In the service of humankind
The shortage of skills in the emergency services sector, together with the stressful working conditions, makes it a difficult environment in which to work. But those who see this career as a calling would not be happy anywhere else.
Jill Lithgow, education, training and development manager at ER24 EMS, is passionate about her profession, the furthering of education and development within the industry, and delivering service excellence.
She started her career in 1999 as a volunteer with Benoni Fire and Emergency Services, where she completed her basic and intermediate levels of training before taking on a full-time role and progressing to the advanced level.
“I was fortunate enough to be selected by Rotary to take part in a vocational exchange programme that took me to the Midwest of the United States, where I was able to spend time with my American colleagues,” Lithgow recalls. On her return, she began working as a paramedic for local government and progressed to a management position.
“I then joined ER24, where I worked as clinical governance manager before I was promoted to education, training and development manager in June this year,” she says.
Lithgow believes the shortage of skills remains a challenge for the entire emergency services industry, where there are three different skill levels of Practitioner: basic; intermediate and advanced. “The shortage of skills on intermediate and advanced levels is definitely more serious,” she says, “something which is exacerbated by the fact that many of our advanced life support paramedics are leaving South Africa to work overseas, where they are paid higher salaries.”
According to Lithgow, exposure to high levels of stress is also a key part of the staffing problem, with many practitioners leaving the service as a result of burn out or post-traumatic stress disorder. She says the skills shortage is, to an extent, addressed through training, but much still has to be done.
“Training is offered in great abundance at entry level, but fewer academies offer intermediate level training, and even fewer provide instruction on an advanced level. The only other option is to do a four-year degree programme, which is, by-and-large, inaccessible to most basic practitioners. We also have a two-year certificate course, but, again, it is not always accessible to the working basic practitioner.”
She believes a further problem is that the Health Professions Council of South Africa is committed to ending the short courses that are being offered to emergency services professionals. “This will further contribute to the skills shortage and it concerns me a great deal,” Lithgow says.
“The content of the short courses on basic, intermediate and advanced levels should be revised, rather than closing down this option,” Lithgow stresses. “Individuals should be allowed to develop in the academic stream of the higher education institutions, as well as undertake occupation-specific training offered in the form of the short courses.
“At ER24 we have just received accreditation to run the mid-level intermediate life support practitioner course and we currently have 11 learners under instruction. We run in-service refresher programmes at all levels to ensure our staff remain up-to-date on current trends in emergency medical care. Our academy also has a professional skills academy that offers post-graduate professional training on all levels.”
Lithgow says this includes training for doctors and nurses in advanced cardiac life support, paediatric advanced life support, pre-hospital trauma life support, international trauma life support, and critical care transportation, which incorporates ICU and aviation medicine.
The academy also has a paediatric first aid course, as well as a commercial training division that provides tailor-made first aid, fire and OSH training to the corporate environment. All courses are accredited both locally and internationally.
Lithgow is enthusiastic about life in the emergency services, which she says can offer a varied career. “Those who are interested in doing something different can consider becoming a firefighter, an emergency medical technician, a public education and information officer, a paramedic or a fire officer. The sector is diverse and there are many avenues that you can branch into once you are qualified.”
Overall, she’s happy with her career choice. “We see the very best and the very worst that human nature has to offer. No two days are the same and every call is unique. You have the honour and the privilege to serve your fellow man in an hour of need.
“The hours are long and the job is rewarding, although it can also be very difficult. That’s why it needs to be a passion and a calling – it could never be just a job,” she concludes.