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Why managers who care about their staff are the backbone of EMS

The most demanding yet unrecognized and unrewarded job in EMS is that of the supervisor, manager and leader who really cares about their workers

Updated March 7, 2016

It’s the holiday season and while resources may be scarce, many of you will find a way to give your field staff a gift or a party to recognize and celebrate the good work they do throughout the year. But who recognizes and celebrates you?

Ah, I know, you don’t need special recognition, right? Leadership, after all, has all kinds of intrinsic and extrinsic rewards. You get to be up-front, have a title, maybe even wear collar brass and occupy a desk.

Even more, you get to make decisions, run meetings, determine the future of the organization and experience that deep internal satisfaction of watching things get better. And the big reward for being a leader in EMS is the high salary you pull down.

Of course, my tongue is firmly in my cheek.

Leadership is too often unrecognized and unrewarded

The most demanding yet unrecognized and unrewarded job in EMS is that of the supervisor, manager and leader who really cares about their workers.

As you read this, a supervisor in Texas is going out of her way to encourage a new paramedic after a tough call. In Indiana, a manager is picking up a street shift so a field provider can meet her son at the airport as he returns from war. In Nebraska, an executive director is burning the midnight oil devising a plan to convince tight-fisted county commissioners that his staff should be paid more. A chief in Pennsylvania is sharpening his pencil for a fourth go at the schedule, trying to help everyone get the shifts they want. In Florida, a tired manager is taking heat from a physician about a psych patient the hospital doesn’t want. On a street corner in California, a supervisor listens patiently as a crew pours out their complaints about upper management.

These roles and this sort of worker-centric caring often stretch beyond the demands of the job description and regular working hours. Last week, a manager in Michigan reluctantly admitted to me that she was regularly putting in 60 to 80 hours a week while only being paid for 40. And she’s not alone.

The job descriptions and staff budgets for supervision, management and leadership have not caught up with the growing recognition that great EMS is the product of investing heavily in caring about and caring for the people on the frontline. More and more, I’m meeting caring supervisors and managers whose workloads are too heavy because their job duties have not accounted for the time it takes to build the vital internal relationships that are the key ingredients of creating great organizational cultures.

In nearly all of the several hundred EMS organizations I have contact with each year, most have leadership/management teams that are too small, too overworked, too underpaid and too under-recognized. This can’t be fixed if you remain demure about what you do every day.

You are amazing

So let me say it for you. What you do and how much you do every day is nothing short of amazing. You make great field care possible. You’re the backbone and lifeblood of it all. Without you looking out for schedules, stretching budgets, creating positive cultures and finding good people, equipment, vehicles and facilities, no one would be kneeling next to Mrs. Smith with loving care. If you doubt this, consider that almost every field provider who moves into management confesses that before stepping up, they had no idea what really went into running a great EMS organization and how involved and demanding supervision, management and leadership can be. As one new supervisor recently said, “I used to think I was busy on the street.”

As you recognize your field providers this holiday season, don’t forget to take a bow yourself. You and other supervisors, managers and leaders are the unrecognized gift.

John Becknell, PhD, is a partner in the consulting firm SafeTech Solutions, LLP. John has been involved in emergency services for 40 years and writes and researches in the areas of leadership, culture, community and psychological wellbeing. He leads workshops, retreats and training programs for EMS, law enforcement and the fire service in living well, peer support and transforming the first responder experience into a path of growth, satisfaction and meaning. He is the author of Medic Life and numerous articles. John’s Masters and Doctoral degrees are in psychology with an emphasis on community psychology. Contact John at