Another Volunteer Crisis

As sure as the day is long, we can count on the EMS news sites to do a post on the volunteer crisis in fire and EMS organizations. And EMS1 did its part yesterday.

And of course, y’all know I have to comment.  So, let’s do a rehash and repeat.

Folks, it’s real simple. Too many organizations make it hard to volunteer, whether its applying or what’s required to remain a member. I’ve lost count of the number of volunteer organizations that don’t have their membership application online. Likewise, I’ve lost count of the number of “all hazards” departments that will allow volunteers to remain exclusively firefighters but won’t allow for EMS only volunteers, even when well over half of most departments’ call volumes are for medical calls. I’ve also lost count of the number of departments that are combination departments that only offer their “mandatory” training during the week when we “normal” people with an office job are already pulled in multiple directions. (Hint: There are infinite platforms online to make these classes available on demand or as webcasts.)

I’ve always held the position that standards should never be lowered. All that most volunteers (or potential volunteers) ask for is a bit of flexibility in how you reach those standards. Something as simple as allowing a volunteer more time or the ability to work with different field training officers could be a huge asset in getting a volunteer cleared to independent duty, especially as an advanced life support provider.

If you don’t believe that there’s a pool of volunteers out there, do this.  Look at how many people out there hold a fire and/or EMS certification and are currently unaffiliated with any service, whether paid or volunteer. If the National Volunteer Fire Council, NAEMT, or any of the other fire and EMS groups are truly serious about volunteers, I’d recommend a survey targeted at those people to find out why they’re not currently volunteering.  If you wanted to go above and beyond, survey those people who are active volunteers with departments not near their home.  Find out why they’re not affiliated with a closer department. Dollars to doughnuts, the answers will the same — there will be some artificially created barrier preventing them from volunteering nearby.

I’ll also note that the value of a volunteer group, especially in a combination department, isn’t immediately obvious until you have a disaster or other incident that’s stretched your department thin and/or exhausted mutual aid resources.  That guy who’s just a volunteer EMT can now free up the paid firefighter/EMT staff from medical calls.  That lady who’s qualified to drive and operate a tanker/tender means that apparatus is now in service and the paid crew isn’t cross-staffing it.

Unless of course, your goal is solely to show that you “can’t find volunteers” and really need that sales or property tax to hire paid staff. If that’s your real agenda, then, by all means, keep on doing what most departments seem to be doing. Sadly, in my neck of the woods, this strategy has been effective as a jobs program for paid firefighters and EMTs.

How To Create a Paid Fire/EMS Department

As of late, I’ve posted a fair amount about the local politics involved with the various tax-funded emergency services districts in my part of Texas basically ending volunteer participation. Truth be told, I definitely think there’s some shenanigans from paid staff and their union locals. But folks, if we’re going to talk about the end of volunteer participation, we need to take a long hard look at the volunteer culture.

As I often teach through sarcasm, I present the following recommendations for ways to ensure that your volunteer department becomes a combination department and eventually a completely paid department.

