As Hennepin EMS prepares to unveil its new blue uniforms, after decades of showing up at emergency scenes in trademark "UPS brown," the paramedics union argued Wednesday that the change could put lives at risk by making medics look even more like police officers than before.
While the agency's leadership said the move was intended to avoid confusion, in reality the new blue uniforms "failed to separate [union] members from law enforcement," said a statement by Hennepin County Association of Paramedics and EMTs, which represents some local paramedics and dispatchers.
"Hennepin EMS [HEMS] and Hennepin Health Systems [HHS] have been working hard on distinguishing paramedic and police uniforms following the murder of George Floyd," the statement said, referring to leadership at Hennepin Health, a subsidiary of the county that operates the paramedic agency, as well as HCMC and 10 area clinics. "Unfortunately, the final product is nearly identical to every municipal police department in Hennepin County. Despite HHS CEO Jennifer DeCubellis insisting HEMS must aesthetically differentiate itself from police."
The health care company announced the change to uniforms internally last year, later calling them "an opportunity to evolve for our community," while recognizing that "recent events have highlighted a history of pain and distrust in the medical system that runs deep in some communities we serve." Leaders suggested that the move also was motived by safety concerns after paramedics reported being confronted during last summer's unrest in the wake of George Floyd's murder.
The new blue threads were supposed to roll out sometime this spring, but haven't yet debuted.
Hennepin Health didn't immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
For its new uniforms, the agency is ditching a brown-on-brown color scheme for an all-navy blue get-up with neon stripes down the sides — with "Hennepin EMS Paramedic" in white letters on the back. Outside of the color change, the uniforms ditch the silver badges that paramedics wore for years, in favor of a patch with the agency's emblem.
But the change caused an immediate uproar among paramedics. Some said the new uniforms resembled police garb more than before; others complained about tampering with decades of tradition behind the "UPS brown" uniforms.
Others voiced more practical concerns. Union officials said that removing the caduceus — the traditional symbol of medicine featuring two serpents wrapped around a staff — from the uniform lapel and making name patches optional will only further erode public trust. Furthermore, they said, several patches with the word "PARAMEDICS" are now the only thing distinguishing paramedics from law enforcement, which could cause confusion among non-English speaking patients.
This week, the union drafted a letter to leadership at Hennepin Health, demanding that they not adopt the new "police adjacent uniforms," while also calling on the health care company to disclose the costs of the proposed uniform change and to solicit input from community members, particularly those who have been harmed by law enforcement.
The letter said that despite internal opposition from many paramedics, Hennepin Health picked a shade of "LAPD blue" that resembles the uniforms of 27 police departments in Hennepin County. Leaders needed to do more to explain the "expenditure of several hundred thousand dollars for a misguided aesthetic change," the letter said. The letter was supported by the Minnesota Nurses Association, AFSCME Council 5 and the Minnesota Newspaper and Communications Guild, and has been sent to nearly 200 elected officials. The Minnesota Newspaper and Communications Guild also covers journalists at the Star Tribune and St. Paul Pioneer Press, among other news outlets.
The union also pointed to the "huge costs," associated with outfitting every paramedic, dispatcher and member of the command staff, that would be incurred by the health care company, which like others across the country has been financially weakened by the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We vehemently object, considering the large group of our members forced to take pay cuts and endure the threat of layoffs during the worst health crisis in a generation," the union said.
While sartorial changes don't often go smoothly, the move also comes against the backdrop of continued debate about the relationship between public health and law enforcement.
The debate most recently surfaced in 2018 after a civil rights investigation found that Minneapolis police were sometimes urging paramedics to sedate people, a revelation that sparked a public outcry and ultimately played a role in the resignation of HCMC's chief executive.
Since then, Hennepin Health officials have promised change.
But the union officials said the uniform change proves that Hennepin Health leaders are taking conflicting stands. While they continue to cite employee safety as a primary reason for the move, they "routinely embed our union brothers and sisters with [Minneapolis Police Department] 'strike teams' and other police agencies with the new law enforcement style uniforms," the union said.
The company's leadership, the union said, was acting in "direct opposition" of its "stated values."
Further blurring the lines between Hennepin EMS and law enforcement, the agency recently announced the creation of a specially trained "tactical EMS team" that would respond to potentially dangerous situations, with or without police, according to internal communications. The role of the Tactical Medic team "will be educating and working with law enforcement in an attempt to better protect suspects, PD, and our street staff," according to an internal e-mail obtained by the Star Tribune.
Libor Jany • 612-673-4064