AMU Fire & EMS Original Public Safety

Culture Problems: Fixing the EMS Agencies

In order to fix current problems in EMS agencies, it has become apparent that EMS workplace culture needs to change to retain qualified workers. For instance, Bloomberg Law notes that EMS agencies are struggling to find enough qualified staff to serve on ambulance crews.

Workforce shortages in EMS agencies are serious because patient care can be adversely affected. For instance, some patients may be in life-threatening situations and need prompt medical attention, and that care can be delayed as the patient waits for an ambulance with qualified crew members to arrive.

Organizations such as Patients for Patient Safety are concerned that with a lack of healthcare workers in a variety of settings, patients may not be getting the care that they deserve. But to understand how to fix workforce shortage issues, EMS leaders need to take a comprehensive look at their own workplace culture to understand how to decrease the attrition rate for paid staff and volunteers.

[Related article: EMS Community Risk Reduction: Creating and Analyzing Data Models]

COVID-19 and the Increase of Stress in EMS Agencies

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, paramedics and EMTs struggled with a major influx of patients and worked countless overtime hours to provide appropriate patient care, according to Time Magazine. Often, these people also had to endure falling ill to COVID-19 and losing patients, relatives, and friends, which increased the stress level of an already stressful job and led to burnout.

Why Are EMS Providers Leaving the Field?

Workplace culture is a major influence in any organization, including EMS agencies. But it’s also necessary to understand the toxic traits that encourage individuals to leave an organization.

Due to culture, overwork and other problems, many EMS agencies – and their technicians and paramedics – have chosen other employment. Sarah Calams of EMS1 observes that there are seven reasons why EMS providers have fled the industry, including:

  • Seeing a lack of professional opportunities
  • Experiencing mental health, stress and anxiety
  • Suffering sleep deprivation
  • Juggling volunteer EMS work with a paying career
  • Being a target of violence
  • Performing a physically demanding job
  • Documentation woes

Tara Vlaun of Distance CME notes that making EMS an essential service policy would help to force communities to staff their ambulances effectively. However, taking this action while communities already have strapped budgets and cannot effectively staff their ambulances could backfire in a truly spectacular way.

Improving EMS Workplace Culture Will Require More Research and Self-Examination

Often, a failure to attract and retain staff can be attributed to a poor workplace culture, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. Fixing recruitment and retention problems within EMS agencies could start with improving problems such as sexism, racism and miscommunication. Similarly, EMS agencies need to be encouraged to embrace change, empower their leaders and replace toxic personnel, according to EMS 1.

EMS agencies can create a more supportive EMS workplace culture for their volunteers and paid staff. But without doing research and self-examination – and implementing any findings – EMS agencies will keep having the same recruitment and retention problems.

Allison G.S. Knox

Allison G. S. Knox teaches in the fire science and emergency management departments at the University. Focusing on emergency management and emergency medical services policy, she often writes and advocates about these issues. Allison works as an Intermittent Emergency Management Specialist in the Administration for Strategic Preparedness and Response. She also serves as the At-Large Director of the National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians, Chancellor of the Southeast Region on the Board of Trustees with Pi Gamma Mu International Honor Society in Social Sciences, chair of Pi Gamma Mu’s Leadership Development Program and Assistant Editor for the International Journal of Paramedicine. Prior to teaching, Allison worked for a member of Congress in Washington, D.C. and in a Level One trauma center emergency department. She is an emergency medical technician and holds five master’s degrees.

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