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4 books to make you a better EMS leader

Too often, the “best” paramedic is promoted to supervisor without training in the knowledge, skills and abilities they need to be successful leaders


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By John L. Morrissey and Michael A. Ponticiello

Do you want to be a leader? Sure, most of us in EMS didn’t join to sit back and be quiet! We all have some type-A personality in us, but barking orders is not leading. Unfortunately, no one tells us where to find the knowledge, how to learn the skills or how to develop the ability to lead.

We in EMS are notorious for making our best paramedics a supervisor without providing them the knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) to be successful leaders. One becomes the best paramedic by learning the KSAs to provide excellent patient care. Leadership is no different, one must learn to lead.

We understand that downtime in EMS is non-existent for most services, but making the time to learn to lead will be an invaluable skill set when you find yourself as a shift supervisor or an officer in your organization. There are many ways to learn these skills – find a leadership mentor, read about leadership and practice even on the smallest scale. Here are some books that can help you start your leadership journey.

1. ‘You’re it: Crisis, change, and how to lead when it matters most’

By Leonard J. Marcus, Eric J. McNulty, Joseph M. Henderson, Barry C. Dorn an David Gergen (foreword)

This book is appropriate for both field staff as well as executive level staff. Today, in an instant, EMS and emergency management leaders can find themselves face-to-face with crisis.

In “You’re it: Crisis, change, and how to lead when it matters most,” the faculty of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative at Harvard University takes you to the front lines of some of the toughest decisions facing our nation’s leaders, from how to mobilize during a hurricane or in the aftermath of a bombing, to how to handle a raging pandemic. They also take readers through the tough decision-making inside the world’s largest companies, hottest startups and leading nonprofits.

This book provides the EMS manager with pragmatic leadership models and methods, including the theory of meta-leadership. Read it to gain understanding of what is happening during a moment of crisis, what to do about it and how to hone these skills to lead high-performing teams. Then, when crisis hits, you can pivot to be the leader people follow when it matters most.

2. ‘The unthinkable’

By Amanda Ripley

Unlike in many other professions, as an EMS leader, at some point in your career, you will almost certainly respond to an unthinkable major disaster. “The unthinkable” reveals why, under the same circumstances, some people affected by a disaster survive and others do not – why some are hopelessly immobilized by fear, crippled by panic; and others are filled with strength and endurance, and survive.

It takes years for some EMS workers to develop survival leadership skills. This book shortens the learning curve, allowing the reader to discover how human beings react to danger and what makes the difference between life and death in their decision making.

3. ‘Turn the ship around! A true story of turning followers into leaders’

By L. David Marquette

As EMS leaders, we are asked to make high-pressure decisions in seconds. But those decisions don’t have to be made in a vacuum. For EMS leaders, even the quickest decisions need to involve your team.

“Turn the ship around! A true story of turning followers into leaders,” is the story of how a naval captain turned the U.S. Navy’s worst performing nuclear submarine crew into one of the best. He transformed the demoralized crew into an empowered, motivated fighting force in just a year. He replaced the military’s traditional leader-follower or command-and-control structure with a leader-leader model that gave crew members control over their work.

In EMS, we often hear EMTs say that they are “only an EMT.” As EMS leaders, we need to empower our EMTs to be more than “only an EMT.” The principles discussed in this book can help improve the engagement of all staff to function to their full potential and build a passionate, high-performing workforce.

A bonus to this already great book is the workbook. The workbook complements the concepts outlined in the book and provides a roadmap for staff development. Often, when we read some of these management texts, we come away thinking, “how would I ever implement this?” The workbook gives you a place to start the conversation by expanding on the “Questions to Consider” at the end of each chapter. If you are a leader trying implement these ideas, this workbook may be a great help.

4. ‘Make your bed: Little things that can change your life ... and maybe the world’

By Admiral William H. McRaven

If you work in EMS for any length of time, you find out that it is emotionally draining, physically demanding and mentally challenging. During Admiral McRaven’s address to the graduating class of the University of Texas at Austin, he took inspiration from the university’s slogan “What starts here changes the world.” He shared the 10 principles he learned during Navy Seal training in “Make your bed: Little things that can change your life ... and maybe the world.” Those principles helped him overcome challenges not only in his training and long Naval career, but also throughout his life.

We in EMS are routinely called upon to make complex decisions in high pressure situations that have a lot of similarities to the small unit management principles that Admiral McRaven discusses. EMS is a vocation that deals with hardships and tough decisions – these decisions are made with determination, compassion, honor and courage.


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About the authors

John Morrissey, BS, NREMT-P

John Morrissey has a bachelor’s degree in health service administration and has been a NREMT-P for the past 40 years. He had a 34-year career with the New York State Department of Health, Emergency Medical Services Bureau, shaping EMS as we know it in New York today. He is an accomplished EMS and emergency management instructor, teaching at all levels of EMS; EMR through paramedic. He also teaches with FEMA and the NYS Division of Homeland Security & Emergency Services in both general ICS courses and position-specific courses.

Morrissey spent 30 years with the North Area Volunteer Ambulance Corp, where he was a ground paramedic, and for 25 years as a flight paramedic with New State Police Aviation. He is currently a paramedic working for Broom County Office of Emergency. He is also a ski patroller and a member of national ski patrol for the past 45 years and is an outdoor emergency care instructor trainer.

Michael A. Ponticiello, MPA, CEM, EMT-P

Michael Ponticiello serves as the deputy county executive for physical services in Broome County, New York. He previously served Broome County as the director of the Office of Emergency Services. Michael has been an integral part of the county’s response and recovery from many disaster over the past 15 years, including multiple federal declared disasters and oversight of the county’s COVID-19 response. He has extensive experience as a first responder and is a member of the New York State Incident Management Team.

Ponticiello is past-president of the Southern Tier EMS Council and is a NYS paramedic. Michael’s approach to disaster management has always been community focused. He recently finished two terms on the Board of Directors for the United Way of Broome County. He is an avid skier and a member of the National Ski Patrol. Michael holds a Master of Public Administration from Binghamton University and is a certified emergency manager through the International Association of Emergency Managers.

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