Drexel University scientist Jasmine Y. Wright was dedicated to helping first responders who are assaulted while trying to help others.
Physical attacks on first responders is a felony in Pennsylvania. Yet justice, Philadelphia firefighters and medics have said, is hard-won. So in 2015, Wright was leading a federally funded study to find out what was going wrong for these first-responders.
Then in July, one month after receiving her master’s from the Dornsife School of Public Health, Wright, 27, was raped and murdered by a former maintenance man at her West Philadelphia apartment complex. He was arrested, convicted and sent to prison for life.
It would be more than a year before her colleagues could put aside their grief sufficiently to finish Wright’s work.
“She was really committed to the [emergency] service on this issue,” said Jennifer Taylor, an associate professor in Environmental and Occupational Health who helped complete the study.
Philadelphia has one of the highest EMS call volumes in the country and serves more than one million people. About 71 percent of the more than 378,000 calls are for medical services, according to researchers.
A previous study found that Philadelphia Fire Department paramedics were 14 times more likely to suffer an assault-related injury compared to firefighters.
But no one tells a rookie paramedic they will be kicked, spit on, punched, tossed out of the back of ambulances and shot at, said Taylor.
“That is not in the job description,” she said. National studies indicate that these assaults lead to job stress, burnout, lost days, and job turnover.
District attorneys that were interviewed as part of the Drexel research said that some judges view violence against first responders as “part of the job," one reason the assaults do not result in felony convictions. That leaves the medic victims—who in the study reported a lack of support during the court process—to conclude that justice did not serve them.
Still, Taylor said, keeping an assault from ever happening was the main focus of Wright’s work.
“If we can get justice for the victim that is great, but that is not the primary intent,” she said. Tougher penalties wouldn’t be as useful as figuring out how to keep first-responders safe.
“Once someone is assaulted on the job, it is too late,” she said. “How do we prevent this from happening in the first place?”
Education for firefighters and medics focuses on clinical care and firefighting skills. They are not always trained to deal with identifying situations that can lead to assaults, and how to protect themselves. This training is too important to be learned solely on-the-job, the researchers recommended.
Further, first responders who have been assaulted need to receive more counseling on what they can expect to see happen in the legal system. This includes preparation for their court appearance by the district attorney, who needs to explain honestly what they should expect. There should also be another member of the fire department and labor union to accompany them to the hearing, researchers recommended.
Benefits for firefighters and medics should include paid compensation for their time in court, researchers recommended.
While the study focused on Philadelphia, the problem is not just an urban one.
“It is the same everywhere,” she said. “Industry-wide you have a huge problem.”
Michael Bresnan, president of International Association of Fire Fighters Local 22, said the union and fire department are working together to improve conditions and help resolve problems associated with assaults, many of which go unreported. The Drexel research is essential to those goals, he said.
“Without the research, how do we know what avenue to take to fix the problem,” Bresnan said. “We need fact-based evidence, especially when lawyers are involved.”
The study has some limitations. The researchers had only the interview data from district attorneys. Wright was in the middle of interviewing municipal judges – who decide whether felony charges go on to further prosecution – when she was murdered, and didn’t leave a complete record of her findings, Taylor said.
Wright was “the student you always hope for,” said Taylor, her project adviser, who praised her personal warmth and willingness always to listen to and act on constructive feedback.
Had she lived, Wright by now would likely have reached her next goals: Graduating from law school and continuing her work as an advocate for first responders. Instead, her science will be her last word Taylor said.