Skip to main content

Preparing the Leaders of Tomorrow


Policy: Emergency medical services leaders have traditionally been chosen on experience, with little regard for formal education and training.

Strategy: Leaders of tomorrow need a range of new and different management skills.

Vision: Recruit, select and hire candidates for leadership positions based on education, experience, training and suitability to grow into expanded roles required to lead modern systems.


Scholars have healthy debates over the difference between leadership and management. Local, state and federal governments decline or thrive based on the type of management in place and the absence or presence of leaders. The world of emergency medical services is no different. Modern public-safety managers are a special breed with specific skills. These leaders for the next generation will be very different from those of earlier times.

In Virginia, more than half our fire departments are either partially or completely volunteer.1 A much larger percentage of our EMS agencies are volunteer-based.2 Virginia has a long and distinguished history of volunteers serving their communities and commonwealth. A key point, however, is that due to the nature of the services and serious responsibilities involved in handling EMS and fire calls, volunteers must be professional, and their agencies and departments must be run a comparable manner to their career counterparts. Unlike many other types of volunteers, those who volunteer in EMS and fire services hold lives and the safety of property in their hands. Additionally, unlike many other volunteers, they potentially risk their own lives on every call and shift.

Career EMS agencies, fire-EMS agencies and fire departments face all of the same challenges as their volunteer peers. However, on the career side, added to those challenges are a plethora of legal and human-resource requirements, as well as other “duties as assigned” by their government hosts. Suffice to say, the scope of requirements and expectations of career agencies and departments has expanded exponentially over the years.3

How We Got Here

A snapshot of history is appropriate to fully understand the evolution of the public-safety manager. The term public-safety manager applies to EMS and fire and ranges from the chief, director and president to the command staff, senior staff and line supervisors.

When I began as a member of a volunteer rescue squad in the early 1980s, the president and operations officer (chief) were individuals who were highly trained and skilled in EMS and had worked their way up. Their “day jobs” ranged from things totally unrelated to public safety to medical student and firefighter. Generally they had no formal management training. Their education varied along with their profession.4

These leaders possessed street experience and EMS/fire wisdom. On the career side, chiefs generally were seasoned professionals who also had worked their way up in the fire service or EMS. They had done their time on the street and served in various levels of management. Often, formal management training was minimal or absent. The focus was on technical and operational expertise rather than advanced degrees or human-resources training.5

I served as president of my volunteer rescue squad three times during the 1990s and early 2000s. During those years I also chaired its board of directors and served as training officer and assistant operations chief. My “day job” throughout was serving as an assistant attorney general for the state. In other words, I was a government lawyer who handled criminal appeals. Although I had an advanced degree, I had no formal management training or any other specific training related to human resources. Nevertheless, I served as an officer of the rescue squad several times in a variety of capacities. This was fairly typical of volunteer rescue squads in those days.6

Fast-forward from the 1980s to the 2000s in the evolution of public-safety managers. On the career side, generally speaking, emphasis shifted from field experience in the specific department or agency to an advanced degree and some previous management experience. Field experience still counted, but it did not have to be in that specific locality.

Volunteer organizations also sought managers with more training and practical management experience, as well as individuals who could navigate local government issues. Additionally, fire and EMS expanded to the all-hazards approach, requiring new technical knowledge bases.

Generally, modern public-safety managers of the early 21st century can be described as more advanced in formal education and less homegrown. Some are polished and skilled but lack the years of relevant street experience. Others have both formal education and street experience but limited management training.7 There is a delicate balance associated with this modern manager. One must be careful not to sacrifice street experience for formal education. Yet formal education is necessary in the current climate to lead complex systems.8 These dynamics limit the field but are important for success.

Where to Now?

This history is very general and certainly does not speak to all departments and agencies. Over the years, Virginia and the nation have been blessed with countless phenomenal leaders and exceptional public-safety managers who have distinguished themselves and their departments. These individuals have had different backgrounds, skill sets, educations, personalities and aptitudes. They’ve served within the ranks of volunteers and career services. Yet they were and are great because of who they are, not who they are not.

We should not be so quick to focus on one particular criterion or another when searching for future leaders. EMS and fire services deserve a solid selection process and specific formalized training to cultivate the leaders who will take their disciplines to the next level and ensure the future of public safety is bright.

