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9 lessons for EMS from the house of the mouse

Apply these hiring, management and operational strategies from Walt Disney World to improve the EMS experience for patients and providers

Family and Tinker Bell.JPG

Matt Zavadsky

It’s been a very long time since I’ve been a guest at a Disney theme park, and never as an adult. With lots of life experiences in my rear-view mirror, a recent trip to Walt Disney World in Orlando, the “Magic of Disney” resonated with me way beyond simply experiencing it vicariously through the joy of my 5-year-old granddaughter, AJ, who was consistently beaming throughout the four-day, four-park adventure.

Here are some things I learned about the magic of Disney as an adult and how it should apply to the EMS profession, and perhaps, even in our personal lives.

1. Be nice

Every cast member we interacted with truly cared about our experience. When we asked a cast member at an on-property store where we could find Dramamine, the cast member didn’t tell us where to go, he brought us to two locations that would normally have had it. When they did not, he walked us to the next location, and the next, (even a behind-the-scenes spot), until we found the treasure we were looking for. The helpful cast member’s name was Donald, and he even entertained AJ as he spoke like Donald Duck.

This exceptional customer service was not unique to Donald – we experienced it again and again and again. Regardless of their role, when a guest asked a cast member a question, or even looked lost or bewildered, the cast member stopped whatever they were doing, and turned their entire focus on satisfying the guest’s need.

EMS application. We serve three main customers: our patients and their families, our employees, and our community. We should strive every day, with every interaction, to make these customers feel that they are the most important thing to us – and all our attention should be on them.

2. Hire the right people

Every cast member and employee we interacted with, from the Wilderness Explorer Ambassadors at Animal Kingdom, to the groundskeepers at the hotel, seemed thrilled to be doing what they were doing. They had a servant’s heart and a joyful spirit. This cannot be simply taught. It must be wired at their core! People work at Disney because they want to work at Disney. It shows with every word they speak, every act they do and every smile they give. Former Disney managers have shared that Disney often hires based on heart and desire, and then trains for the job skill. It shows!

EMS application. Yes, there is an EMS worker shortage in our profession, but that is no excuse to simply hire people because they have a patch and a pulse. Your interview and selection processes should include the applicant’s heart for caring. Many systems have transitioned from an all-ALS to tiered deployment models. This gives us the opportunity to hire more EMTs than paramedics. The good news is there are a lot of EMTs to choose from – choose wisely!

3. Be responsive (and overdeliver)

At our Disney hotel, there were two occasions when we asked for something “when possible, no rush.” On both occasions, a housekeeping staff member was at our door in less than 10 minutes (and it was a massive property), with much more than what we asked for.

EMS application. The concept of responsiveness is nice. The concept of overdelivering is what we should strive for; that’s unexpected! If one of your crews came across someone with a flat tire, would they ensure help was on the way, or would they stop and change the tire for them? One of these options is responsive, the other is overdelivering.

4. The broken window theory is a real thing

Disney properties are world renowned for their cleanliness, and this was our experience. The parks and properties were immaculate. This is likely not only due to the ample amount of trash and recycling receptacles (cleverly themed to the area of the park they are located), and the army of staff committed to picking up trash, but another phenomenon; guests help keep the place clean. When someone accidentally dropped a piece of trash on the ground, they picked it up and disposed of it properly. But, more so than that, I noticed other guests (including yours truly) picking up other people’s accidentally dropped trash and depositing it in a receptacle.

I noticed this same thing recently at La Guardia Airport. In the brand new, beautiful and spotless terminal, while in the men’s room, a gentleman missed the trash receptacle and his paper towels fell to the floor. Rather than what you’d expect, he picked them up off the floor and threw them away.

This supports the broken window theory. Cities will often repair broken windows and other damage to vacant buildings to make neighborhoods look more kempt. This often leads to other property owners and visitors taking better care of the neighborhood, and even prevents vandalism if the potential vandal believes someone cares about the property.

EMS application. Our personnel, equipment, vehicles and stations should be kept clean and well maintained. Patients, family members and other people who may ride in our ambulances or visit our stations should have a clean, odor-free experience. An ambulance with duct tape holding something secure does not send a good message, to our employees or our patients.

5. Logistics matters

The average daily attendance at Disney World in Orlando is 250,000 people. Getting those people to the parks, on to rides and attractions, and out at the end of the day is an amazing feat. Keeping them happy during their experience requires world-class logistics. Some attractions can have two-hour-long lines, but few complain. Why? Because the attraction experience begins when you get in line. Cast members in character interact with those waiting, video displays and announcements are themed to the attraction. And, due to expertly-designed crowd management, lines rarely stop moving, so you always feel like you are making progress. It’s not a wait, it is part of the event experience.

EMS application. We often say EMS saves lives; logistics make that possible. Invest in processes that work for your system and your personnel. Questions everything – why do we do it that way? Is there a better process? Involve the people doing the jobs in logistics reviews – you will learn a lot.

