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The (Mis)Perceptions of Emergency Medical Services

By Allison G. S. Knox, professor at American Military University

Emergency medical services (EMS) is an incredibly important component of the 911 emergency response system, but it is also an area that is generally misunderstood by the American public. Emergency medical services handles all of the 911 emergency calls relating to medical and traumatic emergencies, but rarely is it truly understood by the public it serves. 

Emergency medicine is not a money producing industry, yet it is a crucial aspect of saving lives. It is this very conundrum that riles up a lot of difficulties for EMS in a variety of different ways within American society. While EMS is not a particularly money producing endeavor, there are a variety of perceptions within American society that further complicate matters for EMS.

One of these perceptions is the concept of an “ambulance driver.” Yes, emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and Paramedics often “drive” ambulances, but in most states they only drive ambulances after they complete an emergency vehicle operator course (EVOC) – a course that ensures they understand how to effectively drive an emergency vehicle safely in the midst of an emergency. EMTs and paramedics are skilled in a variety of lifesaving maneuvers that include, (for a paramedic), intubation and intravenous fluid therapy – but, these are only a small fraction of  the myriad of skills Paramedics are skilled in.  The term “ambulance driver” does not encompass all of the important training and skills EMTs and paramedics have, and yet this perception appears to be a damaging aspect of society’s view of EMS.

Beyond the concept of “ambulance driver” perhaps there is another issue that is fueling the perception of emergency medical services in a negative light. The police and fire departments are also components of the 911 system, but do not seem to have similar issues with perceptions. Perhaps this is because they are a “control the scene” agency, (creating a safe scene out of an unsafe scene through firefighting or law enforcement),  rather than waiting for “scene safety,” (waiting for fire or police to make the scene safe), as EMS does. Therefore, police and fire seem to generate a “hero” complex in American society, perhaps creating a perception that is difficult for EMS to break since EMTs and Paramedics wait for scene safety. Waiting for scene safety doesn’t include a “Hollywood ending”, so perhaps the perception is that EMS is not as dangerous as police or fire. EMS can be dangerous at times, and certainly every year there are fallen EMTs who died in the line of duty.

Perceptions are incredibly important to emergency medical services in many of the same ways that perceptions are important to non-profit organizations, companies and interpersonal relationships. It is with this said that emergency medical technicians and paramedics need to work to actively change these perceptions. Altering this could be just what is needed to help shift legislation in Congress towards a positive direction for emergency medical services to secure the funding it needs in the future.

About the Author: Allison G. S. Knox, M.A., B.A., EMT-B is a faculty member at American Military University. She is also a faculty adviser for the West Virginia Iota Chapter of Pi Gamma Mu International Honor Society. In addition to teaching, Allison is an Emergency Medical Technician and worked in a level one trauma center emergency department throughout college. She participates annually in “EMS on the Hill”, advocating for legislation that will benefit Emergency Medical Services. Allison is also currently a Ph.D. Student at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

Leischen Kranick is a Managing Editor at AMU Edge. She has 15 years of experience writing articles and producing podcasts on topics relevant to law enforcement, fire services, emergency management, private security, and national security.

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