Modern times call for leaders who possess certain skills beyond higher education and field experience. Now a public-safety manager must be a leader and—whether a chief, director, executive staffer, middle manager, line supervisor or shift commander—possess more than what a job description may require. The leaders of today and the future must be bold, dynamic visionaries who are compassionate and wise. There are several traits and skills that are important for these leaders to possess in order to address the new challenges in public safety.

Team player—Budgets and the nature of modern public-safety issues require partnerships at all levels, so this leader must be able to work with others. He must be comfortable sharing the mantle of leadership with other departments and entities. This modern leader must truly be a team player willing to reach out to other agencies and divisions to accomplish the common goal of ensuring public safety, whether it is a large-scale public event, a natural disaster or a unique incident with the potential to overpower local resources. This leader must be capable of being a force multiplier based upon previously established working relationships.

People person—A modern reality is that public-safety agencies are being asked to do more with less and take on new responsibilities outside the public-safety comfort zone.9 Consequently, this leader must be a negotiator, diplomat and true “people person” in order to motivate personnel and navigate rough, uncharted waters. The skill set necessary to take an organization beyond its regular day-to-day operations is different than that associated with running a paramilitary organization that is structured and reliant on chain of command.

Strategizer—In this day and age, the unfortunate reality is that public-safety entities must vie for scarce funding and survive in a political world. Therefore, this leader must be able to successfully strategize and hold her own in a difficult environment, one that is very foreign to a first responder. This leader must have good common sense but must also be skilled with budgets. She must be clever and persuasive enough to convince an administrator, board or council to provide the funding necessary to operate effectively. This leader must understand when to compromise and when to stand firm. Her primary focus must be the organization and its ability to function properly, not the popularity of its leader.10

Technophile—In modern times, use of advanced technology, social media and other tools of the trade is critical to agencies’ survival and growth.11 Accordingly, the modern public-safety leader must be technologically savvy and understand the importance of information technology and use of new advances. This sounds very basic, but it is often taken for granted when selecting fire and EMS managers.

Marketer—Similarly, the ability to market the organization matters. Until recently marketing was never an important piece of a public-safety resume. Yet in modern times, marketing is a critical skill set for everything from recruitment to retention. A modern leader also must be able to deploy marketing strategies for purposes of funding, public relations, emergency preparedness and morale. Consequently, this leader must be a visionary who knows how to put the best light on the organization and message issues associated with it.12

Orator—Today’s public-safety leader must be a skilled orator. He must be comfortable speaking in a variety of venues. These include press conferences, community meetings, school assemblies and other public forums. This skill set is also not one naturally associated with public safety but is now very important in the era of social media, smart phones, etc. Many departments have public information officers and strong communications teams. That is a positive attribute but does not replace having an articulate leader to represent the agency publicly. Leaders at all levels should be articulate and able to speak for their organization when requested.

Servant—Finally and possibly most important, this leader must be a “servant leader” who possesses genuine compassion and courage. All too often our first responders are injured or killed in the line of duty. Those who serve in EMS and fire are routinely put in harm’s way. They must also deal with the injuries, deaths and tragedies of others, sometimes their colleagues, on a daily basis. Occasionally, due to the nature of what they see and do, they suffer from emotional distress or depression. Their leader must be able to appropriately prevent, assess, handle and mitigate situations resulting from these dynamics. Additionally, the public-safety community responds best to those who have “walked the walk” and are not afraid to get their hands dirty, work hard and perform menial tasks for the good of the organization. All of these attributes are consistent with a servant leader. This is the type of leader most likely to succeed in a public-safety organization and make it strong.

Getting There

The traits identified might seem to amount an unobtainable candidate—a once-in-a-lifetime find. However, in the public-safety arena there are many individuals leading right now who possess all or most of these traits. There are also many of these people among the ranks who have not yet been given the chance to lead. Unfortunately, there are also many of these individuals who have been overlooked or passed by for promotion because they lacked one or more of the traditional criteria, or because they lacked the confidence to “put their name in the hat” for consideration.

Whatever the reason, those in positions to select our emerging leaders should seek out these special people. We should not be afraid to take chances on those who possess the important qualities that have been outlined but do not precisely fit the stereotypical job description.

