Protecting Your EMS Longevity

Longevity wasn’t something I thought too much about when I was in my twenties. As a new EMT my older, more experienced counterparts seemed to have lots of advice about protecting my long term career viability and I appreciated their input. But I rarely took their advice.

Now it’s my turn to be the older, more experienced prehospital provider. It’s time for me to take my stab at the longevity subject. Yes, I know that giving you this advice makes me sound old. It’s a price I’m willing to pay.

Your future is coming. You will, with almost certainty, arrive at your future. As improbable as it seems right now, one day, you will be 30 and then 40 and then 50. Your older years are coming. And they are closer than you might imagine. I was fortunate to heed just enough good advice in my youth to enjoy good health and comfortable finances as my career passes it’s half-way point.

Here’s some of the best advice I received in my EMS youth:

1) Protect your back.

I don’t mean that in the colloquial sense. I mean literally…protect your back. While you are at it, take care of your knees as well. I’ve seen too many good EMS careers cut short because of a single, nagging back injury. Knee injuries may be a little more hit and miss, but back injuries are preventable.

The proliferation of back injuries in EMS are not entirely due to the work environment. For certain, carrying a limp, heavy patient down their staircase at 2:00 AM is a high risk task. But most back injuries begin long before the actual day or moment of injury. Protecting your back starts with weight control, strength and fitness. Being fit for duty is the single best thing you can do to protect your spinal column.

The second best thing you can do is use discretion when lifting. Wait for appropriate resources. Use lifting aids when available and asking for help even when the lift is within your ability. Save the big lifts for controlled environments like the gym. When it’s time to tackle the patients narrow, rickety staircase, ask for help.

2) Contribute the maximum to your 401K.

It’s a no-brainer. Yet, so few of us actually do it when we are young. Your younger years are a financial boon for your 401K. Did you know that if you contributed $2,000 to your 401K when you were 19, 20 and 21 years old respectively and then never put in another penny, you’d have more money at 65 than if you contributed $2,000 every year from 22 years old onward? (Source: Your Money or Your Life? By: Joe Domingez)

It doesn’t seem possible until you understand the concept of compounding interest. When you’re young, you can truly get the power of compounding interest on your side. The problem is, most of us never take advantage of this concept. Because, really, who’s ever going to be fifty anyway?

Another huge advantage to using your 401K plan is that you can take advantage of your employers matching plan. (If they have one.) If your employer has a 401K matching plan and you’re not taking advantage of it, you are literally walking away from free money every month. Not just the money that is being offered each month, the money that could be accumulated over the next 20, 30 or 40 years. You are giving away thousands of dollars.

3) Complete your college education.

It isn’t as hard as you think. And the older you get, the more difficult it is to find the time to make it happen. If you think that a college education takes to much time, money and energy, I can tell you this is a certainty. Marriage, children and increasing work responsibilities will not make a college education any easier in the coming years.

You might be surprised by how simple and inexpensive it is to convert your current EMS education and experience into an online degree. You can go to The College Network right now, give them your contact info, and a representative will consult with you on your personal online education needs. It’s simple, it’s free and you’ll never know how easy it really is to start pursuing your college degree until you do it.

Your college education is a mouse click away. That time you’ve been spending playing World of Warcraft online could be time spend earning an EMS management degree, or even converting your EMT or paramedic education into an RN (ADN) or BS in fire science. Go do it.

4) Get some quality life insurance.

I’m sad to say that I’ve seen a few careers cut short by unexpected death. Last year, just before Christmas, I received the sad news that my partner, whom I was expecting to work with the next morning, wasn’t coming back to work. He fell from a moving vehicle and died that previous night. He was a great father and husband and he had a lot of good living left to do.

You never know when you’re going to run your last call. Get some quality life insurance. There are a lot of companies out there willing to help you with this type of financial security. Each time someone I know dies unexpectedly, there is a question that weighs heavily on all of our minds. What can we do to relieve the financial burdens from their family? Golf tournaments and memorial bike rides only go so far. You can help answer the question yourself. It isn’t that hard.

5) Work less overtime.

While were talking about the capricious nature of life. If you’re young and working in EMS, you’re probably working too much overtime. We all do it. Especially when we’re younger. Your time is more valuable than you think.

When you’re in your 20’s and an employer asks you to trade a day of down time for time and a half, it seems like a great deal. There’s always time to ski, hike and hang out with friends later right. Your friends and the great outdoors will always be there right? The truth is, the great outdoors will be there, your friends might not…and you might not be either.

You’re only young once. Go enjoy your life. Your EMS career will be longer if you learn how to keep your work and your life in balance now. The overtime will always be there. Your work is not your life. Go live your life.

Now it’s your turn: What did I miss? What other advice do you wish you had when you were a little younger in your EMS career? What should we do to protect our EMS longevity and our relationships with our loved ones? Leave a comment and let us know.

If you liked this, you should also read:

17 Ways to Become an Awesome EMT

What Makes a Good EMT?

