Management skills are more important to the EMS supervisor than technical skills, yet management training is often lacking.

So here is a refresher course.


The standard technique used by most EMS managers to select supervisors is to promote the best technician and pray. But being an expert doesn’t guarantee being a good supervisor. Sometimes a person who is the best technician turns out to be a poor supervisor.

Why? Because that person does not have the knack of getting other people to do their best, and that’s what supervision is all about. A supervisor may still perform some actual field work himself. But his main objective is to devise ways to get others to produce to the best of their ability.

In order for any supervisor to function he must have a strong knowledge of personnel management. You may think that, because we operate in the emergency services, the tried and tested principles of human resource management don’t apply. Nothing could be further from the truth.


I think the best way to approach this subject is to look at some of the common mistakes made by new supervisors. Any one of them can cause months of trouble.

Things are going to be different over here: It is quite common to see an inexperienced supervisor go into a job with the idea that “a new broom sweeps dean.” He lets it be known he doesn’t like the way the last superior operated. He wants to wipe the slate clean and start all over. This manager has overlooked a very potent psychological factor: resistance to change. People resent and fear change, even when they don’t like the way things have been done up to now.

Experienced supervisors going into a new organization start out by letting everyone know that nothing will be changed for the time being; that all orders presently in effect will remain in effect; that no changes in personnel, equipment, procedures, etc., are contemplated for the moment. After experienced supervisors are in position to evaluate the situation for a while as a supervisor, they gradually make the necessary changes.

Making promises: In an effort to win friends, new supervisors may make rash promises. They may promise a new shift, a promotion, special training, even something as simple as an assignment to the “best truck.” A hinted or implied promise creates a real problem for a new supervisor. Many supervisors who have foolishly promised something and later have found out that they could not deliver will tell you that they wish that they could have eaten their words.

Dictatorial practices or I’ll show them who’s the boss: Remember, respect is earned. You can t demand it. Your subordinates must freely give it.

Playing favorites: Being partial to friends, ignoring employees who are timid, and assigning the best jobs to the chosen few will rapidly break down the morale of the group. Supervisors who play favorites frequently find themselves losing the support of the entire group, including the favorites.

Getting and accepting legal opinions from “guardhouse lawyers”: If you need the official interpretation of a company policy, ask your supervisor, not your subordinate. If you want to better understand the union contract, ask your department’s personnel officer to explain it to you, not the union steward. Remember, a generally accepted principle in labor relations is that once you do it one way, you have to negotiate any change in the “past practice” before you can do it another way.

Speaking before thinking: Careless remarks which would go unnoticed if they came from a nonsupervisor take on a new significance when they come from a member of management. Subordinates have no way to tell whether a supervisor’s statements are department policy or the supervisor’s own viewpoint. All of us are quick to pick up careless remarks and translate them to suit ourselves.

I can do it all: This is a very common failing of supervisors in the emergency services. We seem to labor under the impression that in order to be accepted as a supervisor we must be the best worker. Not true! As a matter of fact it’s not even your job. Your job is to get your subordinates to do the work. Experienced supervisors have learned that with trust and understanding, proper training, motivation, and your support, employees can usually do the job just as well or better. An effective supervisor delegates as much of the routine work as possible.

Passing the buck: It’s quite common to hear an insecure supervisor who is on the carpet blame another employee, another unit, the radio or person or thing they can think of for the error. A real leader is not afraid to admit a mistake.

Losing your temper: Getting visibly angry in front of others is the one quickest possible way to lose the respect of your subordinates.


Only a small percentage of supervisors who fail in their jobs do so because of technical incompetence. Many more fail because they are unable to deal effectively with people. This may seem strange until it is given a little thought.

Most employees spend months or years learning a profession and they become quite proficient in it. This is often overlooked when employees are placed in supervisory positions and their ability to deal with employees suddenly becomes more important than their technical ability.

This causes problems for many supervisors because they have spent very little time or effort in learning to supervise people.

“if you cannot communicate in writing effectively, you will have trouble functioning as a supervisor.

The importance of knowledge about people to the supervisor is shown in the results of research. Thousands of workers and supervisors were included in these studies. The research identified two basic types of supervisors: the work-centered supervisor and the employee-centered supervisor.

The work-centered supervisor was primarily concerned with the process and mechanics of production. He spent almost all the time worrying about what was getting done. He was not terribly concerned about his employees except to push out more production. The research showed that the groups run by these supervisors were actually low-producing groups.

The employee-centered supervisor was primarily concerned with the employee as the medium through which he accomplished the group’s goals.