In addition to finding these special leaders, we need to adequately and aggressively train and mentor new leaders. We must dedicate time and money to provide career development. We must provide formal management training at all levels.13 Even the first-level manager should have some formal training in how to manage people, equipment and budgets. We must encourage those who are new to their public-safety careers and convince them it is worth their time, energy and effort to strive to advance within our profession. We must invest in our human capital. We must provide candid feedback and listen to suggestions and complaints. We also must ensure that those who cannot or should not do the job are removed from their positions or never put there in the first place. This sends an important message: No individual should be in any management position unless he or she deserves it, is qualified for it and is good at it. Lives depend on them.


1. Virginia Fire Service Needs Assessment,
2. Virginia Department of Health Office of Emergency Medical Services. Quarterly Report to the State EMS Advisory Board,
3. Barishansky RM, Kirkwood S. The Four-Year Plan. EMS World,
4. National EMS Management Association. Emergency Medical Services Management and Leadership Development in America: An Agenda for the Future,
5. Ibid.
6. Erich J. A Blueprint for EMS Leadership. EMS World,
7. Op cit., National EMS Management Association.
8. Op cit., Barishansky, Kirkwood.
9. Barishansky RM, Kirkwood S. Graduate Degrees: Are They Worth It for EMS? EMS World,
10. Op cit., National EMS Management Association.
11. Krauss BR. U.S. Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Services. Using Social Media to Market and Promote Public Safety Projects. Issue Brief,
12. Aurnhammer TW. Marketing Your Fire Department. New Mexico Fire Chiefs Association,
13. Pianezza P. Leadership Training. EMS World,

Marla Decker bio TK

Sidebar: EMS Leaders on EMS Leaders

“Many in leadership positions have visions for the future of EMS that involve stronger, more sophisticated organizations delivering more diverse mixes of services to larger that are more than the ‘one-trick ponies’ we’ve seen in the past.”

-Raphael M. Barishansky, Skip Kirkwood, The Four-Year Plan, EMS World

“The development of the emergency medical services manager and leader in America has been scattered, varied, uncoordinated and largely left to the individual and local EMS agency or system. The time has come for a more uniform approach.”

-NEMSMA, Emergency Medical Services Management and Leadership Development in America: An Agenda for the Future

“Early managers learned primarily by doing. There were no textbooks, management associations, training programs or uniformly defined titles. Competency to perform the job was judged by success or failure.”

-NEMSMA, Emergency Medical Services Management and Leadership Development in America: An Agenda for the Future

“Today’s bosses face challenges of patient care, system operations, technology, finance, quality assurance and more. But the problem is, EMS has never really set out to train its leaders right. We’ve never really tried, in any sort of formal, systemized way, to define and instill the knowledge and skills essential to those in EMS leadership positions.”

-John Erich, A Blueprint for EMS Leadership, EMS World

“In EMS, leadership is traditionally given to those with seniority. While this is not always a bad idea, without correct training and mentoring, that person will fail.”

-Patrick Pianezza, Leadership Training, EMS World

“Recent evidence has established that experience in fact makes a difference, so the retention of qualified personnel contributes to the clinical performance of the system.”

-NEMSMA, Emergency Medical Services Management and Leadership Development in America: An Agenda for the Future

“[Firefighters and EMS providers] require the ability to analyze complex situations and systems, describe them in context that outsiders will understand, communicate effectively, think critically and think outside the box. These tools are developed only through education.”

-Raphael M. Barishansky, Skip Kirkwood, The Four-Year Plan, EMS World

“EMS is now competing for scarce resources in a challenging environment—one where those who allocate resources demand proof that money spent will result in an appropriate return. Proof of value requires research, analysis and advocacy—skills learned only in the higher-education environment. If our industry is to effectively meet the challenges of the future, it will need leaders who can work effectively in environments where their ‘competitors’—city, county and state department heads, program directors and other managers—possess graduate academic credentials as a matter of course.”

-Raphael M. Barishansky, Skip Kirkwood, Graduate Degrees: Are They Worth It for EMS?, EMS World

“The EMS officers of today and tomorrow must not only understand EMS systems and operations, they must be skilled in people management and motivation, technology, finance, planning, problem solving and team building. Furthermore, they must be socially conscious, culturally sensitive and know how to manage complex systems in the midst of change and crisis.”

-NEMSMA, Emergency Medical Services Management and Leadership Development in America: An Agenda for the Future

“Social media use by public safety to inform the public about incidents and for agency marketing continues to grow, while use as a project management tool is in its infancy.”

-Benjamin Krauss, U.S. Dept. of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, Using Social Media to Market and Promote Public Safety Projects

Back to Top