What Makes a Good EMT (Part 2)

Unconventional Thoughts on Emergency Services

EMT Basic Skills Are Not Basic


  1. Thanks as always for the great article. The point about early contributions to retirement accounts is spot on: it’s very important. However, I don’t know this “Your Money or Your Life,” but the following statement is crazy:
    “Did you know that if you contributed $2,000 to your 401K when you were 19, 20 and 21 years old respectively and then never put in another penny, you’d have more money at 65 than if you contributed $2,000 every year from 22 years old onward?”
    In order for contributions at ages 19-21 to exceed the value of contributions at ages 22-65, your investments would have to be growing at 26% per year. Good luck with that.

  2. Start planning your next career move immediately and take small steps each week or month to get there.

  3. Sorry to hear about your partner, Steve.

  4. Hello Steve! Great article. I just turned fifty last week. Wish I had read this thirty years ago! Probably wouldn’t have listened though. My back is shot, knees wobbly, trying to make some money by writing is near impossible and I truly dread the next shift. People, HEED STEVE’S WORDS!

  5. bridget says:

    Great article! Something I’ve learned over the years is that it is very easy to get disgruntled and feel like the job isn’t fun anymore. I’ve seen several amazing medics, people I look up to, start falling away from EMS. The reasons are various but the underlying themes are usually the stress and long hours. I would tell young folks just getting started to keep up a positive attitude by finding something good out of every shift. It doesn’t have to be big, maybe just the fact that you got to sit through lunch without being interrupted. Or if you’ve been up all night, being thankful that all the patients were really nice and actually needed EMS – that can lift your mood immediately! This will allow you to surpass the “5 year burnout mark” AND keep a positive attitude on each patient encounter – it’s far too easy to think, “oh this patient again! what a hypochondriac!” But maybe this time he’s actually having an MI… you complete the full patient workup because that’s what a good EMT does or do you let your bad mood cloud your judgement and just give him a ride on the stretcher? I’ve been in EMS for 8 years and have had my share of bad moods, especially at 3am. Smile more often, say thank you when someone does something nice for you, and appreciate what you have in your life. Like Steve said, you never know when your time is up so enjoy every moment!

  6. Bill Wallace says:

    Great article. I worked the streets for 30 years. I thought my life was good I always tried to protect my back. One day after I made it to supervision and was working as an EMS Director in N.C. I was help my medics carry a loaded stretcher over some very rough ground and my foot slipped off a tree root that was above the ground a few inches. I came down on my left leg, I felt something pop in my back and I had immediate debilitating pain in my back. That was the end of my career. I am so glad I was working for a government agency and had good benefits. I am now on full disability ,and make more money now than I would have on retirement. I was only 3 years from retirement at 20 years.

  7. Great article! I spent almost 20 years as a volunteer before I took up EMS as a career. Now, I love what I do and I look forward to going to work each day (all 80+ hours a week) and even at 40, I still pull all the OT I can get because I love the job. Well, that and finding us in a suddenly single income home. I think the one thing I didn’t see here that I strongly advocate, is regular Dr visits. We always tell people to go to the Dr (be it their primary or the ED), yet too many of us fail to take our own advice. The back, weight and everything else all can be worked with easier if we see our doc at least once a year, and guys, make sure to talk about those ‘guy cancers’ after 35 too…… We’re all open to it, family history or no. Sleep when you can, and o matter how much OT you work, make time for your family and social life (in that order).

  8. Another tip about protecting your back… You should also protect your knees, neck, and shoulders.
    In my 20+ years in EMS, I always lifted with my legs and arms. Well after two right knee surgeries, a partially torn rotator cuff, and a plate in my neck from a blown out cervical disk, my time on the Ambulance was done.

    My advice?? When you are carrying all your gear to a scene, balance it out. Carry equally heavy loads on each arm/shoulder. Exercise your knees, arms, and shoulders. Muscle mass will help protect you from injury, and keep your joints in good working order..

  9. As John stated in addition to trying to balance your loads, if you take the cot/stretcher with you to at least the front door it is the perfect load bearing device until you get the patient onto it, and even then there is frequently a space either under the head, in the lower frame, at the pt’s feet to place some of the gear. Being a little creative will save you lots of strain on your frame throught yorur career, no matter how lang you stay on the street, Work Smarter Not Harder!

  10. Paramedic Pete says:

    I am surprised no one has mentioned letting your pharmacology to take the strain. When i started everyone got carried. I was knwon for doing it without exception. At the time our analgesia options went from limited to nil. These days I adequately analgise patients and assist them in moving. Sometimes you have no other choice but to lift and regular exercise will take care of those situations. In most other situations the patient is capable in moving themselves, once their pain has been comprehensibly managed. I have never had a complaint for taking away too much pain. For me I never carry when I don’t have to try to stay in shape for when I do. Like with scene safety, don’t become another casualty. Protect your back and it will last you a lifetime. Take care, Pete.

  11. Protect all major joints, I have seen 2 in our agency in past 5 years that had career ending injuries to there shoulders. I myself and recovering from a hip replacement due to 25 years of service. This is my second, so now I have bilateral replacements.. But most of the doctors refuse to say it was related to the lifting. Anyway there is no shame in asking for help in lifting, Yes by all means protect yourself. I’m going back to a truck soon even with all the arthritis and injuries. At 50 my body is shot form the waist down.. Be safe, be careful and protect yourself because no one else will.