15 Ways to Be an Awesome EMT in 2013

It’s time. The New Year is upon us. I started last year by telling you about 17 Ways to Be an Awesome EMT in 2012. Yes, all of those suggestions still apply. Now, here are 15 more to help you achieve your personal pinnacle of EMS awesomeness in 2013.

Don’t try to do all of these tomorrow. Pick one or two that resonate with you and start there. Then come back next month and pick a few more. If you choose to adopt only one of these suggestions for each of the coming months, you’ll be guaranteed a fantastic 2013. (If I’m wrong you can return 2013 for a full and complete refund.) Now let’s get started.

1) Explore Other job Opportunities

Even if you aren’t planning on making a career change, knowing what else is available to you is liberating. Often, even when times are good (or worse…just not bad enough) we fail to consider all the other options available to us. This can lead to that stuck feeling. The feeling that we are committed to this one path whether we like it or not. When you open yourself to the possibility of doing other things, it allows you to feel confident that you are doing what you are doing because you want to, not because you have to. You always have choices.

A good friend of mine took a year of leave from his EMS job to accept an overseas contract in Afghanistan. Accepting the opportunity (even temporarily) opened his mind to a world he never knew existed. He spent time with a community of temporary contract workers who were growing wealthy while traveling the world as they moved from one contract job to the next. After his year of service, he returned to his job with new skills and experiences. More importantly, he returned with the knowledge that he could live a completely different life at the moment of his choosing. He now works with the confidence of knowing that he does his job by choice. That’s a powerful thing.

2) Leave The Rig Better Than You Received It

When you show up to work on your next shift, begin by opening the back doors of your rig. Don’t climb in yet…just look. If it’s trashed, don’t get angry. Regardless of the condition of the rig, decide that you will leave it better for the next crew. I don’t care how you do it. It can be something simple. Wipe down the cabinet doors. Do a detailed inventory on the jump-kit. Set the pram up perfectly. Just decide that, at the end of this shift, you will do one thing to leave the rig better for the next crew.

One nice thing about the leave-it-better commitment is this; the worse the rig is when you get it, the easier it is to leave it better. It doesn’t have to be prefect. Just a little better each time. The more you do this, the more you’ll see others do the same. You can’t always control how you receive the rig. But you can control how you leave it. It may not cure all of the trashed-rig-in-the-morning problems, but it’s a start.

3) Master The BVM

It’s one of our most vital skills and we frequently do it poorly. When the time comes to use the BVM on a real apneic patient, we leave the head in neutral position, mash the bag down on the patients face and start squeezing. Then we look around nervously for the paramedic to intubate. Knowing that our efforts are sloppy, we hope for a successful tube to save us from our sloppy skills. If I sound frustrated it’s because I am. I witness sloppy BVM technique in the prehospital setting again and again and again.

It’s as if we never learned any better. But we did learn better, didn’t we? Move the head to a proper angle. Make a firm seal around the mouth and nose. Wrap the middle, fourth and pinky finger under the angle of the jaw. Press firmly with the thumb and index finger to make a tight seal. Squeeze the bag gently. Now go find a mannequin and practice. Practice until you are good at it. Practice frequently. It’s a bread and butter lifesaving skill. Make 2013 the year you commit to doing it right.

4) Learn From The Exceptional

Just about everyone you work with is exceptional at something. I think one key to developing yourself professionally is being good at figuring out what people are exceptional at and then figuring out how to learn from them. This requires several steps. You need to be able to engage people in a way that builds their trust. That allows us to figure out what it is that a given person does exceptionally. Then we need to interact with them in a way that makes them want to teach us.

For the most part, people enjoy sharing things about themselves. (Especially the things that hint at their talents.) One great way to tap into a person’s talents is to simply figure out what they like to talk about. When you find a subject that they enjoy, chances are, you are close to a hidden talent.

It’s a powerful thing to get over the paradigm that we need to find exceptional people and then get them to mentor us in all the things we want to learn. Instead, find each person’s unique talent and let them teach you to be better at that one thing.

5) Listen to Lung Sounds

If you are like many EMS providers, you don’t listen to them at all. If you are one of the rare individuals that listens to lung sounds as part of your assessment, you probably don’t do it often enough. The reason people who are good at identifying abnormal lung sounds are good at it is not because they’ve heard lots of abnormal lung sounds. The reason they are good at picking out abnormal sounds is because they’ve listened to many, many normal lung sounds. The more practiced you are at listening to normal lung sounds, the easier it will be to hear abnormal sounds.

