EMS OFFICER: MAKING THE BIG TRANSITION

BY SCOTT C. HOLLIDAY

Congratulations! you have decided to accept the promotion and take that first step in becoming an EMS officer, one of the biggest moves you will make in your EMS career. Transitioning from a direct patient care provider to a first-line officer is difficult since your roles and responsibilities dramatically change. Instead of providing patient care, you will be directing, supervising, and evaluating it. Your scope of influence increases, and people will look to you to make decisions that will affect many more individuals than just you, your partner, and your patient.

When you decide to become an EMS officer, ask yourself, What type of officer will I be? What style should I follow? Do I possess the qualities/characteristics of a true leader?

As an officer, your former partner and peers, which whom you were on the ambulance just a few days ago, will view you differently. You have to know what qualities define a good officer and leader so that you can be a success in your new position.

Having been involved in teaching and mentoring new EMS officers for several years in the Fire Department of New York (FDNY), I have compiled a list of common qualities that FDNY emergency medical technicians and paramedics say are the most desirable in an officer and leader: honesty, integrity, consistency, dependability, and approachability. Additionally, they desire that an EMS officer be a visionary, an educator, and a communicator.

Honesty and integrity. They are indicated by the trust your subordinates place in you, which comes from your interactions with them. This trust is not handed to you with your officer’s insignia. You have the opportunity to build that trust every day. The most important way to earn the trust of your staff and assure them of your honesty and integrity is through consistent and ongoing personal interaction.

Although your new position comes with additional paperwork, reports, and meetings to attend, you must make the time in your busy schedule to sit down and talk with your personnel. This informal daily interaction builds this sense of trust between you and your employees. Lead by example, especially when it comes to honesty and integrity.

You will never have all the answers; don’t pretend you do. When an employee asks you a question, it’s okay to say you don’t know, as long as you follow up as soon as possible and provide the correct information. The honesty and integrity you demonstrate in your character and through your interactions produce considerable rewards for you as an officer. However, even one small deviation in this area can have significantly negative results, undermining your authority and credibility with your personnel.

Consistency and dependability. Whether at the emergency scene or in your myriad daily administrative tasks, these qualities are essential. Handling all your work and personnel responsibilities consistently helps build a cohesive team whose members anticipate each other’s needs and know what to expect from each other. Just like the relationship you built with your EMS partner in which you anticipated what each other was going to do on an assignment, consistency with your staff lets them know what to expect from you, which should be reasonable and consistent behavior.

Be as fair and as objective with your personnel on the last day of the workweek as you were on the first day. We all have bad and good days, but that shouldn’t influence how you interact with your personnel. Your demeanor and how you carry yourself day in and day out set the operational tempo for the units. If the crews come to work each day anxiously wondering whether Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde will be supervising them that day, that negatively affects their work.

Even when your kids are sick, your bills are piling up, you get a flat tire on the way to work, and your coffee is cold, as the officer, you must come to work with enthusiasm and a positive outlook. In the chaotic world of emergency service, you must now be the dependable rock that your personnel can count on, especially in a crisis.

Approachability. Your personnel will come to you for many reasons, minor and major, and want you to be approachable so that they will feel comfortable doing so. You cannot lead from behind your desk. You have to get out and see what your people are doing, make yourself available to them, and listen to their concerns. When interacting with your personnel, spend 60 percent of that time listening and only 40 percent talking.

Whether you are a first-line supervisor or a chief officer, you must establish an open dialogue with all of your personnel so that they are comfortable bringing issues to your attention. This is especially helpful when they feel comfortable enough to bring to your attention small issues that could turn into big problems for you later. Putting out the small fires early is a lot easier than trying to contain the conflagration later.

Developing this approachability again rests with how you carry yourself. Get out and see what your crews are doing; interact with them at the station, during training, and on the emergency scene. A firm handshake, a smile, and a hello each time you see them go a long way. Being an active listener is also important to assure your staff that you value their opinions. Listen to them, use their ideas, and praise them in public for making a positive contribution. It is most important to make sure your members know they are a valued part of the overall team, not just a subordinate or a worker drone.

Educator. As an officer, you are responsible to teach your personnel regarding everything from operational/administrative procedures to patient care. Your personnel need someone they can turn to when they have a question; you must be that resource. It’s better that they turn to you instead of getting bad information from somewhere else. As an officer and an educator, you cannot be expected to know everything, but you must follow up on every issue they bring to you. Failure to do so breaks down your credibility and decreases your effectiveness as a leader.

As an officer and an educator, you are also responsible to train the next generation of first-line officers. You need to train the people who will take your place when you move up the command ladder. Pass on the knowledge and experience that got you to your position, and instill in them the ambition and qualities that will ensure their success as future officers in your department.

Visionary. All good leaders need to have a vision, based on personnel performance, for setting goals and objectives for the operation. The EMS officer must take an objective, critical look at the operation and see how it can be improved. This includes facility issues, such as keeping the station clean or the ambulances stocked, and system issues such as response times and ER turnaround times.

EMS personnel want their leaders to have a vision and set realistic goals for personnel and service performance. They need direction from their leaders to assist them in implementing that plan daily so they can reach that vision. One way to do this is to set small, attainable, and realistic enabling objectives that allow for incremental improvements instead of sudden drastic changes. Ensure that your actions as an officer as well as those of training, communications, and other support services will provide what the emergency medical technicians and paramedics need to demonstrate the core competencies of their service, providing prehospital emergency care and transporting the sick and injured.

Communicator. Effective communication is critical when exchanging information and ideas with your personnel at the station and at the emergency scene. You need to effectively disseminate information received from your superiors and receive information passed on to you by your personnel. Two-way communication helps build trust and, consequently, your team.

Remember, a good officer listens more than he speaks. Gather as much information as possible so that you can make good, informed decisions. Remember, the time you spend with your personnel makes a difference. Listen to what they have to say, discuss your issues and concerns with them, and work together to develop a sense of teamwork and pride.

• • •

Are you ready for the transition from EMT/paramedic to officer? Depending on your service, it can be a dramatic change from patient care provider to supervisor. Making that transition requires that you step back from direct patient care and look at the overall picture. It’s a big step and the most dramatic one in your EMS career. It is now your job to lead, direct, guide, and motivate others to follow you.

If you put in the extra effort and hard work to be a good leader, you can become one. Look at the traits that you and your peers respect in and expect from your leaders. Honesty and integrity define your character and are highly sought-after attributes in an EMS officer. Be consistent and dependable day in and day out-whether you are at the station dealing with a disciplinary concern or on the scene of a multicasualty incident.

Remember, just because you are the boss doesn’t mean you know everything, so be approachable and attentive to what your personnel have to say. Educators lead and leaders educate, so pass on your knowledge and experience to those who will come after you. Have a vision and challenge your personnel to strive to always do their best. The emergency medical technicians and paramedics who are the foundation of your organization are depending on you to have the qualities and characteristics they are looking for in a good leader. They deserve nothing less.

SCOTT C. HOLLIDAY has a career spanning 23 years in the fire and emergency services. He is the deputy chief for EMS training for the Fire Department of New York, a deputy chief instructor with the Nassau County (NY) Fire Service Academy, and the first assistant chief of the Mineola (NY) Volunteer Fire Department. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire and emergency service administration from SUNY Empire State College and is a Department of Homeland Security master exercise practitioner.

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