The importance of credentialed leaders

Properly trained EMS leaders can navigate change while retaining talent and improving care


By Jay Fitch, PhD; and Skip Kirkwood, JD

EMS and fire leaders have historically been promoted from the field. Some had formal education while others simply graduated from the school of hard knocks. In recent years, it is more common to see bachelor and master’s degree requirements for director level positions. Additionally, industry-specific professional development programs and certifications have been used as another measure of baseline competencies.

The National Fire Academy has a variety of programs including its Managing Officer Program and the Executive Fire Officer Program for emerging fire service leaders. The EFO program is well-established in the fire service as a pre-requisite credential for career fire chief positions. The American Ambulance Association and Fitch and Associates were early developers of leadership development programs for private, non-profit and public sector services through the Ambulance Service Manager’s program and Beyond the Streets seminars which have been developing EMS leaders for over a quarter-century.

As the unique competencies required for leading an EMS organization became apparent, the National Emergency Medical Services Management Association (NEMSMA) began working to determine how to best fulfill that need more than a decade ago.

The Paramedic Officer Credentialing program represents the culmination of years of efforts that began with the publication of Emergency Medical Services Management and Leadership Development in America: An Agenda for the Future by NEMSMA in 2010 followed by the development of EMS Officer competencies by a diverse group of stakeholders that was published in 2014 as the Seven Pillars of EMS Officer Competencies.

NEMSMA’s leadership also recognized that there were numerous sources of excellent leadership and management education that existed in the U.S. and Canada, and decided that becoming its own provider of education would not be the most effective way to encourage upper-level education in EMS. Instead, a system of accreditation was developed, that allowed existing providers of leadership and management education to become accredited and facilitating applicants for supervisor, manager, and executive level credentials to meet certification requirements regardless of what agency provided the education. NEMSMA’s own programs, including EMS-FTEP, would also go through the accreditation process.

To further the recognition of professional certifications, in 2017, NEMSMA established the American College of Paramedic Executives (ACPE) to recommend standards and to develop and oversee the actual credentialing of individuals. Professional certification provides a mechanism for individuals to demonstrate that they possess the knowledge and skills necessary to lead various levels of an EMS organization. Proficiency is demonstrated through education and experience that is validated through an independent testing process. Certification also demonstrates an individual’s ongoing commitment to professional development.

Current and aspiring EMS leaders can earn credentials, awarded by the American College of Paramedic Executives at three levels:

  • Supervising Paramedic Officer (SPO), which identifies those who demonstrate the competencies (knowledge, skills, and abilities) expected of a first-line EMS supervisor
  • Managing Paramedic Officer (MPO), which identifies individuals who demonstrate the competencies expected of a middle manager in an EMS organization (division heads or those who lead functional areas of an EMS organization)
  • Fellow of the American College of Paramedic Executives (FACPE), which is awarded to individuals who demonstrate the competencies expected of an executive-level EMS official (usually chiefs, directors, executive directors, general managers, deputies to those, or those aspiring to those top-level positions)

More details about the credentialing programs and requirements can be found here.

Q&A: Utilizing ACPE certifications with Forest Weyen, MBA, NRP, FACPE

We sat down with Forest Weyen, MBA, NRP, FACPE, executive director, Monongalia EMS, Morgantown, West Virginia, do discuss utilizing ACPE certifications.

We recently saw a position posting for an Operations Chief for your agency. One of your requirements was that the individual possess or obtain within a short time period an American College of Paramedic Executives (ACPE) credential. How did you come to use that as a hiring qualification for a senior EMS staff officer?

Weyen: In EMS, we require people to obtain EMS credentials for all types of specialties. In addition to the new shiny paramedic patch, we make or encourage people to get things like trauma or pediatric certifications, critical care – the list goes on and on. However, until recently, our industry has not done a good job of requiring credentials for leaders.

We assume that since you are a paramedic and have been here X number of years, you must be ready to step into a supervisory or leadership role. The problem is, the EMS industry has not provided the training, education and preparation to give you the tools you need to be successful in those roles. Due to the newness of the credential, we did not make it mandatory to apply; however, we did put a stipulation that you either possess or obtain within a couple of years an ACPE credential.

What do ACPE credentials mean to you in terms of selecting the right person for the position?

