About Me

I got into EMS by going to college for photography; my plan was to be a photojournalist who specialized in war/riot/danger photography. One assignment for class was to set up a slide show set to music that told a story. For that, I spent the day with the Lowry Air Force Base fire department. In hindsight, they were either maniacs or badasses. They showed up to work, found an 18 year old kid with a camera, and said “What the hell – let’s light the burn tower and put him in it.” On that day, I learned a few lessons. First, they don’t make a light piece of firefighting equipment. Second, photography in an interior fire is almost impossible without specialized lighting – the contrast between the darkness and the fire is too much for film. On top of that, as soon as the wet stuff hits the hot stuff, steam takes over all the pictures. Finally (and most importantly for me at 18), chicks dig firefighters. So I was sold on becoming a firefighter.

In order to become a firefighter, I discovered that I needed to take an EMT class. So I signed up for the class, but knew that I would not like it. To my mind (20 years old by then), this was just something that I had to do. Silly rules were forcing me to take an EMT class. You could make me take the class but you wouldn’t be able to make me actually enjoy anything about medicine or the class. I was only doing it to increase my chances of being hired as a firefighter. But once I was in the class, I found that I deeply liked EMS. And in hindsight, I was funny – I came out of EMT class thinking that I was ready to really save some lives. I had all of the knowledge. So it actually took a year for me to get that first EMT job – could you believe that people wanted someone with my vast EMT knowledge and incredible skills to begin in an entry level job like a wheelchair van driver?!? 

One way or the other, I finally found that first EMT job in 1997. I dispatched for a small suburban ambulance company that transported for the local ALS fire department. After a few months, I moved to the wheelchair van and after a few months of that I moved to an ambulance with a paramedic partner. It was a great place to actually begin to learn EMS skills and knowledge. I found that the EMT class did not especially prepare me for the work expected of an ambulance EMT. It was actually my first partners who taught me what I needed to know. I would not have had the success that I have found in my career without those first partners who cared enough to teach an EMT. [Columbine shout out – you all know who you are.] A few major lessons from that time were that riding backwards on a fire truck wasn’t as nice as being in the heated front seat of an ambulance, in control of the stereo. I also learned that I preferred EMS to firefighting. And finally, I found that I am personally not a fan of working on the transport ambulance for a non-transporting ALS fire department.

One of the most ironic points about my career is that I met the lady who would become my wife just before I took that first EMT job. I actually met her when I was bartending, waiting for an EMS service to recognize my life-saving genius. In any case, the ironic thing is that she doesn’t care in the least about my job. I began my EMS journey because chicks dig firemen, and then met and married a chick who doesn’t care what I do to earn a living one way or the other. 

I went to paramedic school in 1998, so I had spent about two years as an EMT. In 1999, as the suburban fire department began to transport and the call volume of my company fell, I was hired by the Denver Health Paramedic Division. Between then and now, I have worked in every position outside of Chief for at least one shift. I have also worked in every duty assignment, including as a field trainer, dispatcher, airport medic, TEMS medic, bike medic, and so on. I was also a lieutenant, QA Coordinator, and captain. I’ve even worked a shift on the detox van. I have taught ECG classes for the last 10 years or so, along with other EMS-related topics. More importantly, I have made every mistake possible for a paramedic to make, either on calls, career choices, partner choices, etc.

Thinking back, I have run almost every kind of call that can be run in Colorado EMS. That is to say, I haven’t run a jellyfish envenomation – I’m in Colorado, after all. And you can’t get too specific: I have run animal maulings, but I haven’t run a bear attack specifically, let alone a bear attack on a Tuesday for example. But I have seen attacks by dogs, cats, deer, mountain lions, and so on. I even ran a pig bite once. The only calls that I haven’t run are a lightning strike and a rattlesnake bite. It is weird that I have run about 10,000 calls, lightning strikes aren’t all that uncommon here, I have run electrocuted patients, I’ve almost been hit by lightning myself a few times, and I have never found myself caring for a patient who was actually hit by lightning. The way calls fall can be weird sometimes. By the way, I’m waiting for a scuba diver cleaning the tanks at the aquarium to be bitten by a shark – I really, really want to run the first shark attack in Denver. 

Realizing that EMS secretly stands for “earn money studying,” I earned a bachelor’s degree in history while sitting in the front seat of an ambulance. I picked history because I like history and the degree was easier than the chemistry degree. After that, I earned a master’s degree in public administration with a concentration in emergency management. The MPA degree is the closest that I could get to a master’s in paramedicine. I think it probably helped me to get a position as one of the captains for the Denver Paramedics, and I held that position for four or five years. My job was to function as the Division QA Coordinator and manage the Division’s operational data reporting. It was a crash course in EMS administration. The nicest thing about that job was that I was involved in most of the decisions made by the agency’s management, due to my role as the reporter of the operational data. I could also manage the clinical quality assurance with the point of view of a 10-year paramedic. Finally, it was phenomenal to work closely with the medical directors to learn their point of view on a day-to-day basis.

After that chunk of office time, I felt that I needed a break. I was beginning to hate office work and really missed working as a street paramedic. So I made the hard choice to demote.  It was the best decision that I have made in a long time. I find myself happy, engaged, challenged, and content. After about five more years on the streets of Denver, I made another great decision. I reluctantly left the Denver Paramedics for a paramedic position with the Eagle County (CO) Paramedics. I am still in Denver intermittently, but my main job now is to exercise atrophied muscles unused to rural settings and long transport times.

But I miss being able to help other paramedics in their careers. Not to sound immodest, but there aren’t many paramedics with master’s degrees who have run the call volume that I have, plus have experience in urban, suburban, rural, and critical care EMS. I feel like it is my obligation to pay back the paramedics who touched my career by helping others. As a field trainer, I can only touch one medic at a time. Through this blog I can communicate with as many people as who read an article. I hope it helps you, even if only to think about a topic more deeply than you otherwise would have. Enjoy.

-Bill Johnston