Recruiting and Retaining EMS Professionals With Michael Furrh of Colorado County EMS

Michael Furrh (center) speaking on employee recruitment and retention at EMS EVOLUTION 2019.

Michael Furrh is the director of Colorado County Emergency Medical Services (CCEMS) in Columbus, Texas.

CCEMS was established in 1972 to bring pre-hospital care to citizens through a volunteer format.  Throughout the years and evolution of EMS, Colorado County EMS now boasts a paid staff of 22. The agency is a BLS (Basic Life Support) with MICU (Mobile Intensive Care Unit) capable provider.

CCEMS responds to approximately 3,200 calls a year and covers approximately 1,000 square miles of southeast Texas. It has three stations and provides four staffed ambulances a day in Columbus, Eagle Lake, and Weimar.  CCEMS also serves Columbus Community Hospital and Rice Medical Center (Eagle Lake) for their emergency transfers of patients to a higher level of care in Austin, Houston, or other surrounding facilities.

Michael spoke on the topic of recruiting and retaining EMS professionals at the Texas EMS Alliance’s EMS EVOLUTION 2019. He also serves as the program co-chair for EMS EVOLUTION 2020.

The following is a Q&A that TEMSA recently conducted with Michael regarding his experience with recruiting and recruiting EMS professionals at Colorado County EMS.

TEMSA: As a somewhat rural EMS agency, what types of challenges have you witnessed when it comes to recruiting and retaining employees?

Michael Furrh: Recruitment is obviously the first step. It starts with public relations. The community HAS to see you and your team out and about around your service area. If you only respond when requested, a very small amount of your citizens will only know you when they call, and they won’t actually get to know the real you. Recruitment also is built with your local junior colleges or programs offering EMT through Paramedic courses. You must convince your staff that the students coming into your house to do clinicals are the same people who are eventually replacing us in our profession. Once they truly understand and buy into that, then they seem to take their time with every student that walks through the door and are more than enthusiastic in teaching the up and coming medics. Nine times out of ten, most students take an application with them after their last clinical. As a chief, you always have to realize that we as a department are also on a job interview when students walk through our doors.

TEMSA: What have you all done to both recruit and retain employees in Colorado County?

Michael Furrh: Recruitment starts with a vision. What do you want to see from your department? We all have our agenda/vision of what that looks like, but what do the community and your employees need? We started by investing time and money into our equipment. Think back to when you were on an ambulance full time, what was most important to you? Equipment! Next came pay. Colorado County doesn’t pay the most compared to some of the surrounding agencies, and it’s always been my goal to stay “in the middle of the road.” I also make sure that I explain our county benefits package to each employee that are new hires with our organization. Most younger employees don’t understand just how much the county invests in them, so I make sure I put dollars and cents into my explanations. Health insurance, retirement, vacation days, etc. when you show them that this is easily an extra $20,000 worth of benefits, they then understand. We also make it very apparent that you will be challenged in our rural setting, sometimes going through three to four protocols per patient, depending on transport times. On top of that, we have ventured into the rescue portion. We are beginning to stand up a swift water/high water rescue team, as well as a drone program, which is an asset that is critical in our county. But it also offers a potential employee something else to look forward to that other services in our area just can’t compare.

Retention starts on their first day and is never-ending. I like to keep my employees involved and assigned to different tasks. We have supervisor and FTO positions that are available, and I felt these positions were very important in retention. We’ve all worked at services that didn’t have positions to promote to until someone retired, and that creates a stagnant work environment for a progressive employee. Personally, I also do not promote solely on tenure, and that is well known in our organization. I promote based on hard work, ethics, and integrity. We also have assigned other tasks to responsible employees, such as fleet maintenance and monitor / IV pump maintenance. Last but not least, share your vision with your employees and don’t always hold every card so close to your chest. I make it known to our staff that this is THEIR service, and I am nearly here to coach/guide and try to make their visions come to fruition if possible.

TEMSA: Have you all connected with younger people, such as what we are seeing with EMS Explorer programs?

Michael Furrh: We had some work to do to our department when I came on board almost four years ago. We had to overhaul our SOPs & clinical care guidelines. We had to invest some time and money into our fleet and equipment, and we had a HUGE public relations mountain to climb. We’ve come a long way in four years, and the community supports our open-door policy. We now have that behind us and are getting into our schools for career days, CPR and stop the bleed programs. We also support any kid who thinks they may want to be in EMS coming for a ride-along to see if this is maybe something they’d still want to do. We also have an open house every May during EMS week that we host at our main station in Columbus. We invite the community and especially the kids to come out, meet us, see our equipment, and the PHI Med 7 helicopter as well as eat some dinner. This has been a huge success not only for the community as a whole but exposing our profession to the next generation of potential providers.

TEMSA: What recommendations would you have for other EMS agencies?

Michael Furrh: So many things to talk about on this topic and so many more I learn every week, but I will share with you what I’ve picked up through the years.

Even though the position of Chief is appointed, it should feel a bit political. You HAVE to get out to your community so they understand that you’re not just a bunch of “ambulance drivers.” By doing this, you’re showing your employees you support them and their mission, and you’re also showing your judge/commissioners, council/mayor, or board of directors that you support them and the organization as a whole.

Be open with your employees with as much as you can. This is a fine line you have to walk. I genuinely have an open door policy and will talk to my employees about both business and personal matters. I feel as if they trust me enough to share some issues they may be having, then the least I could do is oblige their request. However, always keep in mind a chain of command when dealing with these situations. By investing time into your employees, they will, in turn, invest time into you and the service.

ASK FOR HELP. I literally spent the first two months in other Chiefs’ offices asking for input, sharing information, and looking for guidance. I was pleasantly surprised by how welcoming all of them were, and if you look at our service today, we are a little bit of everyone around us. You’ll be surprised by how many lifelong friends you’ll meet by merely stepping out of your office. This also will help your service from not “reinventing the wheel.”

Make sure to say “thank you” to your employees and the community. Just that simple gesture goes a long way in both departments. True EMS professionals always say it’s not about the money. Well, it is to a certain extent, but it’s really about the “thanks” that we get that really keeps us going. So let them know you appreciate them!

Last but not least, don’t eat the elephant in one bite. Get your employees involved, hear their vision. Find the strong points in your employees and delegate. Put some trust into them and hold them accountable. You’ll more than likely be pleasantly surprised by what you can accomplish as a service if you just trust your providers.