Start listening to lung sounds as part of your standard head-to-toe assessment. Even when you anticipate that they will be normal. …Strike that. Especially when you anticipate that they will be normal.

6) Exceed Your Knowledge Expectations

Not in everything. Just one thing. Pick one subject in the EMS arena and learn it with a far greater depth than anyone would possibly expect you to know. Chose anything. It could be the human clotting cascade or the use of the King Airway. Learn all about the effects of electrolyte imbalances on cardiac function or the functions of the autonomic nervous system.

Don’t get to caught up in how useful the information might be to you right now in your specific job function. The purpose of this exercise isn’t to gain knowledge that will be specifically or immediately useful. (Read that last sentence, again because it’s important.) The purpose of this exercise isn’t to learn new information that will be immediately useful to you. You should actually look for information that you can see no specific need for you to know. Then dive in and learn as much as you can.

You aren’t trying to make up for knowledge deficits or catch up on stuff you should know more about. What you are doing is freeing your mind from its knowledge cage. Here’s what I mean. Most of us walk around with boxes around our learning.

We learn things that we are required to know. (Then we stop.) Or we learn things that we know that we are interested in knowing. (Then we stop.) Or we learn things that we can see are immediately useful to us. (Then we stop.) This is an exercise in pushing the boundaries of our knowledge simply because we can. Once you stop letting the world define the parameters of your learning and just start exploring without purpose, you learn that there are no boundaries on your knowledge except the ones that you create.

7) Bring the Coffee

At the beginning of last year, we lost Sparky Truax. He was my partner for a good part of the last year of his life. I consider myself lucky because I got to spend a lot of time with Sparky in his last months here on earth. Neither of us had any idea how valuable that time would turn out to be.

One of my fondest memories of Sparky is his love for coffee. Each morning Sparky would show up with coffee and want to sit down and talk. I think he liked the sharing and socializing that went along with the coffee more than the coffee itself. And he secured your time by showing up with a coffee for you and then asking how your days off had been. Sparky liked to bring the coffee because he liked everything that came with it.

Coffee is cheap. Sharing coffee with a coworker really is priceless. Bring the coffee.

Eight) Talk to the Receiving Facility About Your Patient

Often we drop off our patient and then rush out of the ER to get back to whatever we were doing before the call dropped. “I have to get back to that article I was reading from The EMT Spot!” I understand. Life beckons. It always does. But, in 2013, I’d suggest adopting the habit of staying around for a while, whenever possible. Wait for the doctor and nurses to finish their initial exam and put in their orders. Then ask some questions about the patient.

Ask the nurses and the doctor what they think is going on with the patient. Ask if there was anything you could have done better of anything else you should have considered in your assessment. You don’t have to take all of their advice as gospel, but it’s always worthy of consideration. Sometimes, the best EMS practitioners are the ones that have asked the best questions throughout their career.

9) Become The Partner Everyone Wants to Work With

Everyone wants to have the best partner. If you want to expand your choices, try to be the best partner. You already know the recipe, but you could still write it down if you like. Take out a piece of paper and write down everything you want in a partner. Everything that makes a good EMS partner. Then strive to be each of those things.

10) Press Hard and Fast (Then Defibrillate)

The data is clear. If we want to improve our cardiac arrest outcomes, nothing beats good compressions. Yet, most of us are still reluctant to correct poor compression performance when we see it. We may make a half-enthusiastic comment about depth or rate, but we don’t really dive in and coach it. I know. It’s uncomfortable to tell people that they are doing it wrong. But this isn’t about how best to clean the oven. This is about restarting a human beings heart.

Get aggressive about demanding strong, fast, uninterrupted compressions. And then, once you get that heart primed, don’t forget to defibrillate. Maybe you’ll be shaking your next cardiac arrest patient’s hand instead of talking about how we should do better CPR.

11) Give Something Valuable Away For Free

Something happens when we make a choice to give away our time, money, possessions, creative energy or anything else that is valuable, for free. It’s liberating. Our brains are wired for generosity. Those who don’t ever experience giving don’t always understand that. It’s a unique dynamic that you can’t explain until you do it.

Our habit is to barter everything we have for some type of monetary reward. Society tries hard to reinforce this paradigm. (After all, capitalism hinges on this very concept.) But a couple of interesting things happen when we give away something valuable for free. First, we become the master of our talents as well as our possessions. We send ourselves a message that, while outside forces may set the price of things, we always set the value.

