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A message for the graduating classes of EMS

Five things you need to do every day to be successful in your career

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Congratulations to you on your graduation. Whether you are newly joining us, or you have been part of the emergency services family for some time and are moving to a new seat at the table, you are taking up new responsibilities at a challenging and exciting time.

This graduating class is stepping into a profession that is being asked to do more than ever before, just as we brace for potentially crippling reductions in resources. It isn’t fair that you have to walk straight into such a situation at the outset, but as anyone who is called to serve others in their time of need already knows, life is not fair. You could grumble, and you could gripe, and you would have every right to do so, but complaining alone won’t be of help to you, your colleagues or your profession. This is your time to rise to the challenge. Think of this time as a response to a motor vehicle collision or a mass casualty incident. You are not the one responsible for the incident, but many are relying on you to help make things better. We are all relying on you to help make things better.

As you begin this next chapter in your career, you may look to others to guide and mentor you. Know that as those of us who have been working for a while want to share our knowledge, skill and guidance with you, we are also looking to you to provide us with much needed energy and enthusiasm. We will need to work together as we fight hard for what we need to be able to do our jobs properly. We must all support each other so that we can continue to support those in our community who rely on us in their time of crisis.

Going forward, the challenges that we face will take all of the science, innovation and street smarts that EMS can muster. We will need all the leverage we can get to keep ourselves safe and to protect people in need of our help. So new graduates, to help put the odds in your favor, let me share with you the five things you need to begin today and continue every day you want to be successful in your career.

1. Remain good at your job

I’m talking about your core skills. Continue to work on them. As fresh as everything is to you right now, this may sound ridiculous. As you move through your career, you’ll learn that much of what you learn in the classroom and on the street will be outdated before you ever get a chance to use it. Every day, you have to work to refine your knowledge, skills and effective attitudes. Continue to practice your fundamentals and update them as new tools and new techniques are developed.

2. Protect yourself first

Yes, with your graduation you gain new skills and responsibilities as well as an obligation to use them to aid others in their time of crisis. But your first responsibility to the people you serve (and to the people who love you) is to ensure that you are taking care of yourself.

I’m not just talking about checking on scene for a bystander with a weapon and an intent to harm. I’m more worried about the threats you don’t realize are causing you pain until the damage is done. Eat right, exercise and sleep well. Take care of yourself physically and psychologically.

Just like sharpening your assessment skills, these things are easy to say, but take real, purposeful effort to actually do. The difference is that if you don’t work on your assessment, you’re only hurting your patients. If you neglect working on yourself, you’re hurting you, your colleagues, your friends and family, and everyone around you.

3. Be a great follower

Pick someone with knowledge, skills and attitudes you admire and emulate those skills. You may be lucky enough to personally know someone you admire and have them become your mentor to help guide your path. If you do, be sure to return the favor to some new EMT or paramedic when they graduate.

If you find no mentor available to you now, decide on traits your ideal EMS clinician would exemplify and be that person. Not every senior person you work with will be a great partner. Not every boss you work for will be a great leader. But if you strive to follow a great role model, whether real or idealized, then bit by bit, every one of you will find yourself becoming a better clinician, a great partner, and maybe, one day, a role model yourself.

4. Always be an advocate

Be an advocate for your patient. Be an advocate for yourself. Be an advocate for your colleagues. Be an advocate for your profession. I hope this graduation means better job prospects, an increase in pay and improved employment options for you. Maybe that was the primary motivator for you to complete your program. But as you gain skills in your profession, you will find that they also come with an increase in responsibilities. Not just in terms of, more to do.

You now have a responsibility not only to the citizens you protect. You have a responsibility to your brother and sister professionals as well as to the profession itself. Advocate for your profession. Don’t rely on the voices of others to protect us and lift us up. You don’t have to love the exact pitch of every other singer, but we need every voice in the choir for our song to be heard.

5. Know the most important part of your job

By now you’ve probably heard someone say that what you do is a matter of life and death. By now you probably also know that most of your job will not actually involve life and death circumstances. You could take this to mean, not every call you go on will be an emergency. While that’s true, that’s not where I’m going with this. Rarely in the course of your duties will you have the opportunity to save a life. However, on every call for service – from routine medical transport to emergency critical care – you will have the opportunity to make life better for your patient and probably their family, friends and bystanders. Often it will be difficult, and it will almost never be recognized. But now that you’ve graduated, you need to know that this is the most important part of your job, because by doing it you make the world a better place.

So please enjoy all of your well-earned accolades at this time of graduation. You deserve the praise. You’ve worked hard. I hope you can take at least a small break now. You’ve earned it. But when you’re ready to take on the task at hand, now you know what you need to do. Keep your skills sharp and up to date. Protect and take care of yourself. Seek out good examples and follow them. Advocate for your colleagues and for your profession. And each and every day, seek out every opportunity to make the world a better place.

Read next: Achieving EMS mastery

Rom Duckworth is a dedicated emergency responder, author and educator with more than 30 years of experience working in career and volunteer fire departments, hospital healthcare systems, and private EMS. He is a career fire captain and paramedic EMS coordinator for the Ridgefield (Connecticut) Fire Department and the founder of the New England Center for Rescue and Emergency Medicine. Duckworth is recipient of the American Red Cross Hero Award, Sepsis Alliance Sepsis Hero Award, and the EMS 10 Innovators Award in addition to numerous awards and citations for excellence in education and dedication to service. Duckworth is a member of numerous national education, advisory and editorial boards, as well as a contributing author to more than a dozen EMS, fire and rescue books, including the IFSTA Pumping Apparatus Driver/Operator textbook as well as over 100 published articles in fire and EMS journals, magazines and websites. Duckworth has a bachelor’s degree in public safety administration from Charter Oak State College in Connecticut. Connect with Duckworth via or or on LinkedIn.

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