  1. Run the department as your own private social club.  By gosh, this is a place for the connected locals to hang out, use as a private lounge, and maybe go travel on someone else’s dime.
  2. Training?  Why do it?  And if you do feel you have to do it, focus on cool, fun stuff instead of the basics of being able to operate at a fire, rescue, or medical call.
  3. Membership? Who needs that?  If people want to join us, they’ll find us. And if they do figure out how to join the department, ensure that the process is all about who you know rather than what you’ll bring to the department. And if you do a membership drive, make it a joke.  Either try to recruit “heroes” (as opposed to members who want to help others) or do the same tired routine that you do every so often and then claim “nothing’s working.”
  4. Speaking of what you bring to the department, always make sure to turn down free help. If the person can’t make the arbitrary number of meetings or responses, or lives “too far,” don’t show any flexibility.  If you’re a combination fire and EMS organization, be sure to turn down someone only interested in one discipline. It’s not like having an extra medic frees up a firefighter or vice versa.
  5. Accountability and transparency is for the birds.  You’re heroes!  There’s no need to justify your budget or be accountable to those politicians at the county or the city who “don’t understand what we do.”
  6. Speaking of budgets, let’s be sure to spend like drunken sailors on shore leave. Buy those big-ticket, rarely used capital expenditures regularly, then run around scavenging for IV needles and working radios.
  7. Responses?  We’re volunteers.  We don’t have to go to a call if we don’t want to.  And we sure don’t go to “old so-and-so’s” house or the local nursing home.  It’s not like they really need help. And especially if you have paid staff working with the volunteers, there’s no need to go to all calls, only the fun ones.  And if you show up on the fun calls and don’t get to do “fun” stuff, by all means, complain loudly.
  8. Uniforms?  They need to fall into one of two extremes.  Either no uniforms and look like “People of Wal-Mart” or uniforms that make you look like an Italian Field Marshal.  No need for things like photo ID cards, t-shirts, polo shirts, and jackets.  It’s either the Redneck Yacht Club or the full parade dress.
  9. Be sure to remind new members that they don’t know how “we do things around here.”  Be especially unwelcoming to experienced people who have significant prior experience.  It’s not like they bring anything to the table.
  10. Don’t create strong relationships with the other members of the public safety team.  No need to play well with the surrounding fire or EMS agencies, much less law enforcement.  It’s not like you’ll ever need any of these guys again.
  11. And if you have a state organization for volunteer fire and EMS, don’t join it.  And if you do end up joining said organization, ensure that your organization is quiet at the state capitol.  We don’t want to antagonize the paid guys or advocate for volunteers.

So, if you follow my  program, what will you get?  Simple.  Eventually, the taxing entity and taxpayers will tire of your antics. They will point to your lack of training, transparency, fiscal responsibility, and shrinking membership roster.  First, they’ll bring on a small duty crew during the day to “supplement” the volunteer staffing.  Eventually, that supplement supplants the volunteers.  And somewhere during this process, your department becomes absorbed by the taxing entity.  Congratulations! Your non-profit volunteer group has now become a fully paid local government department.  But of course, the fun only begins.  All of the time and effort that you could’ve spent on having a functional volunteer or combination department can now be spent on lengthy political and legal battles over who gets the property from your department.

This story repeats itself over and over again, yet we don’t seem to learn.  The average volunteer emergency services provider is often their own worst enemy and the biggest reason why departments go “professional.”

And so it goes.

Cleared To Practice, AKA: The License To Kill

I booted up the computer fully intending to write a long screed, aka rant, on the issues currently facing Austin/Travis County EMS, its medical direction, and their relationship with the multiple county first responder agencies and their ability to provide EMT-Intermediate, oops Advanced EMT (showing my age) and paramedic level care.  I’ll still comment on that, but in terms of ATCEMS’s model being an example of one of two extremes of the EMS field training or credentialing process.

This cartoon/meme has been making its way around EMS social media and has popped up on my Facebook feed more than once already today.

Having been in EMS for roughly 14 years now, I’ve seen a variety of methods of providing field training.  They run the gamut from “here’s the keys” to “you’re repeating your paramedic clinicals with us for the next six months.”  As with anything in EMS, we run between two extremes and rarely find the “Goldilocks” point of being just right.

In some EMS systems, the FTO and credentialing process exists in name only.  At one unnamed EMS service, my official FTO process consisted of one ride with a field training officer for twelve hours.  Since I’d been off the truck for a while before starting there, I asked for more time before I even got that.  I got a shift before that where I was officially riding as a third crew member, until the paramedic FTO didn’t show up. Combine that with a chest pain call and the EMS director showing up on scene and asking if I was comfortable with taking the patient 40 miles and my field training process existed primarily on paper.  Of course, when you’re at a rural service that’s already short on staff, much less advanced providers, a field training process seems like a luxury that you can’t afford.  In my opinion, that’s a risk management nightmare.  When a clinical (or operational) failure happens — and it will, the discovery process that a lawyer will engage in will expose these shortcomings and present them to a jury of twelve citizens who couldn’t figure out how to get out of jury duty.

