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Mass. college, FD, union and hospital push for more EMTs, medics

Efforts in Lawrence work to turn around the shortage of EMS personnel


Lawrence General Hospital/Facebook

By Jill Harmacinski
The Eagle-Tribune

LAWRENCE, Mass. — The students started class Thursday night by taking each other’s blood pressure, a skill they need to perfect.

There were mock emergencies to respond to in an apartment and ambulance, both located on North Essex Community College’s campus building at 414 Common St.

In the exercise, one patient was “unconscious” and another in “cardiac arrest” on a gurney in the clinical practice runs.

The students, under the guidance of paramedic Christian Goring and several other NECC instructors, are training to be emergency medical technicians, a profession currently suffering crippling staffing challenges nationwide.

The EMT courses are currently offered tuition-free for qualifying students through a grant for high-demand jobs.

The American Ambulance Association said the “persistent shortage” of ground ambulance service field personnel is at a “crisis level” and this issue is a top priority.

AAA is “developing legislation to specifically target increasing access for ground ambulance service organizations to federal programs and funding for the retention and training of health care personnel.”

The shortage of such emergency medical workers is seen and felt locally, as Lawrence General Hospital and other ambulance providers strive to attract and retain people.

The Lawrence firefighters union is also closely tracking how often mutual aid ambulances, those that come from other communities, are needed to handle Lawrence calls if an LGH ambulance is not available.

The city has been in a contract with LGH for ambulance services since 2014.

Lawrence firefighters respond to medical calls first to help the sick and injured. But they cannot leave until an ambulance arrives, and sometimes the ambulance responding to Lawrence is coming from as far away as Middleton, North Reading, or Salem, N.H., said Dan Sirois, president of Local 146 Lawrence Firefighters Union.

“That is the standard of care, ... The citizens came first, no matter what,” Sirois said.

From Jan. 1 to Feb. 24, mutual aid ambulances were needed in Lawrence 64 times. In 2023, mutual aid ambulances responded to Lawrence 294 times, according to figures provided by Sirois.

Lawrence fire Chief Brian Moriarty, who is a paramedic, acknowledged the EMT shortage noting efforts, including signing bonuses, are underway to get more workers aboard the ambulances.

He said the mutual aid system in place “is working” and is used similarly to when additional firefighters are needed in Lawrence, or when Lawrence can help in other nearby communities.

On a daily basis there are anywhere from 50 to 70 ambulance calls in Lawrence. Some days, no mutual aid is needed, Moriarty noted.

When asked why the profession is short-handed, Goring said EMTs and paramedics often have had to work long hours. Burnout is common. And also, EMTs often transition into other public safety jobs, he said.

The pay has not always been great, but it’s getting better, he said.

Still, Goring encourages others to consider the profession which he said presents different challenges every day.

“It’s definitely not your 9 to 5, but it’s also one of the only professions that when someone is having their worst day, you can have the biggest impact on their life. As professionals our impact can have a lot of influence on the final outcome of a person needing us,” Goring said.

In a statement, LGH officials said efforts are underway to have additional EMTs and paramedics trained and working on LGH ambulances by mid-March.

They noted that across the state, and this region, “there have been widely reported health care capacity constraints, including increases in Emergency Department volume as well as limited inpatient bed and skilled nursing home bed post-acute capacity.”

“This puts tremendous pressure on emergency medical services including increased wait times in emergency rooms when EMT’s deliver patients which contributes to a need to call for mutual aid,” the said in the statement.

Winter spikes of 911 emergency and “non-urgent calls, in particular” also constrain the system, according the statement.

“Together the City of Lawrence and Lawrence General have collaborated on how best to address the spikes, including determining when to utilize mutual aid,” LGH officials said. “We are very fortunate in Greater Lawrence to have a strong system of mutual aid. Having access in our region to mutual aid is an important community resource, during times of high demand and the current capacity constraints.”

They said they are working to expand staffing to meet the increased demand, and “are undertaking other measures to mitigate the impact locally and the use of mutual aid.”

At NECC, students in the 14-week EMT training courses are saving roughly $1,500 individually with the grant funding. Similarly, classes for other high-demand medical jobs of pharmacy technician and emergency medical technician are also being offered at no cost.

NECC planners are regularly in touch with businesses, corporations, first responders and more as they shape course offerings, said Linda Schildkraut, director of the Center for Corporate and Community Education.

Some 43 students are currently enrolled in the EMT training at NECC in Lawrence. She noted Goring puts the students through an interview and vetting process before they are officially enrolled.

“So people have a really good understanding of what they are going to do. ... In the end, we want people who want to work in the field,” Schildkraut said.

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