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Pa. county struggles with volunteer EMS shortage

High costs for nationally registered classes are one of the factors contributing to the decline in volunteers

By Konstantine Fekos
The Meadville Tribune

MEADVILLE, Pa. — Emergency medical technicians have been running in short supply, and local volunteer fire and ambulance departments are struggling more than ever to keep up with the demand for emergency services.

While EMTs are the first responders to accidents with injuries outside cities like Meadville with a paid fire department, they are not paid. It is an unpaid, volunteer position.

Bill Taylor of Townville Volunteer Ambulance Service Department reported observing EMT volunteerism decline steadily as training requirements and the cost of classes continue to rise considerably.

“Now that EMT classes are nationally registered, you have to go through a (community) college,” he said. “The cost has gotten out of hand.”

Classes usually have a minimum registration requirement of about 12 volunteers and can cost around $385 for tuition alone, not including additional fees for vaccinations, online testing, numerous background checks and other factors that can push the total above $1,000, Taylor said.

Time and financial constraints aren’t  limited to the cost of classes, according to Cochranton Emergency Medical Service Chief Dan Bresee, who says potential volunteers are generally finding it hard to make ends meet and spend their extra time working more hours or multiple jobs rather than shelling out money for EMT training to do the job for free.

Additionally, departments usually don’t front training costs for EMTs either due to a lack of sufficient funds or out of concern an individual may not complete a course or just take advantage of the free class and leave, Taylor said.

“Our people sign a contract to complete a class and give us a year on schedule,” Taylor said. His department’s contract idea was implemented several years ago to try to ensure those who take the class provide at least a minimum amount of service, he said.

Taylor, a class clinical coordinator for an EMT course scheduled Tuesday and Friday evenings from August through December, also voiced concern for the future of emergency services if some incentive isn’t developed to attract and retain volunteers.

Responses regarding the EMT course, which is offered by Townville Volunteer Fire Department, were few to none, Taylor said, while one or more enthusiastic callers lost interest when they heard about the cost.

“When I first got into this years ago, there were a lot of EMTs,” he said. “We didn’t have this issue. We didn’t sweat it to see if a call was answered.”

Out of the dozen or so EMTs signed up with Townville Ambulance, about six to eight are able to work on an active basis, according to Townville Emergency Medical Service Chief Shane Taylor, who says his department responds to an average of 300 calls per year.

“We’ve had several instances where we passed calls to other departments due to lack of manpower,” he said. “All departments around here are kind of finding themselves in the same boat.”

Shane Taylor said his department has assisted neighboring EMTs as a result of too few volunteers being able to cover a call during a given time.

While Townville is fairing relatively well, not struggling more or less than other departments, everyone’s feeling the crunch, he said.

“What we’re running into is not just in our service,” Bill Taylor said. “Other services are going through the same thing. They may only have three or four people in service trying to run all the calls.”

Additionally, more EMTs are usually registered than are active in a department and those active may have a career or outside jobs at the same time, rendering them unable to make emergency calls for large chunks of a given day, he added.

“Not too long ago, there were three services that basically dumped calls from one to another,” he said. “Finally, the call went to a fourth service a good half hour away. If the call had been more serious, that patient would’ve passed away.”

The effort to get an ambulance out the door as quickly as possible includes regular, if not constant, collaboration between local departments to figure out who has an EMS crew on a given day and time, according to Shane Taylor.

“So far, the system is holding up, but it’s getting strained with ambulance services. We’re definitely at a point where collaboration between us and other departments is going to play an important role coming down the road. We’re trying to find people who have the time and interest to support local services.”

If current trends continue, however, Shane Taylor believes struggling departments may have to cease ambulance operations altogether.

Konstantine Fekos can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at kfekos@meadvilletribune.com.


©2014 The Meadville Tribune (Meadville, Pa.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service
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