High-Performance EMS: 10 Ways to Build Effective Community Relations


High-Performance EMS: 10 Ways to Build Effective Community Relations

By Rob Lawrence May 26, 2017

This is the sixth in a yearlong series of articles developed by the Academy of International Mobile Healthcare Integration (AIMHI) to help educate EMS agencies on the hallmarks and attributes of high-performance/high-value EMS system design and operation. For more on AIMHI, visit www.aimhi.mobi.

Rob Lawrence & Matt Zavadsky are featured speakers at EMS World Expo, Oct. 16–20, in Las Vegas, NV.

Next to human capital, community trust is one of the most valuable assets for an EMS agency. Building your agency’s community trust takes a concentrated effort and a specific strategy. Richmond Ambulance Authority and MedStar Mobile Healthcare are two examples of AIMHI member agencies that have developed robust community relations. Here are our top 10 strategies to help you build community trust.

1. Deliver Rock-Solid Service

All the PR in the world will not help you if you routinely have service failures. While response times (the historical service benchmark used by most communities) have been proven to have minimal to no impact on patient outcomes, they do have a customer experience impact. Response times that are exceptionally long are typically the source of complaints and even news articles. For example, you can meet or exceed a 90% fractile response time standard and be “late” to 10% of the calls. However, if one of those 10% is a 19-minute response time to an injured child in a public place, it’s likely to cause enough angst to prompt a phone call to an elected official, or your local “I-Team” reporter. In Fort Worth, MedStar has focused on minimizing extended response times by geographically positing units in parts of our service area that are hard to reach, which arguably goes against the standard practice of high-performance EMS of dynamically posting units to cover predicted call volume. This practice has essentially reduced MedStar’s response time complaints to zero.

2. Know Your Community

All politics are local. Knowing the landscape is essential to building community trust. What are the healthcare needs of the community? What are the key organizations to join and support? Are the cell phone numbers of the hospital CEOs, nursing directors, city council members, local important non-profit directors and the assignment desks of your local media outlets programmed into your phone? Do you belong to the local chambers of commerce, send representatives from your organization to your local leadership programs? This type of community involvement and volunteerism keeps you aware of things happening in the community that you or your organization could support. More important, this involvement helps build relationships with local leaders whom you can partner with for community benefit.

3. Create a Community Advisory Board

Following the advice above, invite local leaders to become part of a community advisory board for your organization. This group could periodically meet at your facility to learn what’s happening with your agency. You can also seek their advice and counsel about ways your agency can partner with the community. MedStar started a CAB several years ago comprised of representatives from local hospitals, chambers of commerce, homeless services agencies, Salvation Army, Meals on Wheels, interfaith council, Area Agency on Aging, United Way, Red Cross and other similar organizations. The agency typically hosts a breakfast meeting twice a year, and through these meetings, learns about things the agency can do for the homeless and homebound, elderly residents of our community.

4. Conduct an EMS Citizen’s Academy

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Many police and fire agencies conduct citizen’s academies designed to educate residents about the rigors, challenges and benefits of their agencies. If you are a stand-alone EMS agency (i.e., not part of a police or fire department), you can host and conduct an EMS academy for your residents. Some of the things participants can learn are the structure and governance of your EMS system and how you deploy resources. They can also learn CPR and first aid, try to start IVs and do intubations, go on ride-alongs with ambulances and sit with your communications team plugged into the phone console listening to 9-1-1 calls. The Richmond Ambulance Authority (RAA) partners with its police department to provide “EMS Night,” when the attendees get a hands-only CPR class and an understanding of how emergency medical response works. The EMS night can be delivered in English or Spanish, depending on the audience. In addition, RAA also operates an annual youth academy.

5. Be Accessible for the Media

We’ve heard from many EMS leaders that they have a difficult relationship with their local media. While writing press releases, conducting media interviews and allowing the media to do ride-alongs can be nerve-wracking, the media can be a powerful partner in your community relations strategy. News always happens. Knowing what and how to let your local media outlets know about breaking news can be invaluable. It is always important to keep patient-protected information HIPAA-compliant. There are general newsworthy events you can communicate to your local media. Equally important is your availability for requests for media information. The best way is to have a 24/7 public information officer with a well-known phone number and e-mail address for the media to reach.
Another way to be a good media partner is to have a list of media ideas handy. It is not unusual for a reporter to call on slow news days and ask if there is anything they can report on as their deadline approaches. Ideas to keep on hand include new equipment, interesting call types, seasonal stories such as heat- or cold-related emergencies, or even human interest stories about EMS agency team members.

6. Leverage the Power of Social Media

One of the most powerful tools in your communications arsenal is social media. Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are effective platforms to share information about your agency. The key is followers, and you develop them by posting timely, relevant and useful information your local community members find valuable. Examples could include health and safety tips, healthcare-related items of interest, or just fun facts. MedStar recently used social media to conduct an AED scavenger hunt during National Heart Month. Local media participated with announcements and information on how to report found AED locations using Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. This resulted in the locating of over 100 AEDs and dramatically increased the number of MedStar followers.

7. Host Community Benefit Events

By combining your community relations, social media and traditional media prowess, you can host blood drives, blood pressure screenings and other community benefit events. MedStar recently hosted a bone marrow registry drive at its facility. Local media supported the event by broadcasting the date, time and location leading up to the event. MedStar employees and community members came to the event in support of the effort. Media outlets then reported the results from the event. RAA hosts a “big push” campaign to teach hands-only CPR—anytime, anywhere and in any language. RAA discovered that the most successful way to train many citizens is to take CPR on the road and deliver it to churches, youth groups, community organizations and the biggest travelling event of the year—National Night Out. The visibility that participation brings is worth every minute spent.

