramedics and EMTs on a personal level, exploring how they handle the stresses and challenges they face every day.

“They tell stories to one another, share things that are going on in their lives, sometimes joke about what they’re doing at any given time, all in an effort to give their minds a chance to reset between calls so they can be ready for the next call,” says Guillot. “There is a true connection between all people who are in public safety, and they rely on one another to keep each other safe and grounded.”

His EMS crew was excited and a bit nervous about being filmed, adds Guillot: “They realized they will be true ambassadors for our department and scrutinized by every medic in the country as to how they did their job.”

Spencer agrees: “Just looking at the cameras, they seemed huge and intrusive, but after about five seconds into the first call you forgot about them. Stacey and I run calls the exact same way without cameras.”

In fact, EMS reality TV is the ultimate in having people look over your shoulder as you do your job—which can be a little intimidating at times. However, once the crew saw the first few episodes, they felt more at ease, according to Guillot.

“Most of them liked that it shows not only the seriousness of some of the calls, but how they work together and can keep each other grounded,” he says.

‘This Is Real Life’

McCabe Ambulance, an EMS provider based in Bayonne, N.J., is currently featured on a similar program: A&E’s Live Rescue, which also follows firefighters, paramedics, and EMTs from across the country as they respond to emergency calls.

“Being part of a show like this is a great opportunity not just for McCabe Ambulance but for the industry as a whole,” says Michael McCabe, chief of operations for the company. “It showcases what we do on a daily basis because there’s such confusion and ambiguity as to what EMS is all about, not just in New Jersey but nationwide.”

He emphasizes it’s not always about the guts and glory, hanging off cliffs and intubating people, but rather about the interpersonal side of things, and how you can change somebody’s day by being there for them.

“If you watch the show, there are certain characters coming out in Bayonne that are great, because it shows the interaction we have with the community,” McCabe says. “The viewers really enjoy seeing the lives of EMS and fire responders and what it’s all about.”

Although the film crew never got in the way during a call, McCabe says the department can ask them to put the cameras down if necessary.

“They’ll put them down without any questions asked because they realize this is real life,” he says. “If we feel some people shouldn’t be recorded or a situation is too sad or too dangerous, we’ll say ‘not right now,’ and they will put them down.”

You might think the back of an ambulance would be an awkward place for cameras and a film crew, but Guillot adds it really hasn’t been a problem.

“44 Blue has set up several stationary cameras in the cab of the truck as well as in the patient compartment,” he explains. There is one hand-held camera operator in the back with the medics who can capture the close-up shots. A second camera operator and sound technician ride with the crew so they can get more than one view of the scene. Those two then stay behind when the crew heads off to the hospital.

“A chase van shows up eventually with other crew members to collect permission forms from other people on scene and to collect the crew members we left behind. The No. 1 rule is that they do not interfere with our work. These guys are professionals and always seem to get great shots of the action when they’re not even close to where we’re working. Our people are also told that they do not wait on cameras or film crew. If they have to go, they go and leave everyone there if necessary. But so far that hasn’t happened.”

Keep It Raw

As each of the shows concludes its season, both McCabe and Guillot say it has been a great experience.

“Initially I was in the command unit as the chief of operations. It afforded me the ability to be on the road and do some time with the crews being filmed,” says McCabe. “In the fourth episode they asked me into the studio, alongside Deputy Chief Forrest Smith from the Mesa (Ariz.) Fire and Medical Department. I have enjoyed the entire process, whether on the street or in the studio. It’s been a real thrill.”

Guillot has enjoyed the people involved with the show, including the film crews.

“Everyone is very professional, and it’s amazing to see how much work goes into a one-hour show like this,” he says. “It’s not just the show but all the social media that’s out there that showcases our people and our department. There are many people working on this—that gives it a whole other dimension. I also enjoy talking to fans of the show in Baton Rouge. It’s weird to hear people talk about the place I work because they saw it on TV.”

Spencer basked in hearing from strangers who had been treated by other medics and about how much difference one can make in their community. “The shows have inspired a whole new generation to get into the field,” she says. “Of course, our hope is that we represent the first responder community well. Our administration was excited about EMS being featured on Nightwatch Nation and First Responders Live. It promotes our department across the nation and allows the general public to get an inside look at what first responders do for their community. EBR EMS is a municipal service, and we have a proactive administrator who worked with the mayor and city council members to allow the department to be filmed.”

McCabe hopes Live Rescue continues. In fact, it was renewed through the summer for an additional 10 episodes because of its positive ratings. This could lead to other agencies nationwide being featured in future seasons.

“One piece of advice I would offer to other crews who will be on a show like this is to just be yourselves,” he says. “Deliver the same service you do on a daily basis, because it is a live program. That’s what is so unique about this show. We don’t want it to be scripted; we want it to be raw. We want to see what’s out there, we want to show what we’re doing, and we want to show how we handle certain situations. That’s why the show works so well: It’s not the polished version, and it’s not overdramatized.”

Guillot’s advice is to be sure management is on board with what the show is about and what you’re willing to do and don’t want done.

“It is a commitment for your department, so be prepared to spend some time working on the behind-the-scenes aspects,” he says. “There is a lot of planning of crew assignments, keeping trucks with gear in service where you need them, and all the legal stuff you have to have in place before you start.”

One misconception at the start was that the film truck would be dispatched to the “good” calls. That will not happen, says Guillot.

“The production company gets what it gets, and we don’t break dispatch policy because a call might look good on TV,” he says. “Human nature wants to show all the cool stuff, but the reality is not every shift is Oscar-winning material. Just show what happens, and chances are you’ll get what you’re looking for. Establishing a trust with the production company is a big part of it.”

One of Guillot’s hopes is that this window into how first responders do their jobs can inspire a younger generation to get involved in the industry. “Seeing how our employees interact with the people of our parish is reassuring that we are serving them well,” he says. “I would like viewers who watch every week to see that our people are both compassionate and have great satisfaction in what they do. I also hope we inspire some viewers to join us.”

Daniel Casciato is a freelance writer and social media consultant from Pittsburgh, Pa. He makes his living writing about health, law, social media, and technology. Follow him on Twitter at @danielcasciato

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