The volunteer sword cuts both ways

Defining the line between volunteer and paid paramedics

By David Givot

Recently I had the pleasure of speaking at the "Concepts in Trauma" EMS conference in Owego, New York. For nearly eight hours I lectured on EMS/Legal issues to a full room and I must have answered a hundred questions. Still, at the end of it all, I think I am the one who learned more.

The providers who attended my sessions ranged from paid paramedics in busy metropolitan Pennsylvania to volunteer EMTs from tiny, quiet hamlets in upstate New York. While I could relate more directly with the metropolitan paramedics, I was fascinated by the volunteers and details about a system where providers are yanked from their daily lives to respond in their own cars wearing civilian clothes and never knowing just how much help they might have on any particular call.

Through a variety of questions from the audience, I also learned that there exists a significant amount of friction between volunteer and paid providers; they referred to being either 'volunteer' or 'professional.' Apparently many providers who are paid have little or no respect for the volunteers — who do the SAME job — and some volunteers hold themselves to much lower standards, either because they work for free or they believe less is expected of them.

"Legally speaking..." one participant asked, "...where is the line between paid and volunteer EMS?" For a moment, I was stumped. Where is the line? For several tense and uncomfortable seconds, I worked it in my head like a difficult math problem. Of course the answer was so simple. When it hit me, I was almost embarrassed for having to think about it. THERE IS NO LINE. When it comes to EMS, the job is the job and the expectations must be the same. When it comes to patient care, the law does not care who you work for or whether you get paid. The law only cares about what duty you owe and whether that duty was carried out reasonably.

If you are a paid provider who loathes the very idea of volunteers, I urge you to consider that the job is the same and that a little respect goes a long way. Likewise, if you are a volunteer who believes that you are somehow less accountable because you are not paid, I will remind you that you are wrong; you are every bit as accountable for your performance as your paid counterparts. But, if that is not enough to convince either group, just remember where your family lives, works, and plays, and consider who will answer the call when it matters most.

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