EMS Partners

Three crew members with PHI Air Medical walk to a helicopter.

'It's not an entry-level job': PHI medics rack up critical experience

Joshua Wysocki always dreamed of being a flight paramedic.

“Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve always found helicopters fascinating,” he said. “We don’t have to deal with traffic. We can get our patient really far, really fast. We have a lot of tools and a lot of protocols that we can utilize, and it’s a great job to be able to help your patient.”

Wysocki, a critical-care paramedic with PHI Air Medical Inc., had the right mix of well-rounded experience to get hired.

“I worked on the ambulance as an EMT for a few years, and then I worked on the ambulance as a paramedic for about five years,” Wysocki said. “Then I transitioned into the emergency department.”

He took a job as a paramedic in a hospital emergency department for about a year during the coronavirus pandemic. Then he worked in the ICU for a few months before going back on an ambulance as a critical-care paramedic. He’s been with PHI for one year.

“It’s not an entry-level job,” said Bryan Dean, PHI Air Medical Base supervisor at Ellington Airport and Wysocki’s boss.

The base is one of three that PHI operates in the Houston-Galveston area. The Ellington base has one helicopter with four nurses, three paramedics and four pilots. A team of a nurse, a paramedic and a pilot work 24-hour shifts together. The base gets about three requests a day.

Dean, who has been with PHI for eight years, worked as a paramedic for 25 years on the ground. He was at a critical-care paramedic class when an old friend who worked for PHI suggested a change.

“Why don’t you come and fly with us?” she asked him. He decided to do it.

Experience is critical

Before PHI interviews a paramedic candidate to work on a helicopter crew, the company first looks at the resume for years of critical-care experience.

“For paramedics, it’s hard to get a lot of different types of experience,” Wysocki said. “We are usually pretty limited to the ambulance or being a firefighter. But to get a job in the air medical field, I think having as much of a well-rounded idea of the medical field is super important because we do so many different specialties.

“Just having one perspective of ambulance emergency 911, it can be a little limited,” he said. “But if you have more experience, then you have a well-rounded, three-dimensional view of what’s going on and what your patients might need.”

Nurse Ashleigh Smith began at PHI in 2022. About eight years before that, she started out in a hospital ICU and then transitioned to the ER.

“I started moving into administration, and not to say I wasn’t happy, but it’s not where I wanted to be,” Smith said. “I didn’t think even with my experience that I was ready to apply for a flight job. I got the certifications that I needed for the entry-level position and applied. It was tough. It was a tough process.”

She had the experience, but she also had a lot of intense training in her new career field. And the training doesn’t stop. Keeping certifications updated and running through scenarios at the start of her shift keeps her on her toes.

Always training

On a morning in late December at the Ellington base, Smith and Wysocki worked out a scenario about how they would respond to a potential car wreck.

“It’s learning a whole different world from the nurse perspective because we function interchangeably,” Smith said. “So, everything that he can do, I can do. Everything I can do, he can do.”

“Every time you fly with a new person, it’s almost like dancing,” Wysocki said.

They ask, watch and learn if one of them is going to lean or move a certain way and when. They learn the tempo of the other’s movements. Timing in a cramped space is essential.

PHI does require paramedics to get Flight Paramedic Certification within 24 months of being hired. Dean suggests paramedics wait until they have some flying experience before taking the test. 

“It’s not a prerequisite, and I’ve found people do better with that certification if they’ve had some flight experience and some critical-care under their belt,” Dean said. “I took mine in advance, and I would have done a lot better if I had maybe 12 or 18 months of flight experience under my belt before I had taken that test.”

Don’t quit

Applicants who are continuing their education catch Dean’s eye, whether they are paramedics trying to get their undergraduate degree or nurses trying to get their paramedic certification.

“Any applicant for me who is pursuing their education and making that improvement tends to be more focused,” Dean said. “Someone who’s pursuing something educationally seems to come across as a stronger candidate.”

Three years ago, Wysocki applied for a job at PHI for the first time. He didn’t get it.

“And I did well in the interview,” he said. “They liked me, but I didn’t have the extra experience.”

After that interview, Wysocki got the bad news. But he took the advice they gave and got more real-world, well-rounded experience, took more classes and talked to more people in the field who told him not to give up. He found a mentor. Two years later, he applied again. This time, he got the job.

Now that he has his dream job, Wysocki offers the same advice to paramedics who want an air medical career.

“Keep going, even if you fail,” he said. “Just don’t be discouraged.”