I ran my first EMS call in 1974 as an explorer scout. When we arrived on the scene of the car crash, the lead paramedic handed me three flares and told me to set them up down around the corner. When I walked down there, it was dark and I had no idea how to light the flares. I tried everything to get them lit, but I didn’t have a flashlight, there was no light, and I’d never lit a flare before. My biggest fear wasn’t approaching traffic, my biggest fear was not looking stupid. So, of course, I didn’t walk back and ask for help, I just figured it out and got them lit.
20 years later, in 1995, I was working as the EMS operations manager of a large, suburban fire district. I was serving on various committees, task forces, and advisory roles. I left that rewarding an successful career to pursue other avenues, but in 2010, partly due to the economic downturn, I found myself unemployed. It seemed the easiest way to find employment and keep our house was to regain my paramedic license and find EMS employment. Six months later I was employed by a large corporate ambulance transport agency.
At first it was quite challenging. Much had changed, yet much remained the same. Essentially I’d been out of the field for 20 years, though I still ran calls and did a lot of teaching in the 90s, I was mostly a desk jockey. And though I worked for a non-transport agency, my previous experience included both air and ground EMS. The hardest part about returning was the pace. I soon learned how busy system status EMS takes it’s toll on medics and EMTs.
After getting through FTEP and settling into the role, I had a period of joy. It was really fun being back into the career I always loved. It was great to run calls again, solve problems, and take care of people with needs. But that joy quickly wore off. EMS is different now.
When I first worked in EMS, prior to the implementation of the 9-1-1 system, the ambulance company I worked for ran without first responder support. My partner and I were often the only ones on scene, and the calls seemed to go much smoother. We were able to establish rapport with our patients, comfort family members, and reduce the chaos and confusion we found. After EMD was implemented and communities decided to send firefighters as EMS first responders, things started to get more complicated on scenes.
There were attempts in the 1980s and 90s to streamline our EMS systems by awarding ambulance serve contracts and eliminating the duplication of agencies, but from what I can tell, far too few communities have accomplished this. To me, this is one of the most disappointing aspects of our current systems.
About six months ago I found myself working the graveyard shift on a system status ambulance. The county I worked in had no quarters and we covered thousands of square miles with just a few rigs. We spent the night moving from post to post. Sometimes we would be at a post for hours, sometimes we never sat still. This began to take its toll on me. I began to realize that this shift, combined with the claustrophobia of the ambulance cab, was killing me – and killing my family.
I’m convinced that system status is taking an abnormally high toll on EMS workers. The stressors of the job, considered one of the more stressful careers in the US, and the long hours, are killing our paramedics and EMTs. It’s a shame really. People come into EMS excited and with high hopes of making a difference. But after about 5-10 years, they grow demoralized and depressed. I’ve never worked with so many discouraged people in my life as I have in the last two years.
I worked hard to stay healthy, keep a positive focus, and improve the lives of my coworkers. But I’m afraid the task is too big. There are several agencies and communities around the country who do EMS really well. They not only offer quality patient care, but they treat their employees well. Other communities have not been so quick to adapt. Sure, paramedics are being paid much better than in the early 80s – back then I made $4.10 an hour and I was working one of the busiest ambulances in the country.
Somehow, our society has forgotten to take care of its EMTs and paramedics. Unless they find employment in a well-funded public agency, I would not recommend people seek EMS as a lifelong career. This pains me to say, as I love my coworkers and the job, but I don’t see changes happening anytime soon.
Last week, after a two month break, I resigned my position. I’m too old for this, and I’m not a good fit. I’m not a bad paramedic, but I wasn’t getting enough sleep. After reading this article (Life in high gear takes toll), I realized I was taking too big of a risk. If I mess up on a drug administration, which according to David Marx, happens one out of 700 times, it is my career and livelihood on the line. I know my employer wouldn’t stand behind me.
The sleep deprivation, the pressure to make scene times, the lack of quarters, and the lack of focus on quality patient care have made me realize I need to move on. I don’t know where I’m going next, but I feel peace. I would gladly work at an agency that cared about their employees, put customer service and patient care needs above the desire to make a profit, and used their resources to improve the local system.
Just like when I was a 15 year old kid, I just want to make a difference by caring for people in need. I’m not in it for the money – I gave up that pipe dream a long time ago. I just want to serve my patients and their families. It is my hope that paramedics, EMTs, physicians, nurses, and system leaders will continue to improve our fledgling profession. There is still great potential, but it won’t be cheap. It will take a great influx of energy, desire, and vision.