Another thing that happens is that we learn the immense pleasure of giving. And, often, when we give without concern for receiving, we receive gifts that were impossible to realize from inside of our bartering mindset.

12) Learn One New Home Medication Every Shift

Every shift you will encounter medications prescribed to your patients that you don’t recognize or understand. Start making a list. Then, each shift, pick one and learn it. With the help of a smart phone, you’ll have everything you need to learn about the chosen medication right from the front seat of your medic unit. Commit to this and, by the end of 2013, you will be able to recognize a patient’s entire medical history just by glancing at their medication list.

13) Bring The Team Together

EMS is a team endeavor. That happens to be one of the greatest things about this job. On every scene there are three types of individuals.

There are those who do what they are told, but do nothing to enhance the unity of the team. They don’t really contribute anything beyond the performance of their delegated task. They move in coordination with the team. They are useful and essential to accomplishing all that needs to be done. But they are also easy to replace. They are a dime a dozen.

Then there are those who break the team apart. These individuals tend to be ego driven. They like to be at the center of the action and dictate what needs to be done. They rarely take advice and they frequently end up in minor conflicts and squabbles. These individuals place a high priority on authority, command structure, job / title designations and agency affiliation. If they are not in a position of authority they tend to become do-what-they’re-told type responders. (Only, they sulk while they do it.)

Finally, there are responders who bring the team together. They perform tasks with a positive attitude. They always look for ways to make things run smoother. They attempt to do more than is expected of them and they anticipate what needs to happen next, before they are asked. When these individuals are in charge of running the scene, they seek advice and request ideas. They recognize their resources and include everyone. They delegate tasks based on talent and interest. Even in the middle of the most stressful situations, everything they do helps to bring the team together in a calm and efficient way. Be that responder.

14) Find Your Unique Contribution

Sometimes when we enter the field of EMS, we are overwhelmed with the things we need to learn just to get up to speed with our basic skill set. Our minds race with questions like, “How will I ever learn everything I need to know?” or “Am I good enough at this medicine stuff to really do this job?” Those are great questions and they are entirely appropriate. However, at some point, we have to make a transition.

At some point we have to ask ourselves, “What am I here to contribute?” Or, even better, “What is the unique contribution that only I can make to the world of emergency service?” That’s a bold question. It’s easier to deny yourself the possibility that you may have something unique within you that only you can contribute. Believe it. It’s true. And 2013 is your year to make the transition. This is your year to find your contribution and make it.

My career changed one day when I read through a popular EMS magazine and noticed that there were a bunch of interesting stories about EMS that weren’t being told. I developed a sense that, part of what I was supposed to be doing in this field was telling those stories. Since that day EMS has never looked the same to me. I’m no longer just doing my job. I’m on my path. Find your path.

15) Dream Big

Forget about your goals and your resolutions for a minute. Those things should always be secondary to your dreams. What is it that you dream of doing? What is your dream job? What is your dream life? Dram that dream until it is vivid and clear. Then set your goals and make your resolutions. Without a dream to follow, all of your goals are just shots in the dark. You have to make a target before you can take aim.

Don’t forget to make it a good dream. Make it a big one.

Right now, you are probably overestimating what you can accomplish in the next month. But you are also underestimating what you can accomplish in the next year. Pick one or two of these goals and set off in a new direction. By the time 2014 rolls around, you might not even recognize yourself. And…I’ll have a whole new list for you to start on. Happy New Year.


  1. #15 is facilitated by making a free http://www.epocrates.com/online account. Their PDA/Smartphone apps used to be pretty cool too but cost the big bucks.

  2. Slainte2012 says:

    Excellent – thank you!
    Going up on the bullentin board !

  3. Mark Targett says:

    Excellent. Just instilling these thoughts is a worthwhile progress to yourself, doing them is a progress to everyone.

  4. Awesome article. Thank you. I was just hired as an EMT-B after taking a year off after licensing to care for my children. I am thrilled at the opportunities opening up. To be able to give something of myself, for the sake of helping others, has always been my primary goal. Excited to be the best I can be, to give back. Our world needs it. 🙂

  5. Kenny Compton says:

    I just got my EMT-B license a few days ago, and I cant wait to start this new path in my life! Thanks for the tips on how I can become an awesome EMT!