These supervisors were interested in understanding the employees and their problems, goals and ambitions. They studied their employees. They knew them personally. They trusted their employees and the employees trusted the supervisor.

This doesn’t mean that the employeecentered supervisor was unconcerned about achieving the group’s goals, but he realized that he must do so through the people with whom he worked. He realized that well-adjusted workers who know what they are doing are high producers, and the research showed that the groups run by this type of supervisor tended to be the high-producing groups.

The employee-centered supervisors all followed some basic principles of human relations. They were:

1. Make sure you let every employee know how he is getting along.

2. Give credit when due.

3. Gain your employees’ confidence.

4. Inform employees in advance of changes. Informed employees are more effective.

5.Listen to your employees’ ideas. They often have better ones than you do.

Certainly an understanding of human relations principles is useful in dealing with people, but this knowledge will fail if not used properly. Supervisors may know general theories of handling people, but when it comes to dealing with individuals, specific knowledge is required. The supervisor has to get to know his employees as individuals and has to understand their particular difficulties and needs before he can effectively apply his knowledge of human relations.


When we analyze supervisory positions, some common duties appear in all of them, whether emergency medical service or fire service. They are: getting the work out, training and developing subordinates, developing and maintaining cooperation, and developing and maintaining morale.

Getting the work out: The primary responsibility of every supervisor is the unit’s work output. Whether the job is in the office, at the emergency scene or in quarters, the EMS supervisor must see that the work is done properly and on time. To do this most supervisors function in three ways: Organizing and planning the work to get maximum output with the minimum of effort and confusion, delegating as much of the responsibility and authority for the actual work to others as is practical, at the same time retaining the responsibility for the quality of the care, and supervising and controlling the work to see that it’s done properly.

The value of a supervisor is based primarily on an ability to get out the work. However, it is a mistake to let the drive for high output overshadow the need to treat subordinates as human beings. People are not machines, and if you treat them as such you will find that their resistance to this pressure will prevent a permanent increase in the amount or quality of the work performed. In fact, the opposite is true and, over the long run, the amount, and especially the quality of the work will suffer.

When you are on vacation and the job continues to run smoothly, it is a sign of your leadership and your effective supervision.

Training and developing subordinates: How often do supervisors find themselves in the position of not being able to answer this question: “I am going on vacation. Whom do I put in charge?” Don’t be afraid to teach your job to your subordinates. A good supervisor is a good teacher. Remember that when you are on vacation and the job continues to run smoothly, it is a sign of your leadership and your effective supervision.

Developing cooperation: When we talk about cooperation the idea of a small group working together comes to mind. This is partly true. We must have cooperation within our own group or our mission as a supervisor will most certainly fail. But a good supervisor must develop a sense of cooperation with his own supervisors, other work groups and outside forces. In other words, if your own group gets along well with each other but does not get along with the staff at the local emergency care facility, you have a real problem that will be reflected in your rating as a supervisor.

Developing morale: The team spirit of the group and the willingness of the employees to work toward common goals depends to a great extent on your leadership. An effective work group is usually a group with high production and high morale.

Why have we taken the time to analyze a supervisor’s duties and responsibilities? Because you must pay attention to each phase of the job. Some supervisors are so intent on getting out work that they neglect training and morale. Some concentrate so excessively on morale and cooperation that they neglect the work output. All of us are better at some things than others. Some of us would rather let a disciplinary situation go uncorrected until ordered to take action by higher authority. Why? Most of the time the reason involves lack of knowledge about how to handle the situation or a reluctance to become the “bad guy.”

Neither of these reasons is acceptable because as a supervisor you have a responsibility to know how to do it and to take action.


I think that any discussion of supervisory skills must include a listing of some of the major supervisory functions.

The first of these functions we will consider is the planning function. As a supervisor you must think ahead. Without plans, future events are left to chance. The more fully you plan the work of your group the less likely you are to find yourself fighting unexpected crises and the more likely you are to achieve the goals you have set for the group.

This means that as a supervisor you must spend much more of your time in planning. Careful planning transforms your group’s purpose into action by setting up concrete objectives.

The next supervisory function to be considered is organizing. Your skills at organizing your group will be a key factor in your success or failure. The smooth functioning of any group activity depends on efficient organization. When we think of the organizational skills required for emergency service supervisory personnel, the scope of them is astounding. Not only are you required to possess the normal organizational skills found in all supervisory positions but you must possess the ability to organize, in emergency situations, untrained civilians to help accomplish your mission. As a supervisor you must be able to direct the activities of subordinates and control the results of your activities. Directing is not just a matter of giving orders or supervising employees to make certain that they follow instructions. Directing means building an effective work force and motivating each member of the group to perform at a high level of competence.