Weyen: I feel like the ACPE credentials start to put a framework around the expectations we want as leaders and managers in our agencies. It identifies and defines the knowledge, skills and abilities we want and expect in EMS leaders. I know that people who have met the ACPE standard have a base knowledge set that I can continue to grow and develop them.

I am sure it is not perfect, and an argument could be made for why some items were left out and some items added in, however, it is a really great benchmark to allow us to begin the growth and development of the leaders we need. I think it about it like this: I have about 20 years left in this industry, and I am finally in a position to start making change and improving it. I want to develop leaders that are prepared to solve the complex problems using tools that do not yet exist to solve problems that we cannot even fathom right now (like a global pandemic?). 

Do you plan on using ACPE credentials for other positions in the organization, like first-line supervisors or middle managers?

Weyen: Absolutely. Once the director of operations role that you mentioned above was filled, we immediately began looking for our shift supervisors. To start, we changed the name of the job description to supervising EMS officer (captain). We know they will be considered captains in our organization but are considered supervising EMS officers. Part of that job description is like the director position (managing EMS officer) mentioned above. They have 3 years from date of hire to complete the credential. 

What would you like to share with your fellow EMS leaders about ACPE credentialing, and how the credential can help you to select and develop people for supervisory, managerial, and executive positions in your organization?

Weyen: I think someone that has taken the time and effort to achieve credentialing is a mark of someone that is motivated. Credentialing is not impossible, but it is not easy. You must put some skin in the game, figure out how to achieve some of the requirements, and put yourself out there. 

The world-famous climber Alex Honnold said, “Anybody can be happy and cozy. Nobody achieves anything great by being happy and cozy.” That is true with credentialing or anything else you want to achieve in life. You must push yourself and get out there. In addition, as current EMS leaders, we need to make sure that we providing as many opportunities for our up and coming leaders as possible. That could include providing courses inhouse, outsourcing, conferences, etc., in addition to mentoring and coaching.

We must put in the time to develop those that we want to lead. The pushback typically get is, “What if we put all of this time and effort into someone and they leave?” I do not recall who I learned this from, but I once heard, “What if we do not educate someone, and they stay?” That flipped my perspective around years ago, and I firmly believe that giving the folks in our organizations the access to the things the need, they will achieve great things.

Are they any lessons learned on your credentialing process that you would like to share?

Weyen: Absolutely. I am the kind of person that doesn’t do things for personal gratification or self-promotion. I, like most of us, tend to solve problems and move on. I set a goal, achieve it and move on to the next one. The thing that I learned is that trying to remember all the things achieved in the last 10-15 years of a career is a very difficult task. When putting together a portfolio and trying to tell your story, there is only so much my brain can regurgitate. So, if I were to give any advice to any up and coming leader, or especially someone that is working towards fellowship, is to keep an electronic file or folder with notes and memories in it. Get a mention in the paper about something your agency achieved? Save a PDF and put it in a cloud drive. Called to testify to a Senate committee on an issue impacting EMS? Keep a copy of the agenda and minutes. It is the same reason that you should update your resume every year or so, just to keep it fresh. You will thank me when you start to put together your portfolio.

The importance of professional development standards and professional certification is underscored by the fact that an increasing number of communities contracting for EMS are including minimum professional development and leader certification standards in government requests for proposals. Fitch and Associates now routinely requires documentation of leadership professional development as a minimum requirement in each of the RFPs it develops.

Improving the bottom line

As the complexity of EMS programs increase, it is clear that leaders need a broader set of knowledge and skills than in the past. Validation of individual knowledge, skill, ability and proficiency by a recognized external organization can be of great value in hiring and promotional processes.

If an EMS organization commits to developing and requiring certification for its leaders, it can expect to gain a competitive advantage by improving service; the bottom line; attracting, developing and retaining talent; driving strategy execution; and increasing success when navigating change.

Read next: Increasing your career options with more education

About the authors

Jay Fitch, PhD, is the founding partner of the EMS/public safety consulting firm Fitch & Associates. He has been an instrument-rated pilot for over 15 years. He serves as the co-chair of the Pinnacle EMS leadership conference and is a founding commissioner of the American College of Paramedic Executives. Contact him at jfitch@emprize.net.

Skip Kirkwood is a senior consultant with Fitch & Associates. He has experience as an EMS executive, educator, consultant, and attorney. He can be reached at skirkwood@fitchassoc.com

Both hold the FACPE designation and serve as Commissioners of the ACPE.

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