Looking out for tomorrow’s EMS leaders

Surface the top talent your agency should develop with a focus on professional development and recognition

Published by EMS1

By Jay Fitch, PhD, Fitch & Associates

Attracting the best and brightest to EMS leadership is an important goal. The goal is elevated from important to imperative when one considers the impending retirement of the baby-boomer generation and the pay disparity for top talent between the EMS positions and other professions, such as nursing. It’s not a foregone conclusion that we will be able to attract the talent required to manage in the complex environment we face.

Employers have found that growing our own talent is not only cost-effective, but also perceived positively by workers. It demonstrates that the organization is investing in their development. Talented individuals have an insatiable appetite for learning. They want to become more valuable to the organization by growing personally and professionally. Preparing younger team members now, before the coming retirement tsunami fully overtakes us, is critical to an EMS organization’s long-term success and stability.

Identifying creative approaches to train individuals has been the mission of the Beyond the Street seminars, the Ambulance Service Manager program and Pinnacle for almost three decades. The original BTS seminar was put together as a pre-conference workshop for an early EMS Today conference. ASM grew out of the American Ambulance Association’s need to fast-track a program to recognize the professional development of its members. Pinnacle was developed to provide a participatory learning environment where people from all different system types felt welcomed and could share information on future oriented issues for senior leaders. The programs have evolved to be totally agnostic regarding system design and attract participants from all sectors.


Pay disparity will likely continue to be a factor, but when you ask what high performers in EMS organizations want in a position, beyond pay, the answers are consistent.

First, they want to make a difference. They want to work on issues that are important to both the community and the organization. They don’t want to be pigeon-holed in the same position year after year doing routine tasks.

Second, they want to be recognized for their contribution. Recognition is becoming trickier because today’s high performers want praise that is personally meaningful. Sometimes it is praise from a mentor, recognition by peers, visible recognition by the service’s board or the county commission, or perhaps even an award from a professional organization. However, we must also talk about pay because pay does matter. Even recognizing that EMS may never be able to adequately compete with other professions, it’s clear that organizations that retain top performers must create compensation systems that reward team members as they grow and contribute.


Objectively deciding which team members should be considered for development is often a difficult task for EMS leaders. Martin and Schmidt, writing in the “Harvard Business Review,” indicated that their analysis pinpoints three things that matter most when considering top talent to develop:

  1. Ability
  2. Engagement
  3. Aspiration

Ability is the most obvious attribute. To be successful in more progressively important roles, team members must have the intellectual, technical and emotional skills (both innate and learned) to handle increasingly complex challenges. No less important, however, is engagement – the level of personal connection and commitment the member feels toward the organization and its mission.

Similarly, EMS leaders should not make assumptions about a promising team member’s level of aspiration. This third critical attribute – which can also be described as the desire for recognition, advancement and future rewards, and the degree to which what the team member wants aligns with what the organization wants for them – can be extremely difficult to measure.

According to Martin and Schmidt, it is best to be direct with high-potential candidates, asking pointed questions about what they aspire to and at what price:

  • How far do you hope to rise in the organization?
  • How quickly?
  • How much recognition would be optimal?
  • How much money?
  • And so on

Of course, these responses should be balanced against individuals’ “softer” objectives involving work-life balance, job stress and geographic mobility.

Looking for and preparing tomorrow’s EMS leaders must be accomplished on a consistent rather than sporadic basis. Recognition and development must become part of the organization’s culture.

If your agency is having trouble attracting and retaining top performers, rather than blame the economy, the pandemic or other factors, do a culture check. At its core, culture is the personality of your organization. It’s the shared set of values, beliefs and ideas that influence every aspect of your agency, from how colleagues work together to how you treat customers. Remember, the caregiver’s perception of culture may be more valid than yours as a senior leader.

Culture change can be overwhelming, but in reality, it’s not that complex. Regardless of where you’re starting from, it’s important to remember that leaders can improve the organization’s culture.

One thought about the simplest way to improve culture is to focus on kindness. Kindness is free and can change how healthy a culture is in any EMS organization.

In summary, enhance professional development and recognition, making them part of the fabric of your organization’s culture. You’ll be amazed that when you do so, opportunities to find and retain the “right” talent become much easier.


Jay Fitch, PhD, is a founding partner of EMS/public safety firm Fitch & Associates. Caregiver, director, consultant and author, his body of work in public safety spans nearly 50 years. He can be reached at [email protected]