Make this page my home page
  1. Drag the home icon in this panel and drop it onto the "house icon" in the tool bar for the browser

  2. Select "Yes" from the popup window and you're done!

Home > Topics > Recruits
All Articles

Creating a Quality EMS Future
by Michael Gerber

Why your EMS action film is recruiting the wrong people

Videos of technical rescues, tactical medics, and raging fires overshadow the realistic expectations of our profession

By Michael Gerber

We’ve all seen it, and most of us have felt it: Job fatigue, burnout, stress — whatever we want to call it.

We have witnessed it in colleagues, friends, bosses, and sometimes in ourselves: EMTs who once loved their jobs complaining every time dispatch sends them on another run. Firefighters angry to be on the scene of another “BS” call. Paramedics who think BLS care is below them.

At the Pinnacle EMS conference last summer, former Toronto EMS Deputy Chief Alan Craig spoke about “compassion fatigue.” He emphasized the need to be aware of compassion fatigue, its signs and symptoms, and how to cope with it. He also said we must teach compassion, not take it for granted. These are all important skills for any EMS leader. But what stood out was Chief Craig’s discussion of matching expectations with reality for new members of our profession.                                                                                   

Look at the EMS and fire department recruiting videos on YouTube. Think about the brochures you’ve sent in the mail, the posters you’ve seen displayed at conferences, and the pitches that your recruiters give to potential employees.

EMS expectations vs. reality

Do those videos show EMTs getting up in the middle of the night for a patient whose stomach hurts? Do they show paramedics feeding someone’s dog, helping a woman back into bed, or contacting social services to arrange extra help for an elderly man who can’t take care of himself?

Chances are they don’t. Like departments where I have worked and volunteered, your videos probably have fast-paced rock music in the background, footage of ambulances racing through the night with lights and sirens, and videos of technical rescues, tactical medics, and raging fires.

Your recruiting pitch probably includes phrases like “Every day our paramedics save lives” and “Thousands of times each year, people call on us when a life is on the line.”

Fire-based EMS agencies are probably guiltier than others — how many fire departments have recruiting materials that spend more time or space showing fires and swift water rescues than EMS care? Even when EMS is portrayed, the patient is often lying on a backboard with a crushed car nearby, or paramedics are intubating and performing CPR.

Next time an EMS provider you know complains about running a 911 call that is not a life-threatening emergency, think about how we have set him up to fail — before you chastise him. Did he grow up watching Emergency!, like so many of my mentors did, and expect every call for help to be a life or death situation? Did he watch videos on YouTube, like so many of my contemporaries did, and expect every day to be filled with cardiac arrests, vehicle entrapments, and house fires? Or did he listen to our recruiting pitches, like so many of our newest candidates, and expect to be performing RSI and responding to active shooter events during their first shifts?

EMS and the fire service should not stop telling potential employees and volunteers that our profession is exciting, or that they’ll have the chance to save lives. But we also need to align their expectations with reality to ensure that we attract the right people.

Tell applicants that we impact people’s lives every day, sometimes by pulling them from burning cars or defibrillating them, but more often simply by holding their hands, listening to their stories, or reassuring them that everything will be okay.

Until we match expectations to reality, we only have ourselves to blame when our newest volunteer or our veteran employee spends more time complaining about their job than they spend actually doing it.

About the author

Paramedic Michael Gerber, MPH, started in EMS in 2001, when he joined the volunteer fire service while working as a journalist on Capitol Hill. He later served more than eight years in the career fire service as a paramedic and quality management supervisor. Currently, Michael works as a consultant with the RedFlash Group and M10 Solutions, and he also continues to treat patients as an active paramedic with the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad.
The comments below are member-generated and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of or its staff. If you cannot see comments, try disabling privacy and ad blocking plugins in your browser. All comments must comply with our Member Commenting Policy.
Brian Hricik Brian Hricik Thursday, April 10, 2014 11:59:51 AM Here is a guy that knows a bit about what we need to do to hire the right people for the right job!
J.P. Franczyk J.P. Franczyk Thursday, April 10, 2014 5:50:34 PM amen!
Rj Reaper Naef Rj Reaper Naef Thursday, April 10, 2014 6:57:53 PM What happens when you are a Crap Magnet and you seem to get the good calls One service a few years ago had 25 shootings in a month I was on 18 of them I have emt and medic students and other partners fighting or arguing about who gets to run with me. I have been a black cloud for 30 years. I grew up watching that show in the 70s at 8pm on Saturday nights on NBC LOL
J.t. Cantrell J.t. Cantrell Friday, April 11, 2014 5:26:48 AM I must agree with your view in that the "glamour" of EMS is over done. It still does not have the respect it deserves but that is hopefully getting a little better. Fire and law enforcement have a "nobility" factor in that some of them are killed or injured and sadly that is true but it should not necessarily be a selling point. Anytime an emergency worker is lost it is a tragedy. EMS does not seem to be anything but a job to many. I do not say it should be revered as a calling but it should have a higher value than a "job". Volunteerism is dropping off, wages for EMS personnel are still miserably low in some cases and many people want a career from day one. High pay, office with a window and raises every 90 days or they think they are being mistreated. Last time I looked EMS had none of that. Thank you for your presentation, it was well done.
Richard Hardy Richard Hardy Sunday, April 13, 2014 12:06:52 PM ditto great comment as that is real life in fire dept and EMS
George Yaworski George Yaworski Monday, April 14, 2014 7:31:05 AM The truth about the job is taking care of Grandma who fell down and broke her hip or wrist and helping her feel dignified while taking care of her. Lights and sirens don't apply to those calls. It is important to remember that you need to be a strong shoulder for the Grandpa whose wife is having a stroke. Compassion fatigue, I don't know about that, for me it was politics that drove me out. There are so many aspects that lead to wearing out, some of these need addressing, as well as making sure the right people are recruited.
Thomas Horne Thomas Horne Wednesday, April 16, 2014 11:21:34 AM Mark Twain's publisher asked him if he was going to Publish the "War Prayer" even though his family was asking him not to do so because it would be regarded as sacrilege. Twain answered "No! For I have told the whole truth in that and only a dead man can tell the truth in this world. You may publish it after I am dead." You are also broadcasting the truth and although I appreciate it a lot I think you can count on some people being very upset by your message. Given the current reality of rescue service demand in the general population some of us Firefighter types are no longer suited to the actual nature of our work environment. I've been doing fire & rescue work for over forty years now and I see more disappointment and discontent among the younger people coming into the service with each passing year.
Gregory Geczi Gregory Geczi Wednesday, April 30, 2014 9:42:53 AM I know I am late, but I am a black cloud too Rj,

EMS1 Offers

We Recommend...

Connect with EMS1

Mobile Apps Facebook Twitter Google+

Get the #1 EMS eNewsletter

Fire Newsletter Sign up for our FREE email roundup of the top news, tips, columns, videos and more, sent 3 times weekly
Enter Email
See Sample

Online Campus Both

Recruits Videos