New Orleans' outgoing EMS director asks city to give medics more money, support
"I feel confident in saying that we have laid the groundwork for good things to come," Dr. Emily Nichols said
Ramon Antonio Vargas
The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate
NEW ORLEANS — New Orleans Emergency Medical Services Director Dr. Emily Nichols, who announced she was stepping down last week without explanation to the public, said in a statement Monday that she plans to return to working locally in emergency medicine but will stay involved with the agency in an unspecified new role.
Citing fatigue from a series of turbulent episodes that her understaffed agency tackled during her three-year run in charge, Nichols urged the city in a statement to provide more money and support to its corps of paramedics.
NOEMS' deputy medical director, Dr. Meg Marino, is being tapped to lead the agency in the interim when Nichols leaves on Dec. 10.
Mayor LaToya Cantrell, who won a second four-year term in office on Nov. 13, appointed Nichols to head NOEMS in May 2018. She had a background in emergency room medicine and pediatrics, having worked at hospitals in Brooklyn and Philadelphia before joining Ochsner Health System in the New Orleans area.
Even before the coronavirus pandemic laid staffing and budgetary issues at NOEMS bare, Nichols' tenure had been marked by some of the agency's most traumatic calls in recent memory.
Her paramedics and emergency medical technicians were on the front lines of the collapse of the Hard Rock Hotel construction site in October 2019, which killed three and injured many more. During the 2019 and 2020 Carnival seasons, her medics responded after a drunk driver hit nine cyclists, killing two, and floats accidentally crushed two paradegoers.
There was also the cyberattack that crippled much of the city's government computer systems, creating logistical headaches for medics responding to some of New Orleans' most dire life-and-death situations. And then, in December 2019, a fire destroyed Nichols' home, which she has yet been able to rebuild.
When the pandemic arrived in the spring of 2020, it drove a spike in 911 calls, leaving large numbers of EMTs and paramedics sick, in quarantine, or burned out.
Hospitals overflowed, and wait times for ambulances pulling up to ERs skyrocketed. Many ambulances in NOEMS' aging fleet have also broken down, forcing the agency to turn to private ambulance companies in a desperate attempt to keep call wait times as low as possible.
"COVID-19 was a time when everyone else was running (from the virus), isolating," Nichols said at a recent City Council hearing. "That's not a luxury that we had."
As of September, the confluence of challenging conditions had left more than 20 full-time NOEMS jobs vacant, out of 156 positions. The agency had also lost a total of about 75 medics since the beginning of 2019.
Nichols, 43, on Monday reiterated her belief that the only way to patch up the staffing shortage was to pay medics more, echoing pleas from her counterparts at the city's Police and Fire Departments for increased funding and manpower.
EMTs make $37,000 a year and paramedics $48,000 or more annually.
"This is an essential art, not a trade, that takes a lot of time and understanding," her statement read.
Meanwhile, Nichols touted a number of accomplishments as she prepares to hand over the reins of NOEMS, adding that she believes she achieved her primary objectives.
She and her staff said they updated the pre-hospital emergency care protocols and guidelines for all paramedics working in Orleans, Jefferson, St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes. And she highlighted how, in October, NOEMS became Louisiana's only ground ambulance service able to provide blood transfusions in pre-hospital settings.
"I feel confident in saying that we have laid the groundwork for good things to come," Nichols said. "It has been an honor to represent the best pre-hospital clinicians, to foster a diverse and increasingly inclusive workspace, and to advocate for employee well-being and engagement in our innovations."
Nichols informed most of her employees Friday that she would step down, though EMS spokesperson Jonathan Fourcade said that she had told City Hall officials of her plans well in advance of that.
"The mayor is very proud of the work Dr. Nichols has done, and grateful for her service to the city," city spokesperson Beau Tidwell said. "We wish her all the best going forward."
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