8 Tragic EMS Behavior Flaws to Avoid

In Greek tragedies, the hero typically displays some form of hamarita, also known as a “tragic flaw.” Hamlet was brooding, Othello was jealous, Macbeth was ambitious. For the most part, it is their tragic flaw that is usually the key to their undoing. When the hero ultimately falls, they tend to sow the seeds of their own demise with their respective tragic flaws.

People often use the word hero when they refer to EMS caregivers. EMT’s, paramedics, firefighters, we all get the hero moniker pinned on us from time to time. I cringe at the term. Most of us are uncomfortable with it to different degrees. And, if there is any truth to our hero title, it is certainly closer to the heroes of Greek tragedy that the comic book heroes we grew up with.

In other words, we all have our tragic flaws. Yes, all of us.

Here are eight of the most common tragic flaws of the EMS hero persona. I have, at one time or another in my career, embodied each and every one of these flaws to one degree or another. I’ve lived each one of them. I would guess that most of us do.

1) The Cynic “They just do this to screw with us.”

The cynical hero doesn’t trust that anyone is really looking out for the greater good or trying to make the workplace better. They view the world through an exceedingly distrustful eye. To the cynic, every new policy, procedure or memo is either useless or seeded with some ulterior motive to try to make the work environment more difficult.

The way cynic’s tend to draw other into their drama is the allure of knowing the real deal. The cynic will tell you that you’re being deluded and promise you a glimpse into the way things really are, but their fictional world of paranoia never quite lives up to the promise.

2) The Know-It-All “Well, clearly it’s a fascicular hemi-block but which fascicle?”

Not only will the know-it-all hero offer up their insight or opinion as if it were gospel, but they’ll also pepper it with a bit of “Everyone should know this stuff.” just to make you feel a little bit inferior. They base a large part of their self worth on the ability to know just a little bit more than the next guy and they wield that knowledge like a conversational weapon.

Don’t mistake the local smart dude as a know-it-all. There are some real difference between smart people and know-it-all’s. One key difference is humility. Smart people are humble about their knowledge. Know-it-all’s often don’t really know it all but they’ll never let on. Smart people also use their knowledge to build others up while know-it-all’s tend to use it to make others feel smaller.

3) The Mule “I still think he was having a stroke.”

Of all our tragic hero flaws, the mules flaw may be the one most rooted in insecurity. There folks get this idea in their head that they have to be right all the time. They believe that their worth and value is somehow sewn in a persona of stubborn infallibility. This works just fine, until they need to listen to performance feedback, or they make a mistake. Then the mule shows up and all the excuses start flowing.

“I would have recognized that if the firefighter had given me an accurate blood pressure.” “This is the way we always did it where I used to work.” “That doctor doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” And on and on. The sad part is that, as long as the mule stays in their stubborn delusion, they never get any better at anything. How can you improve when you always do it right the first time?

4) The Critic “Their all so stupid.”

This is perhaps the easiest of all the hero flaws to slip into and the toughest to shake. The critic is convinced that the world desperately needs his or her opinions on the way things ought to be.  They figure out that offering opinions is so much more fun and rewarding than working to solve a problem and then it becomes like a drug. Soon they’re framing everything they see with the question, “How should this be done better?” and then offering their sage analysis. Usually with a poor understanding of why the thing is the way it is in the first place.

The problem with the critic is that they genuinely believe that the world wants to hear their endless assessments and when an army of engineers doesn’t show up to start doing the hard work of implementing all their great ideas, they get frustrated. The second problem is that they jump to analysis without seeking to ever understand the nature of the problem. Research and implementation are hard, but critical evaluation is fun and easy. As long as they don’t build anything real, they never have to worry about the next critic showing up, spending a few minutes looking at what they built and offering up their sage criticism.

5) The Spaz “I need it stat.”

It’s hard to pick out the spaz hero in a crowd, they can be anyone. The spaz flaw usually remains hidden beneath a cool exterior. The spaz, well aware of their own flaw, will often hide their spazziness under another persona like the burnout or the know-it-all. You won’t see this flaw until they are under pressure and then their own personal insecurities will come bubbling forward in a string of urgency, frustration and barked commands.

“You! Get over here.” “Get me a backboard now!” “Set up my intubation kit.” The word stat was invented by a spaz. They confuse activity with effectiveness and hope that, as long as they look like they’re the one in charge, nobody will notice that they’re terrified.

There are two big problems with the spaz flaw. The first is that they’re ineffective. Nobody operates at peak effectiveness with this kind of demeanor. They invite mistakes and sloppiness. The second problem is that they wind everyone else up with them. Instead of promoting team effectiveness, they shatter it by pushing everyone into their, “Don’t think, just do.” mindset.