Then, there’s the other extreme.  Let’s take a large, unnamed third service EMS system that’s had an extensive process for bringing on new paramedics.  For many years, that process consisted of several months of a new hire academy then a field training process of several more months.  In short, the process to become a paramedic in this system became a virtual repeat of paramedic clinicals. Then a different medical director came in and decided that there were “too many paramedics” and required new hires to function at a modified EMT level for one to two years before being eligible to “promote” to paramedic.  Let’s now throw in the dozen or so fire departments in the county that provide EMS first response. Ever since before I got into EMS, this EMS system was unwilling to credential first responders above the EMT level. That’s their prerogative. But don’t say you’ll allow it and then make a process that’s so obtuse and arbitrary that it’s a virtual impossibility to credential. The previous medical directors and the department’s clinical management created this mess and they’ve now given the fire departments the rationale to create their own EMS programs. In fact, said county (cough, Travis County, cough) just created its own medical direction to give the county fire departments the ability to run their own paramedic first response program.  And that doesn’t even include two of the fire departments that have created their own paramedic-level ambulance service.

There’s a saying in the law that those who seek equitable relief must come to the table with “clean hands.”  In this case, I have to say that neither party have clean hands.  The EMS system wanted to be the sole provider of advanced life support in the name of “patient safety” and other benevolent sounding reasons for turf protection.  The various county fire departments want paramedic first response and in some cases, transport, to justify their budget and existence and to satisfy the various firefighter union locals that want their members to be an “all hazards department.” In short, to quote Mel Brooks as the governor in Blazing Saddles, “Sheriff murdered! Innocent women and children blown to bits! We’ve got to protect our phony-baloney jobs, gentlemen.” Fire codes have dramatically reduced the number of fires out there.  In Texas, many of the fire districts are funded by property taxes. Also in Texas, there’s a healthy skepticism of government and taxes.  Without EMS call volume, many citizens would wonder what they’re paying a fire department for.  Personally, I’d have much less heartache about the county’s decision to provide its own medical direction for the fire departments if this outcry for separate medical direction had been occurring for years, rather than over the last couple of years that have also been associated with the virtual elimination of volunteer response in the county and the addition of a second tax district in some of these fire districts to “support EMS.” If I feel for anyone, it’s the current medical direction of the EMS system.  They’re passionate about good medicine and supporting the practice of good prehospital medicine.  They’re also in the unenviable position of fixing a system that believed its own public relations for too long and had frayed, if not outright violated the trust of its supposed “partner” first response agencies.

So, what is the happy medium for field training and bringing on new people?  I don’t have studies or statistics to support my general concept of what works.  What I know doesn’t work is handing someone the keys to the controlled substances and saying “Good luck.”  But I’d also question the value of a lengthy process that is a virtual repeat of paramedic clinicals.  In theory, the certification exam for initial certification should provide some assurances of entry level competence. (That in itself is an argument for another day.)  In my ideal world, I’d argue for a field training and credentialing process that is competence based, rather than based on calendar days, clock hours, or getting a certain magic number of certain patient populations.  And in some cases, we’re rarely going to see certain patients in the field.  That means access to a skills lab and/or simulations and scenarios. The process should focus heavily on the unique clinical aspects of that particular EMS system, whether in regards to airway management, medications, or other uncommonly encountered interventions. The process also needs to focus on the operational aspects of being a provider in that system. How many of us haven’t been taught which channels/talkgroups are on our radios?  That, along with resupply, fueling, and documentation requirements often get overlooked in the FTO process. As much as we need to ensure clinical competence, we also need to ensure that a new medic (at any certification level) in the system knows what’s supposed to happen to make good patient care happen.  And let’s not even discuss transport destination determination, which is regularly overlooked.  Getting the right patients to the right hospitals is a core function of EMS and neither initial EMS education nor the processes to bring a new provider into an organization usually address this.  As a result, we routinely end up taking critically ill patients to hospitals incapable of caring for them.

I’ve ranted for a while and I appreciate the indulgence.  The short version is that, like much of EMS, field training and bringing new providers on board a system is a collection of bad practices and extremes. We can do better.  Both our profession and our patients (aka: customers) deserve it.

Do Something!

Late Sunday night, a madman killed people in Las Vegas.  Predictably, both sides have drawn their lines in the sand and demand that politicians “DO SOMETHING!”  Those on the left demand that politicians enact gun control and hector, cajole, shame, and belittle those who don’t believe as they do.  Conservatives argue that gun control doesn’t work and that the solution doesn’t include disarming the public.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I tend more toward the conservative view of things. I also have a Texas license to carry a firearm and do carry.  But I’m also a realist.  I doubt that a person carrying a handgun can stop a situation like in Las Vegas where a rifle is being shot from a high place at a large crowd.  Individual street crimes may be a different situation, but even in those cases, a “good guy with a gun” can only do so much.