A supervisor must be able to communicate. If you believe the axiom that a supervisor’s job is to get things done through other people, it is easy to see why a skill in communicating is an important supervisory function. As a supervisor most of your communicating will be done orally — making and receiving phone calls, giving and receiving instructions, attending meetings, interviewing applicants, counseling and training subordinates and talking with the public. Listening is also an important part of oral communication. You may tend to ignore this aspect of communication, because most of us prefer talking to listening. Effective listening requires work and concentration.

Paperwork may not be one of your favorite activities but it is a necessary one. If you cannot communicate in writing effectively you will have trouble functioning as a supervisor. Often a written report or request is more effective than an oral one. Suppose, for instance, that you have discussed an incident with your supervisor and he failed to log your oral report and at a later date you were asked to explain the matter. A written report prepared while fresh in your memory would provide an accurate response.


No discussion of supervisory functions would be complete without mentioning formal labor management relations and discipline. You are the management representative on the line at all times. You must know, understand and live within the guidelines established by the written contract. The single most important rule to follow in dealing with unions is “be honest.” If you do not establish a trusting relationship with the union, that failure will work against you, and follow you the entire time you are a supervisor. If you do not understand the contract you should ask your personnel officer for an official explanation. Do not deviate from the contract. You must remember that it is a legal agreement requiring both the union and management to act in a certain way. If you act outside the contract you are either establishing a practice which may work against the overall wishes of the company or you are guilty of an unfair labor practice. It could be something as simple as having a meeting with the employees in your group to change some work rules – without first negotiating them with the union.

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You are required to enforce the company’s rules and regulations. Sometimes in order to achieve this goal you will have to take or recommend a disciplinary action. The key to taking disciplinary action is to follow these steps:

1. Find out all the facts. Obtain oral and written reports from all concerned.

2. Follow the requirements of any union contract.

3. If possible have a discussion with the subject of your fact-finding probe.

4. Reduce your findings to writing. Include as attachments to your report any written statements, pictures, reports, etc.


Any discussion of the role of a supervisor must contain a section on the staffing function.

Staffing is the supervisory function of recruiting new employees and determining whether there are enough qualified employees to fill the available positions. Staffing involves the selection and training of employees. It involves the problem of promoting them, of appraising their performance and of providing them with further opportunities for development. As a supervisor, you may be asked to interview applicants for employment and to give your opinion if they should be employed. At face value this appears to be as easy as a day off. All you have to do is put on the uniform, ask a few questions, make a little small talk and go home, you may think. But in reality it is much more complex.

In this day of quick and easy litigation you may be called on to defend your interview actions. Several studies have found that most interviewers get into legal trouble in the first and last five minutes of the interview. This is when a supervisor is either trying to establish a dialogue with the applicant or to bring the interview to a close, and some irrelevant questions may slip out.

To give you an example of how this may happen, picture yourself as an interviewer. An applicant enters the interview room. Since you are a good supervisor you have your written list of questions in front of you. But you notice the applicant is nervous, so you decide to engage in small talk to put the applicant at ease. In the conversation you ask the applicant if he is married, if he has any children, and somehow you manage to ask the applicant about his religion. At this point you and your company have a real problem. You haven’t started the interview and already you have technically trampled all over the applicant’s constitutional rights. The moral of this story is think before you act.

We should cover some major do’s and don’ts for supervisors in interviewing. The do’s are:

  • Before the interview begins, sit down and write out every question you will ask.
  • Ask only the written questions. Write down each answer.
  • Ask the same questions to every applicant. Ask the questions in the same manner to each applicant.
  • Make certain that all questions are job-related.
  • Be a good listener.
  • When an applicant is resistant or defensive, drop the question and come back to it later.

The don’ts are:

  • Do not make inquiries about an applicant’s name which would indicate his national origin.
  • Do not make any inquiries whether an applicant is married, single, divorced, engaged, etc.; number and age of children, or any questions concerning pregnancy.
  • Do not ask any questions related to the applicant’s sex or race.
  • Do not inquire if the applicant has ever been arrested. You may ask about convictions, however.
  • Do not ask any questions concerning credit ratings, charge accounts, etc.
  • Do not ask what arrangements will be made for the care of minor children.

For additional information your attention is directed to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Equal Employment Opportunity laws in your state and your community’s own EEO regulations.

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