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Leadership Best Practices: The Supervising EMS Officer

This is the first of a three-part series discussing the three prospective levels of EMS officers defined by the National EMS Management Association’s EMS Leadership Agenda Core Competencies project. Those levels are supervising, managing and executive EMS officers. This column discusses the supervising officer; subsequent installments will examine the managing and executive officers. For more see

We can all point to people in our lives who have inspired us and motivated us to great things. We can also point to individuals who have demotivated us, sometimes to the point of defeat. When you think back on those times, what was it that made those individuals so great or so terrible? Did you marvel at how easily they did their job without apparent distress or mistakes, or was the person so incompetent that you felt your own security was at risk? Did you know the person had a good heart and really cared about you, or did you feel they would lie and manipulate facts to spin things their way? How we relate to individuals, especially our direct supervisors, has a direct impact on how well we perform our tasks and fulfill our responsibilities. The front-line EMS supervisor has an incredible ability to influence his or her team and impact performance. Finding the right people for these roles and developing their supervisory skills is an absolute necessity for high-functioning organizations.

The supervising EMS officer who has both solid character and well-developed core competencies can achieve incredible results and portray real leadership. These results are accomplished by being able to influence others and push individuals to new heights by appropriately challenging and encouraging them. In his book The Servant, James Hunter calls this influence authority. Authority is earned and issued to the supervisor by those he supervises. Many new supervisors confuse authority with power. Power is given to the supervisor by someone else who simply placed the supervisor in a supervisory position. Power can achieve compliance and short-term results, but rarely translates into long-term success. Supervisors who try to lead through power rarely survive in EMS. That supervisor often becomes frustrated at what he perceives as his team members’ incompetence, and he rarely realizes the problem lies in his own leadership capabilities. The team often rebels, consciously or subconsciously, and performance suffers. As Gen. George Patton once said, “There are no weak platoons, only weak leaders.”

Great supervisors are easy to point out, but how do you become one? Supervisor performance has been difficult to quantify and measure. The first stage of NEMSMA’s Emergency Medical Services Management and Leadership Development in America: An Agenda for the Future (i.e., Leadership Agenda) called for the development of core leadership competencies. This process is underway, and results should be published later this year. Once the core competencies of the supervising EMS officer have been adopted, standards and expectations must be established. These have already been developed in most organizations. Adopting a well-defined set of values establishes character expectations. Those values must be frequently showcased as the standard of behavior for all employees. The supervisor is critical in ensuring all employees live by the values of the organization. Without this level of accountability, the organization has no chance to fully embrace its strategic direction and accomplish its goals. Values are the cornerstone of every agency.

Standards and expectations also can also be derived from the supervisor’s job description, policies and procedures, and performance expectations. Performance evaluations should outline what is expected of every employee and how well they are achieving it. Supervisor evaluations should include performance indicators, including a 360-degree feedback review from fellow supervisors, the crews under supervision, and administration. This feedback will help the supervisor grow and develop authority within the organization.

Quality measures for supervisors are challenging but not impossible. Some measures can appraise character, while others evaluate competence. Many are similar to field employees’ (e.g., punctuality, sick use or abuse, out-of-service time, clinical skills), but may be graded to a higher standard. Some are more supervisor-specific: for instance, employee recognition and satisfaction, disciplinary actions/grievances, scene management issues, adverse events on shifts, claims, complaints, and task completion/deadlines. In some systems, quality measures such as these may be attributable to individual supervisors, while in other systems a shift comparison analysis may be more prudent. While more research is needed, there is likely a difference in performance among supervisors who exercise authority compared to power.

New supervisors need mentorship and continuous feedback as they learn this new function in EMS. Organizations must fully invest in developing their supervising EMS officers with rigorous training, patience and sincere guidance. Effective leadership and supervision is a skill set we must develop. We in EMS are painfully aware that great clinicians do not always make great supervisors. We’ve learned this by trying to force supervisory careers onto many wonderful clinicians who have failed miserably at them. Do not let the supervisor fail without giving him the tools to succeed. An initial “supervisor academy” and ongoing training must address policies and procedures, human resources, conflict management, scene management, ICS, media relations, and a myriad of other things. Spending several shifts working side-by-side with another supervisor will help the new supervisor get up to speed quickly and learn from an experienced hand.

Supervisors are conduits between administrations and the field. They have the best view of department operations and can make or break organizations. Establishing core competencies, standards and expectations, quality metrics, and quality training will help supervisors develop authority among their crews, improve the morale and performance of their teams, and achieve long-term success for both themselves and the organizations they serve. With the right tools, your supervising EMS officer can achieve greatness among the next generation of EMS providers.


Hunter JC. The Servant. New York: Crown Business, 1998.

National EMS Management Association. Emergency Medical Services Management and Leadership Development in America: An Agenda for the Future. NEMSMA, 2008.

Troy M. Hagen, MBA, EMT-P, is director of Ada County Paramedics in Boise, ID. He has more than 22 years of EMS experience and is president-elect of the National EMS Management Association.


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