A few weeks ago, I walked into a local hospital and saw someone standing next to a stretcher, wearing a ripped pair of jeans and a T-shirt covered in white paint spatters. Trying to be helpful, I asked if he needed anything or was looking for someone. To my surprise, he said he was with the local volunteer EMS crew. He added, "I'm just waitin' for my partner."
That encounter reminded me that to be true volunteer professionals, not only do we have to provide competent care, but we must also look the part. The way we look and act while volunteering is a representation of ourselves, as well as our organizations and our profession. Often, when a volunteer is responding from their home in their personal vehicle, the person we see is like the man I met -- someone in casual clothes who doesn't look at all like the emergency medical professional the public envisions. When someone is hurt, they expect to see a member of our community at their door who looks and acts like a professional and makes them feel at ease as they put the life of a loved one in their hands.
But not everyone agrees that professionalism is important. I had quite a debate one day with a medic who said, "When a patient's dying, they don't care if my boots are shined." Although I agree that the patient's primary concern may be their medical condition, we must be aware that this kind of attitude has a negative effect on EMS. The way we interact with patients absolutely affects them, both physically and mentally. Professional, compassionate care also helps limit the number of complaints lodged by the public and may ultimately help deter legal action.
The Talk & the Walk
Professional actions include everything we do before, during and after a call, and it's reflected in our actions, speech and appearance. When we're serving in an EMS capacity, everything we do is under scrutiny. But unfortunately, the level of professionalism we demonstrate in our "day jobs" sometimes doesn't carry over to our volunteer duties. Some crew members don't understand what it means to be "professional" or maintain a good work ethic, perhaps because of a lack of mentorship or because they work in a place that condones unprofessional behavior.
Volunteers often catch flack for their members "flying through red lights" with their POVs, cutting off other drivers or other actions before we even get to the call. These behaviors are unprofessional and dangerous. During calls, we often inadvertently act unprofessional by disrespecting our patients or their property. After the call, some of the most unprofessional behaviors can be found in the EMS room or ambulance bays. The extremely unprofessional members are busy writing on the wall, drawing pictures on the CME announcements or talking about their patients in public where anyone, including the patient's family, has the potential to hear.
Besides talking about our patients in public, which is not only unprofessional but also illegal and a breach of their rights under HIPAA, our communication skills in general often need improvement. We spend quite a bit of time teaching EMTs medical terms so they can sound professional, but we forget to teach them the basics, such as showing respect, using appropriate communication methods in both verbal and non-verbal forms, and avoiding slang or profanity. This is an area where the younger members may fall short, but our more senior members may not be setting the right tone. I know of one department that had to implement a "swear jar" for their meetings. This jar quickly became a symbol of the service's root problem when many of the senior members and officers started paying in advance for the profanity they knew would come out in a tirade against their own members.
The last part of professionalism is probably the most obvious, and that's our appearance. The excuse here is that scramble volunteer members don't have the time to put on a uniform and may have just come from their construction job or working around the house. Although I understand the time constraints, members can always put on a coat, jump suit, work shirt or other item that identifies them as an EMS professional. Volunteer fire departments have a one up on EMS agencies because their turnout gear provides for a great "uniform." It may be time for us to adopt some type of turnout coat, preferably with a high reflective component, to wear on calls.
Agency in the Mirror
The challenge to volunteer leaders is to develop services and educational programs to actively teach and enforce professionalism in everything we do. Take a look at your membership and your own professionalism the next time you go on a call. A lack of professionalism can't be fixed overnight, but you'll be amazed at the amount of respect your department will gain with each step you take toward being a professional volunteer organization.