So, we all want to “DO SOMETHING.” Here’s my opinion.  You can absolutely do something above and beyond “thoughts and prayers,” changing your profile picture on Facebook, or contacting your politicians for or against guns.  First things first. Learn some basic life-saving skills.  Learn CPR.  Learn basic first aid.  Learn bleeding control — including how to use a tourniquet.  And make sure you have current supplies at your home and/or in your car.  Some basic gauze, gloves, and a tourniquet can go a long way to make sure that a violent assault doesn’t become a homicide.  As an added bonus, your knowledge of CPR and first aid is valuable in other situations above and beyond shootings.  Car wrecks and sudden cardiac arrest kill just like a shooting — and a concealed firearm isn’t as useful in those situations. There are plenty of first aid and CPR classes out there.  If you can’t find one or have questions, feel free to ask me — or ask your local EMS organization.  You do know who your local EMS organization is, right?

Next.  You do need to contact your politicians.  But not necessarily about guns.  Ensure that your community has a well-funded EMS system and trauma facilities. Too many communities rely on the “low bidder” to provide 911 response.  Too many communities are holding bake sales so that their volunteer fire and EMS organizations can have the bare minimum equipment.  We can always have a debate about the role and scope of government and taxes.  However, all but the most radical anarchists or extreme libertarians would agree that a fundamental role of government is to send help when you call 911.  A high-quality EMS system is not a luxury.  Whether a car wreck, a mass shooting, or chest pain, the fact remains that early access to definitive care saves lives.  An Emergency Medical Services system does exactly that. For all of the comments on social media about so-called “First World Problems,” Americans should demand a quality EMS system that ensures access to clinically current, professionally delivered, compassionate medical care 24/7.

And if you still want to “DO SOMETHING,” consider getting training and volunteering.  The reality is that you might be near a volunteer fire or EMS department that needs people and just might even train you.  A basic first responder course is often less than 80 hours.

These are the steps you can take to “DO SOMETHING.”  Or you can keep changing your profile picture on Facebook.  The choice is yours.  Choose wisely.

Longhorn Student EMS

The University of Texas has decided not to provide insurance or legal protection to a student EMS group on campus.  Since this is my alma mater, I felt compelled to share my $0.02 with University of Texas President Gregory Fenves.  If you feel compelled to reach out, do so (and keep it polite).  He can be emailed at [email protected]

Dear President Fenves:

It’s rare that I find myself writing an email that hits multiple areas of who I am – a Texan, a Longhorn (BA 1996), an attorney, and a paramedic.  But the decision of the University to deny funding for Longhorn EMS’s liability insurance and/or assumption of liability hits home for me.

The University of Texas and the University of Texas System are blessed with many outstanding attorneys, both of counsel to the University and the System and throughout the faculty.  I would never take away from their counsel or guidance, but I would note to you that the liability for the provision of emergency medical services in Texas, especially by a governmental entity, is exceptionally limited. Texas Civil Practices and Remedies Codes §§74.151-74.154 and Texas Health and Safety Code §773.009 provide broad protection and multiple Texas appellate court decisions have broadened said liability protection.  As such, I would assert that the legal liability for the provision of emergency medical services, particularly at the EMT/basic life support level, is exceptionally limited and that the costs of any liability insurance would reflect such limited exposure. In short, this concern about legal liability on behalf of the University is a red herring at best.

University spokesperson Bird’s statements that the University wants students to be students and not to take on potentially dangerous professional responsibilities is, at best, ignorant of many students who are already certified as EMS personnel or might even be in the armed services.  Wanting students to be students first ignores that many students already are working including as employees of the University. Several UT students already work as emergency medical services providers in other venues even including as employees of the organizations that provide EMS coverage for University athletic events.  Additionally, many students of the University already volunteer in many campus organizations, several of which provide direct services for the University. And finally, there’s the eight hundred pound gorilla in the room that shatters the illusion that students should be only students – namely, men’s and women’s intercollegiate athletics. I am pretty certain that the time involved to become an emergency medical technician and remain active with a student EMS organization is a small commitment in comparison to the time that student athletes spend in service to the University.

