Thoughts on the National EMS Memorial Service

June 24th, 2012
I just spent the weekend at the National EMS Memorial Service in Colorado Springs. (http://www.nemsms.org). This event honors EMS personnel who have lost their lives in the line of duty the previous year and it has been occurring for twenty years. If I hadn’t been asked to be on the Board of Directors last summer I might never have given this event more than a passing thought – and for that I am more than a little embarrassed.

During the board meetings leading up to the event I learned that family members, coworkers and friends of 19 Honorees would travel to Colorado Springs this weekend to attend this service which honors the life and sacrifice of their loved ones. I admit I was more than a little skeptical and worried if I really belonged on this board. I asked myself, “Would people really travel great distances to relive what has to be their most painful moment – at a time for some of them when the pain of their loss must just be beginning to subside? “ Why would they do that?”, I asked myself. Each director is asked to function as a liaison to several families; to act as their main contact point for the weekend. As the newest director I was only given one family. I was given the family of Honoree Carmen Burnett. Carmen’s family who would be traveling to the event included her husband Mike and her boys Brandon and Connor.

I was asked to call the husband, introduce myself and offer any assistance I could provide to him and the boys as they planned their trip to the Memorial Services. I was nervous about calling….what do you say? How do you enter into that conversation with someone who has just lost his wife and mother of his children? I put off calling. I delayed. I avoided the call.

As a paramedic I have told hundreds of people that their loved ones were dead. My first paramedic trainer Dave Doernbach, after watching me struggle with telling a wife that her husband had died, said to me, “Look, Steve you have to be direct with the families, you have to say ‘dead’, you can’t say ‘passed’, ‘passed over’ or any other clever phrase – they just won’t hear it”. So, I learned to be direct on the scene. But giving notice at the scene of a death is different. Then, I was giving the worst news one could hear – and leaving to run another call, here I was entering into a longer term conversation and I was nervous.
Before I made the call I did some research on Carmen and I pulled up an internet article which included a picture of her standing in front of an ambulance, a beautiful girl with great smile. A girl you were sure everyone liked. I looked at the picture and read her history and the issue of line of duty deaths became more real to me, these were not just “loved ones” to a close group of friends and family, these were servants to communities, patients and untold “others” in need. I finally made the call to her husband Mike.

Michael Burnette, a longtime law enforcement officer, couldn’t have been more engaging. He thanked me for my call and said he and his boys were looking forward to the trip. He was quick to talk about Carmen and her work and seemed at ease with the conversation about her. He said he didn’t need any assistance from me but promised to connect when we all got to Colorado Springs. Michael made the conversation easy for me. I felt better, even though I still wasn’t sure I was looking forward to the Memorial Service weekend and all that “sadness”.

This weekend arrived and family members, friends and representatives for the Honorees gathered in Colorado. As a Director, I worked side-by-side with a group of incredibly dedicated men and women, some who have been volunteering for this event for a decade and some since its inception 20 years ago. I had a chance to meet Carmen’s family. Mike is a big, confident man, with a friendly smile and quiet demeanor about him, one who you would love to have show up if you needed a law enforcement officer. His boys Brandon, 17 and Connor, 7 were mature, well mannered and interesting to talk to. The family not only didn’t mind talking about Carmen – they wanted to. They loved her, were proud of her and talking about the things she did for others helps keep them engaged in their memories of her. This was true of all the families I met over the weekend, but here is what I learned of Carmen.

Being a good paramedic and a clinical expert for several counties wasn’t enough for her. Carmen was a decorated paramedic, winning several awards and she was an advocate for CPR training and community education. Carmen and her leadership is credited with training over 14,000 people in CPR and several of her layperson students have “saves” under their belts. She was so well known for her service that upon her death, the State of Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam signed into law a bill requiring Tennessee High School students receive “hands on” CPR training in addition to the cognitive skills. This Bill was named the Carmen Burnette Act of 2012, an incredible legacy.

Carmen believed in paying it forward and this Act certainly continues to do that. Mike has developed a not-for-profit organization that highlights the need for continued CPR awareness and training and Brandon is now a CPR instructor who himself has trained 800 citizens – Mom would be proud.

On the last morning of the Memorial Service weekend at the family breakfast everyone is given the opportunity to come to the front of the room and tell their new found friends about the ones they loved and lost. Families were hesitant at first, but once the ball got rolling I think every Honoree had someone speak for them. I sat in the back of the room and listened to moms, dads, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters get up and talk about their loved ones who gave their lives in the line of duty. It was sad – but it was also a celebration with laughter and pride clearly shining through the tears. I cried with every story but I shared the pride they felt in the many accomplishments of these Honorees – they were all someone’s heroes.

Mike Burnett got up to talk about Carmen; he took the microphone and was confident and controlled in his narrative. He spoke of Carmen’s many accomplishments and what she meant to him and the community. When he finished he paused and looked around the room and said, “You know if Carmen was here and could see what a fuss we’re making about her ….she would be so embarrassed!” Everyone laughed and Mike smiled and said, “No, really she would just be embarrassed.”
Mike, Carmen has earned every bit of the credit given to her. She has “paid it forward” and the fact that her efforts continue today through the state legislation and your family’s work says it all. We who have not done as much should feel the embarrassment – not her.

I have given to The Carmen Burnette CPR Education Fund (Carmen’s Fund) which promotes the education and empowerment of everyday heroes by training laypersons in the life saving skill of Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR) and I want you to give as well. Their mission statement “Educating Everyday Heroes” sums it up best. They provide certification in the American Heart Association’s CPR / AED Heartsaver curriculum completely FREE of charge. Their goal is to certify as many layman CPR providers as possible. Please go to http://www.carmenburnette.com and donate what you can to this important cause. Keep “paying it forward”.
The weekend is over and so is my trepidation about the event and its importance to the families of those who have lost their lives in the line of duty. To Mike, Brandon, Connor and all the family members whom I had a chance to talk to this weekend, thank you for helping ease me through my uncomfortable feelings, I now know how important it is to engage in conversation with those who have lost loved ones, especially those who have lost their lives in the line of duty. I was talking to several family members about my thoughts on the weekend and my early “fears”, and one wife smiled when she told me that three days after her husband’s funeral, several members of her husband’s ambulance squad came by and she watched them “circle the block” fifteen times before they found the courage to come in the house, she said “see, you’re not alone”.

Steven Athey is the president of the EMS Consulting Firm, Health Care Visions. Steve has worked in the ambulance industry since 1971 and has managed large and small EMS organizations. Steve holds his undergraduate degree and his MBA from Texas Wesleyan University where he holds an adjunct faculty position in the School of Business. Steve is looking forward to continuing his work with the National EMS Memorial Service and he is humbled to work with such a committed group of people. Steve can be reached at slathey@hcvems.com


  1. Christine Hines says:

    This is very nice what you all do for our family’s is not only an honor but a blessing it has helped me to heal and meet new family’s who have gone threw the same tragic as me and help me feel like we are not alone I cant thank you all enough you are truly angels sent from above thank you all so much

    The Hines Family
    Christine Hines

    1. Steve Athey says:

      Thank you for your kind comments

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