Whether you are thinking about becoming an emergency medical technician (EMT) or are already working as an EMT, you might be wondering:
Do I have what it takes to be an EMT?
Often after years of working in the field EMTs begin to wonder if they are the right kind of person for EMS work.
Here are 5 qualities of successful EMTs along with ways you can cultivate and grow each quality. If you are already working as an EMT, use this as a guide to help you be more successful at work.
If you are thinking about becoming an EMT, read over this list and consider whether you already possess any of these qualities. Which ones do you need to work on?
It’s ok if you haven’t mastered all 5 yet, because many of them can be improved with practice, knowledge, or experience.
For example, you will have opportunities to improve your ability to perform better under pressure during EMT school.
Once you identify what qualities you want to work on, you can be successful at improving them with effort.
I intentionally didn’t title this 5 traits of a good EMT, because traits are inherited and it’s generally accepted that traits can not be changed.
I believe that if you want to be a better EMT, you can improve all of the qualities listed below. Many people think that you either have these qualities or don’t but if you are willing, it’s even possible to increase difficult qualities like compassion and decision-making.
Keep an eye out for a future post about ways to be a better EMT which will offer help for improving the qualities listed below. This will help EMTs with items like growing their compassion at work and improving communication skills.
5 Qualities of A Good EMT
1. Ability to Perform Under Pressure – The ability to perform well under pressure is something that many EMTs and Paramedics struggle with.
There is just something about the responsibility of having someone’s life in your hands that is hard to deal with. Especially because time is always a factor.
One thing that can help you perform better and take some pressure off is to remember:
It’s their emergency, not yours.
Your role as an EMT is to provide care and solve problems, not get caught up in the drama of it all.
It’s important that you follow your training, do your job and don’t contribute to the chaos when you show up to a scene as an EMT.
Another way to perform better when you arrive on scene is by going over things in your head on the way to the call. Plan for the worst on the way to the call and be running through your treatment mnemonics. Especially in the beginning! Preparing mentally in the ambulance will help you feel more focused and capable when you arrive at the patient.
Over time you will learn how remain calm and professional while maintaining a compassionate presence on scene.
2. Calm, Kind & Professional Scene Presence – Your picture of a great EMT might be someone who sees the patient, identifies an injury, skillfully dresses the wound and performs perfect bleeding control. All while keeping the patient stable for transport.
What’s wrong with this picture?
The patient isn’t a prop or a CPR dummy from class. In real life, performing the skills is not enough.
An EMT must also be able to communicate with the patient, family and bystanders in a calm and compassionate manner.
You need a calming, professional scene presence. Otherwise the patient won’t let you put your hands on them to provide a treatment.
Scene presence can be difficult to learn because many EMTs aren’t used to being in charge. When you walk into the home of a patient who has called 911, everyone looks to you for answers.
They expect you to take the lead, but EMTs and Paramedics shouldn’t just start bossing everyone around.
Both Paramedics and EMTs will need to learn to take a leadership role that is calm and empathetic rather than loud and authoritative. After all, if you are escalating a scene than you’re doing the job wrong.
If you’re reading this, you are already taking the first step toward a better on scene presence.
• Recognizing the need for change.
This is the first step in improving your on scene presence and you will be surprised how much you can change just by paying attention. Make the effort to be more calm, kind and professional when responding to calls and your demeanor will improve.
• Find other EMS that you admire.
Another way to improve your scene presence is by modeling it after other EMTs and Paramedics that you admire. The great thing about this is that you don’t have to turn them into mentors or ask them to help you. You can, because it’s always good to have mentors, but you don’t have to. All you have to do is watch other EMS personnel who interact well with patients and have the kind of calm, kind and professional presence you want for yourself.
How do I know if I have a professional presence on scene?
This is a great question to ask yourself. It’s always a good idea to know how other people see you as an EMT. There are a couple of things you can do to assess yourself and make improvements.
→ First, recognize how patients respond to you.
Do they seem at ease when you approach them, begin touching them, discuss treatments? Do they become more anxious? Are patients or family frequently becoming agitated by your questions? If so, it might be your presence and approach.
There will occasionally be anxious and agitated patients, but what you want to look for are patterns.
If many patients avoid answering you and instead talk to your partner when you ask questions, maybe you aren’t being taken seriously as an EMT.
→ Another thing you can do is ask your partners at work.
Let them know you’ve been working on improving how you present yourself to patients and ask them if they see anything obvious you can work on.
• Be specific and tell them you want to be a more professional EMT, while remaining kind and calm when on scene.
If you ask an open-ended vague question about how you can improve as an EMT, be ready to hear their opinion about everything. This might include how you chew your food, talk to your girlfriend between calls and palpate for injuries.
If you don’t want feedback about everything – be specific on what your goals are.
→ For truly brave souls, who don’t have a sensitive ego, you can always ask the Emergency Department (ED) personnel.
