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How to Successfully Process Failure as an EMT

Failure. It’s a word that brings with it feelings of disappointment, frustration, and powerlessness. But it doesn’t have to be that way. 

As EMTs, potential job failure is something we face each time we go out on a call, but if we learn how to accept failure, properly process our emotions, and grow from our experiences, we can become better emergency responders. Failure can fuel us to provide the highest level of care to each patient we come in contact with on the job.  

How do we talk about failure in EMS?

At its most basic definition, failure simply means “a lack of success.” However, in our competitive society, we have given failure a deeper and much more lasting meaning. Nationally recognized emergency medical services leader Chris Cebollero remembers his mother saying, “Failure is the worst F-word ever used to describe us or our lack of accomplishments. If you say it, and truly believe you’re a failure, that’s what you will become.” 

How we talk about failure matters. If we label ourselves as failures, we start ourselves toward further negative outcomes and mental health risks. If we instead recognize and accept the negative and try to learn from the experience, we can set ourselves up for further success. 

As first responders, building resilience is crucial to our mental and emotional health. Learn more about how to successfully process difficult experiences on the job in our online courses or our free webinar, “Building Resilience as First Responders: A Complete Approach.”

How do we process undesirable outcomes?

As EMS professionals, it is important that we remember that people call us when they need the most help. We offer them hope in traumatic times, and we provide care that others simply are not able to give. 

Unfortunately, we’re not perfect, and we’re not superhuman. Even when we do our best and perform our duties perfectly, negative outcomes happen. We still lose patients, and it’s normal and healthy to feel sad, angry, and deflated after such experiences. 

The first step to processing undesirable outcomes is to accept that our feelings are valid and that feeling these emotions is a sign that we are invested in the care that we give. 

Next, it’s time to take back the power. Recognize that you will make mistakes and errors every single day of your career. These moments should be viewed as opportunities for learning and growth. Don’t forget your mistakes. Instead, let them fuel your mission to help others. Forgive yourself for what has happened in the past and work to move forward.

As you move forward, be sure to talk with coworkers and team leaders to find practical ways to improve and avoid mistakes in the future. While it can be intimidating to speak to supervisors about experiences you might view as failures, your insights may be crucial to improving current department processes and protocols that could save lives in your community.

It can also be helpful to talk through the incident and your feelings. You can sit down and discuss it with your team members, with a loved one, or even with yourself. Throughout these conversations, remember to practice self-compassion. Think about what you would say to a friend or team member in the same situation, and be kind. 

Other things you can do to help process a moment of failure include: 

  • Exercise
  • Eat a good meal 
  • Do something relaxing or a hobby you enjoy
  • Volunteer and serve
  • Get outdoors
  • Listen to or play music
  • Yoga or meditation

Learn how you best de-stress and decompress so that when future stressful or challenging moments arise in your career, you’ll have the tools to handle them.

How to set goals for the future.

After you have accepted and processed the emotions that come with a negative outcome, it’s time to set goals for the future. What did you learn from this experience that can be applied to future calls? Was a mistake made that could be avoided through best practices or different protocols? How can you communicate better as a team as you care for your patients?

Continuing education is another essential tool that will help you obtain your goals and find success in your career. Whether you are looking for an entire EMT refresher or a few stand-alone courses to refresh your skills, there are online options that can easily fit into your life and schedule. Making your education continuous and consistent will help you stay at your best for your patients.

Remember, failure isn’t permanent. When we work to learn and grow from our experiences, we can enjoy greater EMT success. 


Building Resiliency in First Responders—A Complete Approach
Resources for When You’ve Become Desensitized as an EMT
Taking Care of Your Mental Hygiene as a Firefighter