From a public safety standpoint, having an on campus EMS system makes sense.  Even on an urban campus like the University, EMS response time takes time. The closest Austin Fire Department stations to campus, Station 2 on Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard and Station 3 on West 30th Street do not have ambulances.  The closest ambulance, if available for assignment, is Medic 3, located in the parking garage of the old Brackenridge Hospital.  At best, there is a delay in getting emergency care to campus.  Having responded to the University campus as an EMS provider, I can tell you that calls on campus are a challenge, especially in getting emergency resources to the right location because of the combination of obstacles in terms of vehicle access, determining the right location, and getting access/entry into University buildings, many of which are secured.  In a critical emergency such as cardiac arrest, severe allergic reaction, or uncontrolled bleeding, having a trained set of hands on scene sooner can, will, and does regularly make a significant difference in patient outcome.  In some cases, that difference in patient outcome is life as opposed to death.  Waiting for City of Austin resources and also waiting for someone from the University to provide access to a building just doesn’t make sense. And in case of a severe emergency or disaster, having “all hands on deck” and a force multiplier in the form of a University recognized and accredited group of EMS providers can and does make a difference.

The University has always encouraged public service.

As an undergraduate government major, my spirit of public service and engagement was encouraged and nourished by Dr. Janice May’s classes on state government and her public service internship program which gave me a foundation and prepared me for a career in state government. Especially as the University develops its own medical school and expands its involvement in all aspects of healthcare, encouraging a student volunteer EMS program is a no-brainer decision.  Encouraging students to volunteer and to become engaged in healthcare is, plain and simple, an outgrowth of the University’s mission to educate.  Such a program should be encouraged, not stopped. Many notable physicians and healthcare leaders got their first exposure to EMS, medicine, and volunteerism through campus EMS programs.

Texas A&M University has long had a student-run EMS.  In fact, Texas A&M University has student-run EMS for university events as well as a separate EMS program that provides paramedic-level ambulance coverage for the university campus as well as providing mutual aid backup coverage to the cities of Bryan and College Station.  Rice University has a student-run EMS program operating under the supervision and guidance of their campus police department. Rice’s EMS program operates as a campus first response organization, providing advanced EMT level care until the arrival of the Houston Fire Department’s ambulances. Colleges and universities throughout the United States have campus EMS organizations.  In fact, there’s even a National Collegiate Emergency Medical Services Foundation that exists to guide and promote campus EMS programs.  At the University of Texas, we are a “University of the first class,” as described by Article 7, Section 10 of the Texas Constitution.  More bluntly, to quote our former athletic director, DeLoss Dodds, “We are the Joneses.”  The University of Texas shouldn’t take a back seat to anyone. And that includes providing emergency medical services to the University community and its visitors.

Bluntly, the idea of a student EMS on the Forty Acres has grown in fits and starts.  Good intentions alone are nowhere near enough. And some of the attempts to provide this service have been, at times, amateurish. That is why it’s even more imperative for the University to recognize, fund, and support this effort, if for no other reason than to provide the resources of the University to supervise these students and ensure that what goes on with this organization is a credit to and not a harm to the University.

If I may offer my services to you, the University, or these students, I stand ready to do so – as a volunteer.  I am a Texas licensed attorney, a Texas licensed (and nationally registered) paramedic, a Texas EMS instructor, and a proud Texas Ex.

I encourage you to reconsider the University’s decision and strongly commend you to take steps to help this fledgling EMS program get the right start it needs.

Respectfully submitted (and Hook Em Horns!).

 

A Time To NOT Volunteer

If you know me or you’ve come by this blog a few times, you know I’m very passionate about the role of volunteers in the world of emergency services, particularly in the fire and EMS world.  Today marks a change.  One, I’m about to give some very broad, generic “free” legal advice.  Two, I’m about to tell you NOT to volunteer.

Event medical standbys. At least in Texas, those fall into a massive loophole where they’re not subject to any regulation from the state. In Texas, transport providers (officially called “EMS Providers”) and “first responder organizations” are subject to state regulatory requirements.  Because event medical standbys don’t fit into Texas’s definition of EMS Provider or First Responder Organization, they’re completely outside the purview of our state EMS regulatory system.