There is a good chance you will get an honest, but blunt answer about anything lacking in your professional demeanor from the nurses. Obviously, ask the nurse when they are not treating a patient.
Nurses see you interact with your patient and hear you give report when dropping of patients. If you frequently return to the same EDs, they may also get to hear the patient’s opinions about you after drop off.
For these reasons they can tell you how you appear to other healthcare professionals and to patients.
→ Finally, you can ask a trusted supervisor at your company or wait until your evaluation and ask for feedback then.
Don’t be afraid to ask the higher-ups at your company for their opinion, you won’t be drawing their attention to your poor scene presence. In fact, you are showing that you are driven, self-motivated and ambitious.
It won’t hurt for them to know that you are always working on being a better EMT.
3. Ability to Communicate – You don’t need to be an extrovert to be an EMT, but you do need to be capable of good communication. EMTs will need to communicate well verbally, non-verbally and in writing.
This means you need to be able to ask questions AND listen to answers.
A good EMT doesn’t just ask a question and move on to the next one. We only ask so many questions because each answer is important. The EMT has to listen to each and every answer and sometimes get answers from family or bystanders.
This can be a difficult task because some patients will be poor historians, some bystanders will be drunk and there will be patients that ramble on and need help to focus on what you’re asking.
You can improve your communication with patients by being prepared and using the same assessment techniques over and over. For example, use the same questions with each patient when performing the primary survey. There is no need to switch them up for fun.
You want to remain flexible and specify your assessment to each patient, but you also want to master your skills.
Doing a SAMPLE history out-of-order and with different questions for every patient won’t help you become an expert at it straight out of school.
When you are learning a new EMT skill, practice and repetition, while modifying it appropriately for each patient, will help you master it faster. The faster you are comfortable with patient assessment skills the better your communication with patients will be.
Communication is also key when filling out-patient care reports and other paperwork. Good EMTs will learn to document concisely using the appropriate medical terminology.
Good verbal communication will always be legible, won’t include opinions, shouldn’t be erased and should use the patient’s words when possible.
EMTs need to translate and communicate what is happened on scene into a clear and concise report for other healthcare workers. The ability to communicate will improve over time with on the job experience.
4. Compassion – Compassion is one of the most important qualities a good EMT must have. Many people are drawn to working as an EMT because of the excitement and many are drawn to it out of a desire to help people. For some people both of these are big motivators for becoming an EMT.
A career in EMS is all about helping people so compassion is a great motivation for working in EMS. If you learn to view each patient with compassion, working as an EMT will be a calling, not a job.
Why is compassion important?
With or without compassion, the patient will get treatment. So why does it even matter?
It matters because sometimes you are just helping people with routine injuries, but sometimes you are helping them through the worst day of their life.
Often this means connecting with people in a deeply personal way during extremely vulnerable moments.
Patients and family members will look to you for courage when they are afraid and they will look to you for hope when they despair.
If you have compassion you will instinctually know how to handle these situations which will baffle others.
Individuals without compassion can treat the physical wounds, but they won’t know how to provide the emotional comfort that patients need in emergency situations.
It takes strength, courage and resilience to show up for other people, especially when you’re having a bad day.
Often these compassionate moments are over looked or under appreciated in EMS, except by the EMT, the patient and the family involved.
Think about it, when is the last time you heard a story about the awesome 911 call where the EMT was able to help support the patient’s mom through a difficult day.
Being compassionate won’t get you any glory, but it will make you a better EMT.
One of the best ways to cultivate compassion at work is to focus on staying present for each call.
Think less about yourself and think more about the patient. Doing this can keep you from worrying about own problems and help you see each patient as a human being.
It’s often overlooked, but in order to show patients compassion for long periods of time, you will need to practice showing yourself compassion.
To stay compassionate at work you will need to be kind and compassionate with yourself. Otherwise you risk becoming indifferent to the suffering of others.
Often being kind to ourselves is one of the most difficult things for EMTs to do.
We may naturally be kind to others, but not to ourselves. In fact, in the beginning it might be painful to show yourself compassion. Feel the pain and push through it, talk to someone, get self-help books if you need to.
Eventually it will get better and you will learn how to treat yourself with kindness and compassion.
5. Good judgement/Decision Making – The ability to make good decisions is critical to being a good EMT. A lot of decision-making will be determined by your training.
However, there will be many situations where you have to rapidly make a judgement call and decide patient care.
In the beginning you won’t always know what to do, and in these situations it’s important to know what you don’t know. At those times your partner can be a great asset.
You have a partner for a reason so don’t be afraid to ask for their opinion when you aren’t sure what to do next.
New EMTs are not expected to know everything and don’t always have to make the right decision.
Rookie EMTs do need good enough judgement to recognize when their decisions can cause harm and to ask for help if they aren’t sure.
Experience on the job will help EMTs learn to make the right decisions over time.