6. Stay in character, even when it’s hard

On the Rise of the Resistance Star Wars experience at Disney’s Galaxy’s Edge, the guests are taken captive by the First Order. As we were escorted to the prisoner holding area, the Storm Troopers were very stern in their instructions to the guests. Their acting was very convincing. When one of the leaders pressed my wife, Tessa, for the location of the Rebel Base, she replied without hesitation, “Typhoon Lagoon.” The cast member almost broke character and smiled, but he was able to effectively stay in character and reply “Lies!”, followed by a hushed “well played” to under his breath.

EMS application. People have certain expectations regarding the character of EMS responders. They expect them to be competent, decisive, caring and communicative. Stay in character – even if you are having a bad day, just argued with your partner, are on your seventh call in 10 hours or your last call was a pediatric arrest. The patient in front of you deserves your best character.

7. Pay attention to detail – little things matter

Disney is known for creating immersive experiences. As an adult visitor, I can now truly appreciate the extent to which Disney takes this commitment. On every ride and experience, there were little things that made a real impact. At the Pandora Flight of Passage attraction, in the entry portal, way up at the top of the mechanical area, were a series of “pipes.” These pipes carried hazardous and non-hazardous “chemicals,” each properly labeled with their contextual properties from the periodic table - outstanding. Even further, in the ride attraction areas, Disney seems to pipe in odors themed to the attraction. At Pandora, the futuristic alternate planet, the plants emit a sweet fragrance, while at the Galaxy’s Edge, there is a faint odor of jet fuel and mechanical oil.

Each Disney theme park even has its own special street pavement detail. Animal Kingdom has fossils and animal footprints. Galaxy’s Edge has droid tracks. Details!

Disney thinks about the little things. One that stood out – did you ever notice that collection of hand sanitizer that collects at the bottom of the dispenser, that occasionally overflows into the floor? Not at a Disney property! Every automated hand sanitizer we saw had oversized collection trays to prevent overflow onto the ground, and all of those trays had a folded washcloth to collect the little bit of sanitizer that may drop after your hand is out from under the dispenser.

Even the manhole covers were spotless, and each was adorned with the iconic Disney symbol of Mickey Mouse.

EMS application. The adage “take care of the little things, and the big things will take care of themselves” is true. Employee appearance, vehicle standards, medical equipment and supply organization, and console and material organization in the communications center reflect the culture of your organization. Talk to your crews. Host a focus group of recent patients and ask them, what details matter to them. Then, act.

8. Service to others matters

The Disney characters who visit kids (young and old) during meals do not speak much, but if you pay attention, you will discover that they do communicate – in American Sign Language. One morning at breakfast, a hearing-impaired child was looking for the Mickey Waffle Station. Without a second thought, a cast member broke into ASL, told the child that she could help, asked the parent’s permission, and then walked the child to the waffle station. Amazing!

EMS application. Go beyond the ordinary and strive for extraordinary. For example, maybe implement a process where a light-duty staff member calls patients back who AMA’d and ask how they are doing? Or learn; really learn how to compassionately explain to the family of a cardiac arrest victim that you are going to cease resuscitative efforts on their loved one to help them through the death and grieving experience.

9. Dream, and encourage and empower others

Disney seems to have a common theme through most of its recent blockbuster movies, which has become apparent to this adult as he has watched “Frozen,” “Frozen 2,” “Brave” and “Encanto” more times than he’d admit to anyone except his granddaughter.

If you dream it, and work for it, you can do anything! Be who you are supposed to be, save a village, keep a family together or find the strength to forgive. Movies like these stretch our imagination, make us question the status quo, and help us believe that the impossible is, well, possible!

EMS application. We need to be better mentors to new EMS providers and aspiring EMS leaders. Set the example, teach them to lead, support their dreams and aspirations. Encourage them to shadow you, send them to conferences and other event that enhance their education and puts tools in their toolbox.

I’m sharing these observations and lessons from this recent trip so that maybe, just maybe, each of us can apply some of them in our daily lives. Dream a dream and work to make it come true. Better yet, selflessly help someone else achieve their dream.


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Matt Zavadsky, MS-HSA, EMT, is the chief transformation officer at MedStar Mobile Healthcare, the exclusive emergency and non-emergency Public Utility Model EMS system for Fort Worth and 14 other cities in North Texas that provides service to 436 square miles and more than 1 million residents and responds to over 170,000 calls a year with a fleet of 65 ambulances. MedStar is a high-performance, high-value Emergency Medical Services system, providing advanced clinical care with high economic efficiency.

MedStar is one of the most well-known EMS agencies in the county, and operates a high-performance system with no tax subsidy, and the recipient of the EMS World/NAEMT Paid EMS system of the Year, and the only agency to be named an EMS10 Innovator by JEMS Magazine.

He is also the co-author of the book “Mobile Integrated Healthcare – Approach to Implementation” published by Jones and Bartlett Publishing.

He has 42 years’ experience in EMS and holds a master’s degree in Health Service Administration with a Graduate Certificate in Health Care Data Management. Matt is a frequent speaker at national conferences and has done consulting in numerous EMS issues, specializing in high-performance EMS operations, finance, mobile integrated healthcare, public/media relations, public policy, transformative economic strategies, and EMS research.

Matt is also immediate past president of the National Association of EMTs, and chairs their EMS Economics Committee.