Let’s get this straight from the start: Don Guillette did not want this article to be written.
In fact, the very behind-the-scenes director of Polk State’s Emergency Medical Services program is dreading seeing his face on the homepage of polk.edu.
It was only after much cajoling — OK, pleading that bordered on whining — that Guillette agreed to be interviewed. He also had one condition: That the point be made, early and clearly, that he takes no personal credit for the success of the EMS program, which consistently has one of the highest pass rates in the state on required certification exams.
“I’m just lucky to be here, to have the backing of the people above me, and to have the team that I have,” Guillette said. “Eighteen of our 28 instructors are alumni who’ve returned to teach with the program. Our instructors include a deputy chief, an assistant chief, battalion chiefs and lieutenants. We have the pick of the litter working here.”
That said, let us — finally! — introduce you to Guillette, the self-effacing leader of a program he describes as a “well-oiled machine.”
1. His EMS Career Was “Accidental”
A native of New Jersey who moved to Auburndale when he was 5, Guillette always intended to be a carpenter. He asked for drills at Christmas and skill saws at his birthday, and shortly after graduating from Auburndale High School in 1980, he was on track to make a living building things with his hands. He was hired by a company that built manufactured homes, and quickly worked his way up from the “trash guy” to an assembly line floater, able to do everything from roofing to wiring, siding installation to plumbing. The paychecks were good, and soon, Guillette was making plans to buy his own house in Lake Alfred. A friend and coworker was a volunteer firefighter in Guillette’s soon-to-be community. One day in 1987, that friend invited Guillette to a meeting at the fire house. Guillette was overwhelmed at first — but in a good way. The work was admirable and interesting. He volunteered, and eventually came to Polk State for training as a first responder and emergency medical technician. A couple years later, he was also volunteering for Polk County’s EMS system, and the housing market was on the decline. “I had developed an enjoyment and passion for the work that I never knew I had,” Guillette said. “So I figured why not just do it.”
2. He Has Multiple Degrees, But Has Never Walked In a Graduation Ceremony
Guillette completed his paramedic certificate at Valencia College in 1992, a program he chose because it was a better fit for his work schedule at the time. However, his three associate degrees — in Fire Science, Emergency Medical Services, and Nursing — are all from Polk State. Why Nursing? Guillette said the degree helped him better understand what happens to patients after they leave the ambulance. “It enhanced my knowledge of patient care, and steps paramedics can take that might shorten, or prevent, a patient’s stay in the hospital. Things like cleansing IV sites to prevent infections can make a big difference in patient outcomes.” Despite his educational attainments, Guillette — in his spotlight-eschewing way — has never walked in a commencement, though he did recently participate in the first-ever graduation ceremony for paramedics at Polk State in May. “I’ve just never been one for recognition. I do my job and I walk away,” he said. “My team and I listened to our students and they said they wanted a ceremony. They’re proud of their achievements, and they want to celebrate with their families and friends, so we gave that to them. I was impressed by how much it meant to the students.”
3. The Number 20 Is Especially Significant to Him Lately
Earlier this year, Guillette retired from 20 years of service to the City of Orlando Fire Department, and he’s currently teaching — along with his team of instructors, of course — his 20th class of paramedics. Yes, for 20 years, he balanced being a full-time engineer paramedic with being EMS program director.
4. But If You Think He’s Slowing Down, Think Again
Building a state-leading program — and let’s reiterate here that Guillette didn’t do it alone, he credits his current team as well College leadership and his predecessors with the program’s success — means always seeking better ways of teaching and training students. By now, a hallmark of the program is that its requirements are far more stringent than those of its accrediting body. For instance, paramedic students must complete 15 intubations and 50 venipunctures, even though accreditation only requires five and 25 respectively. But on a daily basis, Guillette and team continue to look for ways to improve the program. One recent tweak: EMS students are no longer allowed to carry cell phones inside the Polk State Center for Public Safety, where the program is housed. At all. Literally. They have to leave them in their cars. If they don’t? They risk verbal and written reprimands, a 1,000-word term paper, and deductions to quizzes and tests. “Cell phones are a distraction,” Guillette said. “We’re here to teach professionalism and to do that, we need the students to buy into what we’re doing. You can’t do that if you’re on the phone in the hallway.”
5. He Is a Patent Holder
Search for his name on the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office website and you’ll find that Guillette is the inventor of an “emergency ventilation apparatus, system, and method.” Sparing readers as many of the technical details as possible, Guillette’s “emergency apparatus, system, and method” consists of an angled laryngoscope — the device used to intubate patients — that is easier for paramedics to manipulate than the standard non-angled version, and more efficient connections for ventilation bags and tubes. “I watched my fellow paramedics work and I saw a way to make things better,” he said.
The field of EMS has three tiers, with paramedics at the top, above emergency medical technicians and emergency medical responders. Polk State EMS offers training options for those seeking to work at any level of the EMS ladder, and an associate’s degree in EMS for paramedics interested in career advancement. In addition to EMS, Polk State Public Safety offers associate’s and bachelor’s degrees in Criminal Justice, and an associate’s degree in Fire Science. In addition to EMS, Polk State Health Sciences programs include Cardiovascular Technology, Diagnostic Medical Sonography, Nursing, Occupational Therapy Assistant, Physical Therapist Assistant, Radiography and Respiratory Care.