Conn. EMS agencies say pandemic has led to drop in recruitment numbers

One EMS director said participation in fall and spring training programs reduced by half in 2020


Currie Engel
The News-Times, Danbury, Conn.

DANBURY, Conn. — In the 13 months since the country went into lockdown, emergency medical services throughout the Danbury area have had to to adjust to meet an ever-changing demand, high-stress and high-risk working environments, and fewer breaks.

And they didn't stay home.

Danbury EMS Director Matthew Cassavechia said the city has stepped up recruitment efforts after participation in EMS training programs reduced during the pandemic.
Danbury EMS Director Matthew Cassavechia said the city has stepped up recruitment efforts after participation in EMS training programs reduced during the pandemic. (Photo/Danbury, Connecticut)

So officials weren't surprised that a few emergency medical services teams have seen a slight drop in training and recruitment numbers for emergency medical technicians during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I will tell you people are not knocking on the doors right now to become EMTs because of the pandemic," Brookfield Fire Chief Andrew Ellis said. "People are afraid."

Brookfield recently pivoted to a virtual training format and has noted a decrease in training numbers. They usually pick up a couple new EMTs every year, Ellis said, but right now, they're not seeing those numbers. People have told Ellis that they initially considered becoming an EMT but changed their mind during the pandemic.

Still, Ellis is working to improve recruitment numbers.

Matthew Cassavechia, Danbury's director of emergency services and Nuvance Health ambulance, said that their fall and spring training programs usually brought in about 30 people. In 2020, that number was cut in half.

They also suspended their summer program last year, which usually draws anywhere from 50 to 100 people. To keep ahead of any potential staffing issues down the line, the department has stepped up recruitment, said Cassavechia, who has been a paramedic for 30 years and has managed the city ambulance program since 1999.

Most staffing issues in Danbury stemmed from infected personnel and exposure-related quarantines. Cassavechia said he had a number of EMTs test positive, which had both a staffing and psychological impact on his teams.

Ridgefield Fire Chief Jerry Myers noted their department had an average number of applicants for the past two positions they've opened.

A difficult year

Local department heads noted the psychological effects on the front line workers.

The virus meant endless mask use, the end of community meals and lots of added stress. At times during the pandemic, it was an isolating and scary time for first responders. Despite dispatchers' best efforts, paramedics and EMTs didn't always know if they were picking up COVID positive patients.

"There was one point that nobody was working, basically, except us and other first responders," Myers said.

Brookfield EMTs and paramedics sometimes worked up to 100 hours a week at the peak of the pandemic without a complaint. Aside from the physical exhaustion, it was also mentally taxing watching so many patients die in front of them, Ellis said.

"In the fire department, each shift is a family," Myers said. "They live together, work together, they socialize outside of their shift together."

Ridgefield EMS worked with various agencies that provided stress training and had Zoom presentations to talk about available resources.

"They took a beating," Ellis said. "They were shot for quite a while. They were overwhelmed. They were overworked."

Yet, despite the mental, emotional and physical tolls, retirements have not been a huge issue. Some departments lost a few volunteers or career EMTs due to planned retirements or concern over preexisting health conditions, but generally, retirement numbers stayed stable.

Myers said they did not see any unusual retirements in town. Cassavechia said he hasn't seen unusual retirement numbers, but noted that the "dust is still settling," and he's waiting to determine the true impact.

As time goes on and the medical world gains a better understanding of the way the virus works and is transmitted, first responders have started to feel some relief, officials said. Being fully vaccinated helps, too.

Myers reported 100 percent of his staff is fully vaccinated.

"I don't think [the virus is] ever going away, but I think that between the education, the equipment and the vaccine, we have a sense that we're getting some normalcy back, so that has made it a lot less stressful," he said.

Community support and engagement has also been a lifeline, officials said. Whether it was meals brought in, letters written by community members, extra funds or general well-wishes, EMS teams said these gestures lifted their spirits. Cassavechia said the level of engagement was something he has never seen in his decades on the job.

Any time Brookfield emergency services needed funds to cover cleaning costs, Ellis said the town made sure they had it, absorbing the cost and marking it into the fire department's budget.

This also went for financial restructuring to cover the changing finances that accompany a worldwide pandemic.

During budget time, officials are working with providers to make sure their local emergency services have adequate funding, covering both the dip in revenues, as well as increased cleaning, disinfecting and personal protective equipment costs.

"The amount of support that we got from the community — psychological support as well as personal protective equipment donations — was incredible," Cassavechia said. "That was really, I think, a huge part of our success strategy."

___

(c)2021 The News-Times (Danbury, Conn.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

Recommended for you

Join the discussion

Copyright © 2021 EMS1. All rights reserved.