Waiting Is Serving

Chief Mike West is one of those people with that EF Hutton sort of mystique about him. When he has something to say about emergency services people tend to listen. At least the folks who want to learn more about their job tend to listen. Today I’d like to pass on a little Chief West wisdom.

Depending on where you work, you may do a little waiting or a lot of waiting for your next call. Nobody in EMS in immune to the process of waiting for a call. It happens to us all. We have colloquialisms for the act of waiting. Going a whole shift without a call is termed “getting skunked.” Some love the slow shifts, some hate them. Regardless of your relationship with the act of waiting, the implication is the same. We believe that the periods where we are not assigned to a call is somehow separate from our job.

“Did you guys do anything today?”

“Naw, we didn’t do anything.”

I’ve always looked at it that same way. Until I heard Chief West make this statement; “Waiting, prepared to serve, is serving.” Mull that one over.

Waiting, prepared to serve, is serving.


You’re going to do some waiting in EMS. That’s just the nature of the beast. How do you feel about the waiting that you’re going to do? What meaning do you give the act of waiting? Do you feel like your time spent waiting is worthless? Your patient would probably disagree. Though they will most likely never think twice about where you were, what you were doing or how long you waited, the moment they dialed 911 your proximity and availability became critically important.

In the same manner that the space between the notes makes the music, the waiting between the calls is an essential component of our ability to be able to arrive in a timely manner. While the engineers of system status response dream of a perfect algorithm to allow each resource to arrive back in service just in time to respond to another emergency, the unpredictable nature of our business makes such a system impossible. The time in service waiting won’t be denied. It is essential.

Prepared To Serve

The time spent in between calls is also essential to our ability to be prepared. Much of our training, or documentation, our checking out equipment and our connections to our coworkers – our team, happen while we are waiting. Where would our service level be if we had no time to restock, refuel, eat, read, debrief and defuse?

It bears mentioning that there is a difference between waiting and waiting well. Our downtime is an opportunity to prepare for the next emergency. Like all opportunities, it can be seized or squandered. We make the choice every time we complete our essential preparations and return to service.

Is Serving

Serving our patient is a direct and real experience. It doesn’t require us to venture into theory. We kneel before the patient, we inquire, we assess and we intervene. Serving our community requires a leap into the theoretical. Standing ready to serve the individuals in our response area recognizes a need that is less obvious than the call for help but just as real and just as important.

The next time you “get skunked” remember what you did with your time.

“Did you guys do anything today?”

“Of course we did. We waited … Prepared to serve.”

Good answer.

Related Articles:


Stop Whining

Patients Define Their Emergencies

What Is Blood Anyway?




  1. One of the most annonying things I hear, as a team leader, is when I ask staff on station why stores haven’t been sorted or vehicles haven’t been cleaned etc, when I know they have had spare time on station. The usualy answer is hinged around their belief that the time they have ‘waiting’ on station is their relax time not work time. Some seem to think that when they are not with a patient, they have no other responsibilities.
    To say it annoys me is the understatement of the year!
    Another great post!

    I hope you don’t mind, but I will be borrowing that line!!

  2. Back in my early days I got skunked for an entire pay period. Not one bell for either ambulance on our shift for 2 weeks.

    That was 15 years ago.

    I haven’t been skunked in the City yet, but close. We have a joke that when we wake up after a quiet night we tell a story about having a vivid dream where we rob a bank, only to turn and see the bank says “Fire Department.”

    For every 23 run shift I get, there seems to be a day on the beach with 3 runs and a quiet night not far behind.

    Indeed it is balancing the wait and the work. Great post.

    Waiting for the bells to ring,

  3. Its always the shifts you’d like to be quiet or the shifts where you have things to do that are busy.

    Then its the midweek nights, nothing on tv and no paper work or the likes to do, where clearly no calls happen! 🙁

  4. Steve Whitehead says:

    Well said all, thanks for your contributions. For better or worse, waiting will always be a part of the job.


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