These events always say “BLS only” or “CPR/first aid” but seem to recruit heavily from the ranks of EMS providers. If they truly only want “BLS” or layperson aid, why are they recruiting so heavily from EMS?  Simple.  They want EMS providers on site, but they’ve gotten some legal or risk management advice to not call it an “EMS standby.”  They think that by saying it’s only first aid that their liability will somehow be limited.  Truth be told, I’m not sure if it would or wouldn’t be limited.  But I know this much from law school — anyone that can be sued will be sued, both collectively and individually.  While you may not end up being found liable, I can guarantee that will not protect you from either a suit or the lawyer’s bills to represent you.  (Speaking of which, you do have your own EMS liability insurance to protect you and provide for legal representation, don’t you?)

This is the closest you’ll ever get to free legal advice from me. Just say no. You’re unlikely covered by any medical direction or protocols, which begs the question of what you’re doing there and whether you’re practicing “medicine” or delivering EMS care. And if all they want is “BLS” or first aid, why are they asking you to be there by virtue of you holding an EMS certification? I’ve helped at these events before and it feels very odd to be there without the ability to function at your certification level, assuming they’ve even verified your certification.

In the very best case, you’re probably going to be poorly equipped.  You’re even more likely to be expected to supply your own gear. And I will virtually guarantee that if something bad happens, you will be on your own. The worst part? Many of these events are for profit. Those that aren’t are usually run by nonprofits that have plenty of money for everything besides real EMS coverage. Many of these so-called event medicine companies have a business model based on you being an “independent contractor,” meaning that they’ll throw you to the sharks and claim that they had no oversight of you.  In other words, helping some of these events out for free as a “volunteer” isn’t much better than offering to drive Lyft or Uber for free.

If you truly want to “feel good” by volunteering, get a t-shirt, and/or be thanked for your service, there’s probably a volunteer service within an hour’s drive of you that would actually benefit from your volunteer hours. To me, it’s really ironic is how many paid firefighters/EMTs jump at the chance to work at these events and then say how volunteering “holds back the profession” and artificially lowers salaries.  If that’s the case, then it’s high time that we tell each and every one of these large public events that they need to provide EMS coverage just like they have porta-potties, trash collection, food service, and security on site.

Charity Begins At Home

Recently, I’ve seen more than a few EMS types posting requests for crowdfunding for them to engage in medical work, either as a medical missionary or in solidarity with various protest movements.  I get it.  The urge to help others, especially in moments of extreme need, is a huge motivator for many of us in public safety or medicine. (And yes, that’s controversial right there.  EMS is a mix of public safety and medicine.  We use a public safety model to deliver medical care.  Prehospital care is what I like to call “operational medicine.”)

But, to me, asking for crowdfunding to subsidize your passion reeks of so much that I don’t like about EMS.  There’s a vocal portion of people in EMS who are all about “LOOK AT ME!  VALIDATE MY EXISTENCE!  I’M DOING SOMETHING NOBLE AND YOU SHOULD APPRECIATE ME!”  It’s so common throughout EMS, as we see with the t-shirt and bumper sticker brigade. I get it.  We want to help.  But it seems that, for a vocal portion of EMS providers, we only want to help when we’re getting attention. (Bonus points if you appeal to social justice and get subsidized for being a medical activist…)

Bluntly, if you’re having to get others to pay for your altruism, you probably aren’t in a financial situation to be taking the time off to travel to a faraway land, whether overseas or even in the USA. It’s, at best, highly irresponsible.

The honest-to-God (or insert your deity of choice) truth is that there’s plenty of places local to each of us without access to medical care.  Heck, there’s plenty of places within an hour’s distance of each of us that are probably lacking access to quality EMS care and would love to have a passionate, dedicated volunteer provider on board.

Way too many folks in EMS make fun of volunteers and claim that volunteers are responsible for poor EMS standards and low wages.  Yet way too many people in EMS volunteer — when it gets them attention and a partially funded trip out of town.

As the old saying goes, charity begins at home.  Find your local service or local medical organization where you can begin to address the lack of care locally.  Ok, rant over.

