You Bet Your Life

What would you bet your life on?

In 1996 I took a job about 40 minutes south of San Jose, California with a small mom-and-pop ambulance company. The service was named after the owner and had been serving a mostly rural area of northern California for a couple of decades before I arrived in town. They were, without a doubt, the worst ambulance company I ever served under.

The owner ran the place like a dictator. I started work the day after my interview on a dirty ambulance wearing an old uniform that was two sizes too large. My partner was the grumpy silent type. The station conditions were deplorable and the policies and procedures were down-right unethical. (As an example, the owner would frequently order crews to respond to scenes, after they had been canceled enroute, so that they could gather billing information from the caller.)

I worked at the service for about three weeks, then I left. I knew that nothing about that service matched with who I was as a paramedic and nothing I could do would ever change the two decades of tradition and old guard thinking that had brought them to where they were. Unlike my uniforms previous owner, I washed my threadbare shirt before I handed it back in. Then I hit the road and I didn’t look back.

I could have wasted years in that joint.

In my search for the ideal EMS employer, I’ve worked for eight different EMS organizations in two different states. The search has had its highs and lows. It was worth it. I’m proud of the organization I now work for and I’m proud to wear their uniform. I’m compensated well and I have a host of opportunities for growth and career development. I am certain that the day I retire from EMS I’ll still be wearing the same patch on my shoulder as I wear today.

There’s an essential component to my success in EMS that holds a lot of others back. You need to be willing to leave. There are a lot of bad EMS organizations out there. You aren’t going to change them. You can decide this early on or you can decide this after you’ve wasted tremendous amounts of time and effort trying to change things…and failed. It’s your choice.

Does it surprise you to hear me say that? After all the positive, motivating, upbeat content I’ve published here, does is surprise you to have me say that you should be willing to pack up and leave your workplace? Let me explain.

These are a few of your responsibilities at work:

  • It’s your responsibility¬† to be as good as you can be at this job.
  • It’s your responsibility to show up to work and make a positive contribution to your workplace.
  • It’s your responsibility to be present in your job and be fulfilled.
  • It’s your responsibility to help good organizations be great.
  • It’s your responsibility to use your talents wisely.

These are not your responsibility at work:

  • It’s not your responsibility to be the messiah of your organization, sacrificing yourself for the greater good.
  • It’s not your responsibility to help bad organizations be somewhat acceptable or mediocre.
  • It’s not your job to be the single voice of positive productivity in an ocean of negative crap.
  • It’s not your responsibility to drag your medical director, operations chief or CEO into the 21st century.
  • It’s not your responsibility to waste your time, talent and effort on people who will never appreciate them.

Are you showing up to work each day frustrated about the lack of progressive medicine? Are you angry at the low standards the poor management and the awful leadership? Are you getting burned out by the long hours, lack of appreciation and life-sucking morale? It may be time to consider that the best place for you is elsewhere.

You’re too good for this. Every minute you spend in a toxic organization is a waste.

If you’re good at this EMS thing, if it is your life and your passion and you are willing to put everything into being really good at it, there are organizations who will want what you have to offer. There are places out there where the medicine is held to a higher standard and the systems are willing to pay for quality people. There are places where they value people like you. There are employers who will respect and appreciate what you have to offer. You just need to decide that you’re not willing to stand for second best anymore.

Maybe you think the stakes are too high. Perhaps you think the cost of leaving is too much for you and your family to bear. Let me ask you this; what’s the cost of staying? The short answer is, your life. That’s right, this is your life we’re talking about here. It’s a finite resource. When you were born you were given a limited number of minutes to spend here on this earth. You have to choose where you spend them. Each day you go to work you trade minutes of your life for money and experience.

It may seem like a lot of trouble to pack up, move houses, change states, change schools, leave family and friends. It may seem scary to leap forward into the great unknown. And, truth be known, perhaps you’re happier being the thorn in the side of your current employer than you’re willing to admit.

Should you stay or should you go? Big question. Just remember, in the end, you bet your life.

I’d like to know what you think about that.