8. Share Outcome Dashboards

The healthcare system is moving from volume to value. EMS needs to prepare for that by finding outcome metrics that are meaningful and reportable. One of the first performance-based outcome metrics hospitals were accountable for was patient experience. If you are not tracking patient satisfaction scores, start now! If you are, publish the reports on your website and through social media. You should even build an e-mail distribution list of local stakeholders so you can share the reports electronically. In addition to patient experience reports, you can track and publish meaningful outcomes the community will understand, such as cardiac arrest survival, scene times for trauma patients and even spikes in certain types of calls.

9. Publish Annual Reports

Annual reports, both in person and in print, can be powerful tools. They summarize pertinent and notable achievements by your agency over the past year. Printed reports can include fun facts, photos of your team members in action or doing community benefit events, and other contributions throughout the year. Include comments from patients that you glean from patient experience surveys, or thank-you notes from patients and families. A good time of year to provide in-person reports is during National EMS Week. You can request a proclamation for your area’s governmental agencies, and at the meeting you will be presented with the proclamation and can give an annual update about your agency.

10. Host EMS-Themed Birthday Parties

Who doesn’t like a good party, especially if it’s unique and educational? Parents can be very competitive when it comes to finding memorable birthday parties for their kids, so why not consider a “Junior Paramedic Party”? Imagine an ambulance with safety clowns, coloring books with safety information, toy stethoscopes and even junior paramedic badge stickers. Kids can learn important safety and first aid information while being entertained by the safety clowns. The parents will get gold stars from their kids and other parents for an innovative and fun way to celebrate birthdays!

Sweeping Up the Media

Have you ever wondered why TV news stations in your local area seem to field big stories, high investigative drama and heart-wrenching tales at certain times of the year? The timing of most of these releases is far from accidental as TV stations, while syndicated to major networks, are franchised out to media management companies and their viewer ratings are hugely important to them. To measure how well a TV and news station is doing, certain periods of the year are designated as the “sweeps.” During this time, audience viewing figures are determined using the Nielsen audience measurement system. Information collection devices are placed in selected homes and viewing habits are measured.

Against this backdrop, stations plan sweeps campaigns and work in the preceding months to prepare their stories before “teasing” them—giving snippets of the story to increase viewer interest and subsequent ratings. To be on the right side of a sweeps story, follow all the advice offered in the main article and work with your local stations to provide a great story that helps both them and you. Reuniting crews with a cardiac arrest survivor attracts attention and attests to the professionalism and credibility of your organization. For a harder hit, facilitate a ride-along for reporters and attach a number of GoPro-type cameras to a vehicle to record how other road users interact with a vehicle responding with lights and sirens. Sweeps dates for the next 12 months:

  • June 29–July 26, 2017        
  • October 26–November 22, 2017
  • February 1–February 28, 2018   
  • April 26–May 23, 2018

The Word on the Street

Five years ago at the Richmond Ambulance Authority, a staff welfare meeting raised the issue of improving internal communications, as staff felt they weren’t fully informed about what was occurring in the organization. As a result, for the following week, the RAA team undertook to publish one piece of news a day. The format was simple, two paragraphs and a few photos contained in a PowerPoint slide that was then printed and published at eight locations around the RAA headquarters. The PR team realized that there was so much to share that the project continued beyond that first week.

With RAA’s eventual expansion into social media via Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, WOTS became a cornerstone of not only its internal communication strategy, but external as well. The daily news has attracted readers and followers from all over the world. The successful format of two paragraphs and photos has not changed, although the challenge for the contributors and WOTS editor is to be succinct.

Staff are encouraged to submit stories and ideas to WOTS. To assist them, an e-mail address was created to allow them to send in (non-HIPAA) photos of their daily activities to supply fresh images for both WOTS and other RAA-related reports and presentations. Over time, the keen photographic eye of some staff has resulted in their work being used in various publications.


Interested in learning more from industry leaders like Rob Lawrence and Matt Zavadsky? They are just two of the many speakers at the Pinnacle EMS Leadership Forum, August 7–11 in Boca Raton, FL. Pinnacle provides forward-looking content for EMS leaders in an intimate, relaxed environment that encourages networking with colleagues and faculty, allowing EMS executives and chiefs to learn from each other and from thought leaders in public safety and healthcare. Visit pinnacle-ems.com to view the entire program and take advantage of the early registration discount before June 26.

Rob Lawrence, MCMI, is the chief operating officer of the Richmond Ambulance Authority. Previously he held the same position with the English county of Suffolk as part of the East of England Ambulance Service. He serves as affiliate faculty with the Department of Health Administration, School of Allied Health Professions at Virginia Commonwealth University and is an EMS World editorial advisory board member.

Matt Zavadsky, MS-HSA, EMT, is the chief strategic integration officer at MedStar Mobile Healthcare, the exclusive emergency and nonemergency EMS/MIH provider for Fort Worth and 14 other cities in North Texas He has helped guide the implementation of several innovative programs with healthcare partners that have transformed MedStar into a mobile integrated healthcare provider. He is an EMS World editorial advisory board member.


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