E-mail Inundates EMS Managers

When I started in the profession some 33 years ago, computers were something you heard the government had or saw in science fiction movies. Many thought computers were so large they filled entire floors of office buildings just to run.

Then, a strange thing happened sometime around the mid- to late 1980s. Somebody from the city of St. Louis information technology (IT) department put a personal computer on my desk and told me to use it. I had no idea what to do with it initially; I had to learn disk operating system (DOS) and a multitude of other commands to make things function.

One of the funnier moments I can recall–and still laugh about today–is when the IT guy put WordPerfect on my computer and showed me how to save a document to the hard drive. The hard drive on my first computer held only 30 megabytes (MB). I remember asking if that would be enough space. He told me, “You’ll never use up that much space while you work here.” Sound familiar?

I chuckle about it because 30 MB would hardly hold more than one software program by today’s standards.

As I’ve come to use my computer and all the different applications over the past 20 years, I wonder if computers have enabled us to be more efficient, or have actually created more work for us.

Gratuitous E-mail
In the old days, I’d call someone if I wanted to tell them something. No conversation lasted less than 10 minutes because you had to get all the pleasantries out of the way before you could even begin discussing what you had really called about.

Now, when I want to tell somebody something, I don’t pick up the phone. I write them an e-mail or respond to their e-mail, which can take less than a minute.

But now, instead of talking to seven or eight people in the course of a day, I now get 250—300 e-mail messages a day from other people (many of whom I don’t know) wanting to communicate with or copy me. The end result: I spend hours each day answering or writing e-mails.

The ease of writing a quick e-mail has made us more accessible and, possibly, less productive.

The younger generation doesn’t even write e-mails anymore. Their main method of communication is texting. I was recently shocked when my wife told me our cellular telephone bill reflected that my 18-year-old son sends approximately 7,000 text messages a month to his friends. That comes out to about 233 text messages a day.

Blessing or Burden?
I won’t deny that computers have made our jobs easier. EMS managers can budget better; we can write letters easier, that is if you’ve ever used a typewriter; we can analyze data to make informed decisions in minutes. But even then, computers can complicate things.

Have you ever been working on your computer and deep in thought over what you’re examining when an e-mail pops up? It interrupts you, and you feel compelled to read and sometimes respond. This can happen dozens of times a day. Think about it. You rarely heard the phrase “multi-tasking” until computers became a major focus of our EMS management world.

Edward M. Hallowell, MD, is a psychiatrist who wrote Driven to Distraction. He asserts that if we continue to work with computers the way we currently do, our brains will lose the ability to fully focus, and we will develop what he calls an “attention deficit trait.”(1)

This condition, which he believes is becoming an epidemic, makes us continually feel distracted, impatient, disorganized and overwhelmed by our work. He contends that our performance levels on important tasks also drop with attention deficit trait, because fully focusing our attention is critical to tapping into our brain’s higher functions.

The other thing that frequently happens when we’re trapped in front of our computers is that we fail to interface and talk with our employees as well as we used to. There’s no better way to find out what’s going on in your EMS organization than to do “management by walking around.”

When you walk around and talk to your employees, you’ll learn about them, and you may also find they’re willing to tell you what they believe works in your system. Many times they have suggestions on how to fix what isn’t working, and they’re usually right.

Computers are a mainstay of our life and necessary part of managing our EMS organizations. However, it’s imperative you remember that computers are a tool to manage the EMS organization–not a tool that manages you. JEMS


1. Hallowell E, Ratey J: Driven to Distraction: Recognizing and coping with attention deficit disorder from childhood through adulthood. Touchstone Books Ltd: Clearwater, Fla. 1995.

This article originally appeared in March 2011 JEMS as “Don’t Hit Send: Resisting the urge to e-mail can make you a better manager.”


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