It’s Never About the Pay

Years ago, as a new attorney working in state government, I worked for a state agency that determined they had a problem retaining attorneys.  They did a lot of surveys, most of which revealed discontent with working conditions.  The reality was that management used junior attorneys as glorified paralegals and gave them little professional discretion and routinely micromanaged.  Of course, management did not want to hear this.  Instead, a new pay scale was issued, which gave everyone an immediate raise and also decreased the time before being eligible for the next promotion.  Management made the decision that it was easier (and possibly cheaper) to give everyone a raise than improve working conditions.  Needless to say, the retention improved, but only slightly.  At that point, I told one of my colleagues, “It’s never about the pay.  It’s about what people are willing to put up with for that pay.”  People know the salary when they accept a job.  What they don’t know is what the job is going to be like.

But my blog is (usually) about EMS and my EMS experiences.  What does this have to do with EMS?   Everything.  We routinely hear that there’s a shortage of EMS providers.  We regularly are inundated with stories about a shortage of volunteer EMS providers. There have been numerous committees studying the issue of a perceived shortage of providers.  Some states have done a terrible job of promoting becoming an EMT or paramedic.  The Pennsylvania “Roll With It” campaign comes to mind.

What remains is a shortage of EMS providers willing to put up with the working conditions made available to them at the salary offered.  And this is even more the case for EMS volunteers.  I will fully admit that as a volunteer medic, I will put up with relatively little BS in return for providing free paramedic care.

So, to those of you wondering where your volunteers are or why you aren’t keeping volunteers, I’ll ask you a few questions.

  1. How easy do you make it to volunteer?   Is your application online?  Do you have a point of contact?  Do you even have a webpage?
  2. How soon can you get people on shift?  Is the process tied up with committee meetings, orientations, and other obstacles?
  3. Do you provide the volunteer everything they need?  Or do you make them spend money out of pocket on uniforms?
  4. Do you have an open, transparent on-boarding and field training process?  Or does your training staff regularly play “hide the ball?”
  5. Do you truly make your volunteers part of the team?  Or do you make things difficult (even unintentionally) and say “we’re holding you to the same standards as everyone else?”
  6. Do you have some flexibility in the process?  Or do you rigidly refuse to deviate from your processes?
  7. Do you truly welcome new people?  Or do you have cliques and the “old guys” club at your station?
  8. Do you welcome those with prior experience? Or do you force them into a model of starting from scratch because your organization is “special?”
  9. Do you learn from previous issues?  Or do you act as if “this is the first time we’ve heard about this?”
  10. And finally, have you told your staff (both paid and volunteer) that they’re appreciated?  More importantly, do you back those words up with action?

There’s not a shortage of EMS volunteers.  I know many people with EMS certifications who’d like to get back on the truck.  The real shortage is the number of EMS organizations that truly want and appreciate providers, whether paid or volunteer.

I’m baaaack

After some technical difficulties and some writer’s block, the blog is back up and I’m back.  I’m thinking of some EMS topics to inspire me.  For those of you who’d like to hear me live, in person, I’ll be speaking at the Texas EMS Conference in Dallas.  More to come — and glad to be back.

Things that make no sense in EMS

1) EMTs and paramedics are constantly told “We don’t want you to know how billing works because we don’t want you to let finances influence a decision to transport a patient.”  Makes sense.  But then we’re told, “If you don’t document this chart correctly, we can’t bill for it.”  So, are we supposed to have an understanding of billing or not?   Personally, I wouldn’t mind a better understanding of billing and reimbursement.

2) When a volunteer service fails, we hear the advocates for paid EMS argue that a community gets the EMS that it pays for.  Exactly.  Please remember that same maxim when a private operator argues that they can provide EMS service to a community for free or a very small subsidy.  These operators will continue to make money by scrimping on pay, minimal equipment, minimum staffing, lowest common denominator protocols, and posting crews at street corners.   And with these working conditions and/or wages, the community will get the kind of EMTs and paramedics they’ve paid for.

3) Final thought from someone who volunteers.  We hear about the death of volunteer EMS.  Sadly, I’m afraid that day may be closer at hand.  But I also think that there’s a place for volunteers still, even if just to supplement staffing and coverage.   All it would take is some organizational commitment and flexibility.  My question is whether we’re really losing volunteers or whether we’re losing organizations that accept volunteers.  Around my neck of the woods, it’s the organizations that don’t want volunteers….