6) The Burnout “So what?”

The Burnout probably used to care at one point, but they didn’t get the reward or accolades that they were anticipating so they gave up. Being burned out is alluring because it’s so effortless. It really takes no effort to decide to not care about anything anymore.

Once they stop caring, burnouts look at everyone else who does care as deluded and sad. they pity those who still put in effort to learn, grow and do a great job. They wonder why others would put so much effort into being good at what they do when there really is no big pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Burnouts never figure out that being good at what you do is its own reward.

7) The Egotist “You called me for this?”

You’ll know the egotist as soon as the radio calls their unit number. Every emergency is a waste of time. Unless it is a terror inducing, massive pile of mayhem that they’re being dispatched to, it’s a waste of time. The egotist believes that, unless the patient is having a critical, life threatening emergency, they aren’t worthy of the services of EMS.

The big get it that the egotist never quite figures out is that EMS is a service industry. In their heart they believe that their skills are far too important to be wasted on minor complaints or injuries. They see themselves as true heroes who should be kept in reserve until someone needs to be snatched from the clutches of death. When that call happens, they’ll be woefully unprepared because they weren’t putting enough time and energy into their skills when the minor medical complains showed up.

8 ) The Subversive “Rumor has it…”

Working with the subversive can be fun, for a little while. You always get to hear all the inside dirt on what might be happening to whom. The National Enquirer and The Star were created by subversives; people hoping to spread rumors with just enough validity and credibility that they make everyone question what’s really going on.

The problem with subversives is that they’re not sorting information based on what’s true and what’s false, they’re sorting it based on what’s known and verified and what’s secret. Because of this, they’re frequently just wrong. They also waste everyone’s time. That’s the subversive part. Organizations waste a tremendous amount of time trying to track down and replace rumors with good, accurate information. The quest is never-ending, because it’s always easier to create fiction than it is to disprove it. By the time one rumor has been proven false in the light of day, the whisperers have already moved on to new prey.

Now it’s your turn to sound off: Do you have a particular tragic flaw that you struggle with? Do you think I missed one? Leave a comment and let me know.

Read More Posts:

What Is An EMS Non-Conformist?

Where do You Put The Fear?

Stop Whining

One EMT Can Make A Difference

6 Reasons Why You Should Be A Better EMT


  1. So what you’re saying is – EMS professionals are human?

  2. Steve Whitehead says:

    Great way to look at it Joseph, yes. Well said. Love the name by the way.

  3. Rob Stables says:

    Human, us ? No, we are HEROS. I work rural, really really rural and our job really is to make the people who own our service (the community) comfortable and at ease when I / We walk into the room. In my books there is no room for those tragic flaws. I am too old to play those games and you see that in me – feel free to hit me with a bag of saline, or a pillow.

  4. Great stuff.

  5. Steve, I really enjoy a lot of what you have to say about EMS, but this post, well I feel a little differently about it..

    I ABSOLUTELY LOVE IT! You’ve nailed it my friend.. my neck is sore from repeated nodding as I’ve read it…

    Great job!

  6. Oh man. I’ve based an entire website on #7! But then again, I end up doing what I have to do, emergency or not. I don’t subscribe to the “It’s THEIR definition of emergency” because it’s not after I make my assessment.
    Indeed I’ve seen medics and EMTs upset they have to Cspine someone who needs it, but I get where you were going with #7.
    Now, why am I here?

  7. How about the “dreamer” or the “eternal optimist” who wants to single handedly right all the wrongs in the EMS world. The one who wants upgrade the level of care in every con home, find a solution for overcrowded ERs, fix the problem with “frequent flyers” and solve all the public/private issues so we can all build a fire and sing “Kumbaya”. That was me when I started in EMS. Well, maybe I still am. in my perfect world ambulance company owners and fire department command staff would value the ideas of thier employees and everyone would feel appreciated and respected. Maybe that’s why “CoEMS” and “EMS 2.0” was born because there are other people like me (read: TheHappyMedic).

  8. I used to be #4, I can sometimes be #2, and I’ve learned to suppress #5 even though sometimes I want to be, I’ve learned to just let it go. I work with a lot of #7’s and #8’s.

    Sam’s on to something, but often times the best way to win within a system is to use the system to our advantages. It’s weaknesses can be your strengths. Something I learned a long time ago is that if you can find friends inside the system that believe in your mission you can get them to take it on for you. Powerful allies can make for easy change. Always better to ambush the issue than to take it with a direct assault.


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