Read More Rants:

Too Much Information

Eight Tragic EMS Behavior Flaws to Avoid

The EMS Non-Conformist Guide is Here

Staked Down With A Twig

The Ultimate EMS Protocol


  1. I need to print this out and put it up at my last job. Still can’t believe I spent a year and a half there. Great stuff, Steve.

  2. I really needed to hear this at this point in time, thanks so much. Has confirmed my thoughts.

  3. Wow. This is very poignant for me right now.

    I just can’t get over how people are actually allowed to and DO run EMS agencies in such a half-assed way.

  4. i wish i have read this years ago…. but never mind, i shall let a few friends read this.

    its a true eye opener.

  5. Steve Whitehead says:

    @Bill I think if more people were willing to vote with their feet and leave these poor institutions behind, it would be a real motivating factor for bad providers to change.

    Let’s face it. A lot of them don’t much care because, as long as there’s an endless supply of new EMT’s showing up at the front door, there really is no downside for them.

  6. Steve Whitehead says:

    @Maria You’re welcome. I hope whatever you decide goes well for you. I’m glad you liked the post.

  7. Steve Whitehead says:

    @Tom I was inspired to write this after a phone conversation with a provider trying to get some new changes added to the protocols. Everything he was suggesting was very appropriate and timely but he just kept meeting resistance and flack. You could see that his efforts were not appreciated and he was wasting his time. They didn’t deserve him.

    Yes, there are a lot of these places out there.

  8. Steve Whitehead says:

    @John Everyone knows someone, somewhere who is way to talented for their current workplace. This is a rallying cry for the under-appreciated. Thanks for sending it on.

  9. Steve, this post caught me at JUST the right time! I’ve been at my current service for several years, and have just recently become aware of how horribly it has dragged me down, how negative and depressed I’ve become since I’ve been here. (Even affecting my family life) I’m about to finish Paramedic school and have the opportunity to test with several fire/EMS agencies, and have been talking myself out of going through the difficult transition or seeming unloyal to the company that “sent” me to school. But this post really struck me at the right moment. THANK YOU for giving me the boost I need to move on.

  10. This couldn’t have been posted in a more timely manner. I’m approaching a crossroads with my current squad, where I don’t know if I’m going to be staying or going. However, after reading this article, I realize that I don’t have to have any regrets about going elsewhere if I’m not allowed to continue on with the organization where I am now. In fact, I may be able to put down my roots and grow with another squad, and maybe reach my full potential.

    After all, I owe that much to my instructors and to my mentor: to make them proud that passing on their knowledge, skills, and experience to a new generation will result in the turnout of an excellent EMT.

  11. I can see what you are saying about all the negative aspects of working in a poorly ran organization, however there is another side to what you see as the negative. Prior to my career in EMS I worked for a management company. My job was to open new business, hire the staff and get the store operating, then train the new manager and move to the next project. As a secondary I would be asked to work with a struggling business and deal with the problems you are describing such as poor attitude and work environment. How it usually starts is the “One” bad seed that was hired. For one reason or another the manager can’t or wont remove this employee or work to change their attitude. This leads to the domino of losing the “good” employees and only finding bad ones willing to work there. One thing I found is occasionally there would be the one posative employee that nothing would upset them and they were a model for the rest of the crew. This is who would make the difference, not necessarily the manager. I make it my focus to be the one in my service that always has a smile, always is the first to help or offer assistance to other staff. Sometimes actively looking for a reason to help the grumpy or negative members. It doesn’t take much effort and you go home feeling like you help. There is another side to the “Not my responsibility” part of the article. You don’t have to be a “Messiah” to be a good example to those around you. You can make a bad organization better by your actions, attitude and organizational skills. Some of these poor services may have never had the experiene you have to offer. You can guide assist or recomend ideas and observations to educate your medical director, operations chief or CEO if you have established their respect and shown them you know what your are talking about. As for wasting your time, talent and effort on people who will never appreciate you, there is never a time when these skills you bring to any service are wasted. In reality we are paid by our employer but we serve the public/patients. It is each individuals choice on where they decide to work but dont forget the services that are struggling have citizens that need skilled EMS possibly more than anywhere else. .

  12. Steve, I regularly come back to this post and refer people to it. Outstanding work. Thanks.


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