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Catching Up With Drew Dawson

Drew Dawson, a pioneer in the field of emergency medical services, is back home these days in Boulder, Mont., the town where he launched his career back in the late 1960s. Over his nearly 50-year career in the field, he served as Montana’s state EMS director, led the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Office of EMS in Washington, D.C., chaired the National Association of State EMS Directors (now Officials), and was interim executive director for the National Registry of EMTs (NREMT).

Now retired from EMS, Dawson felt he could still put his talents to work in a governmental role and last fall was elected to a four-year term on the Boulder City Council. Boulder is a small community of about 1,440 people, and when Dawson returned home after his one-year stint with NREMT, the community was under some economic difficulties. Most of the major employers had left, and Dawson wanted to become involved in helping the community rebound. His EMS, health, and leadership background enabled him to quickly assume a leadership role in the community.

“I also wanted to help with some long-range planning, which in turn led me to believe I was trying to do a lot of work from the outside in to improve our community,” he says. “But there’s a certain amount I realized had to be done by local government to improve the economic viability of the community.”

That fueled his decision to run for city council. While his primary focus is on improving the town’s economy, Dawson believes local government can also help improve a community’s EMS system.

“Of course that varies from place to place,” he says. “To help stimulate and cultivate EMS, we need to help create an environment in which EMS can grow, encourage its development, and, to the extent we can, help fund them and encourage innovation in EMS on a communitywide basis.”

A ‘Somewhat Painful’ Transition

Dawson first became involved in EMS as a volunteer for the Boulder Ambulance Service. He was originally trained as a clinical psychologist at the University of Colorado and University of North Dakota.

At that time in the late 1960s, few people had EMT training, and ambulances were not properly equipped. Dawson eventually underwent advanced first aid training and transitioned to an emergency medical technician.

“There were no state requirements for training,” he says. “What stands out to me during that time is the transition of no training to advanced first aid training and the somewhat painful transition to EMT training.”

Dawson remembers trying to convince the community that EMT training for an ambulance service was a good and necessary thing.

“This was about the same time conversations about the importance of training were taking place on a state and national level,” he recalls. “While it was recognized that the culture of EMS in the community and state needed to change, there were still some physicians and nurses who were not convinced that change in EMS was necessary.”

Fortunately that mind-set yielded, he notes. Ultimately there was a move toward in-depth training and national certification in Montana.

Dawson later ended up working for the state of Montana’s office of emergency medical services, where he was able to be more of an influence statewide. He eventually became the state’s EMS director and was instrumental in helping other states build their EMS systems as well.

“I fell in love with EMS by first providing patient care to friends and visitors in a small community,” he says. “I had a passion for it and wanted to do more on a state, national, and federal level.”

The Most for the Money

On a national level, one of the biggest changes in Dawson’s career was the move toward national standards in EMS education and scope of practice.

“We saw more efforts to better standardize across the nation as well as national EMS education, certification, and accreditation,” he says.

After spending 32 years in Montana state government working predominantly in EMS and public health, Dawson reached a point where he was able to retire. However, NHTSA had different plans for him. He was contacted about the open director of EMS position and encouraged to apply.

“It was a competitive position, and I thought it would be interesting to try an opportunity at the federal level,” says Dawson. “I didn’t have anything holding me back in Montana, so I made the trek to Washington, D.C., which was a lifestyle change for me as well.”

He enjoyed working on the federal level, particularly working collaboratively with other federal agencies.

“We had a great program at NHSTA but not a lot of dollars,” he says. “One of the opportunities we had was trying to maximize the ability to manage EMS programs with a fairly limited amount of dollars. We maximized our output with a great deal of cooperation and coordination among the federal agencies with national organizations. The opportunity was to coordinate with other agencies and national policy partners to better utilize resources.”

Throughout his career Dawson was involved in many major initiatives, including establishing professional and effective standardized training and education aimed at elevating standards nationwide. 

“In terms of trying to solidify some of the opinions of the national EMS community, which was a challenge, we turned that into an opportunity by creating the National EMS Advisory Council,” he says. “This allowed us to share the opinions and recommendations of the EMS community and a variety of position statements for the federal government.”

To deal with the challenges of working with multiple federal agencies, Dawson helped form the Federal Interagency Committee on Emergency Medical Services (FICEMS), which was an opportunity for all the federal agencies to collaborate more effectively.

“Through this agency we really helped stimulate a movement for the use of evidence-based guidelines in EMS,” Dawson says.

Although he was with the NREMT for a short period, he was able help grow the registry as the national certification agency for the industry, a component of the national EMS Education Agenda for the Future.

“It was fun to help continue to educate others about the role of national EMS certification in the nation’s EMS system,” he says. “I also enjoyed getting to know the people at the National Registry and better understand the intricacies of a national certification agency. I felt I knew a fair amount of EMS, but I didn’t know as much about the intricacies of a national certification agency. It was a phenomenal experience.”

What’s Right for the Patient

As he looks back on his time in EMS, Dawson calls it a wonderful journey with a terrific group of people at all levels—local EMS providers, local government officials, state government officials, legislatures, federal government employees, Congress, and national partners.

“I view EMS as a family, and I hope others view it as a family as well,” he says. “If we continue to consider it as family and work together and not have contentious but cooperative relationships, others will have the same career satisfaction in EMS as I had in many years in that career.”

His best advice for others in the profession is simple: Always keep your focus on what is best for the patient. “If we take a step or two back and ask ourselves what is right for the patient, we will never go astray.

“I suspect EMS will be more integrated with healthcare in the future,” he adds. “I hope it will enjoy higher visibility and continue to be more patient-centric. But I hope we also don’t forget about our public safety focus.”

Daniel Casciato is a freelance writer and social media consultant from Pittsburgh, Pa. He makes his living writing about health, law, social media, and technology. Follow him on Twitter at @danielcasciato. 


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