Staffing shortages force private Wis. EMS agencies to decline 911 calls

Two Racine agencies say they can only accept planned transports, which leaves medical emergency responses to be answered by firefighters


Rachel Kubik
The Journal Times

RACINE, Wis. — When someone calls North Central EMS & Rescue Squad to ask for a ride to a health care facility, the answer is no.

That's been the answer for all calls since May, said Christopher Siebeneich, chief of the private ambulance company, 3204 Washington Ave.

North Central EMS & Rescue Squad has two ambulances sitting in a garage because of low staffing.
North Central EMS & Rescue Squad has two ambulances sitting in a garage because of low staffing. (Photo/North Central EMS)

"Other than planned events, I don't have anybody," Siebeneich said. "We're going to have to turn (the call) down. I don't have the staff interested in filling the vacancies."

Siebeneich started his first full-time job as an emergency medical technician in 2008. At that time, "everybody and their brother wanted to be an EMT," he said, referring to emergency medical technicians.

And now? The county and state have been experiencing EMT shortages for the past decade.

Add to that the COVID-19 pandemic, under which health care workers across the country are facing vaccine mandates, not wanting to interact with COVID-19-positive patients, experiencing burnout and leaving the field, and where people are seeking higher wages, you get even more of a shortage.

"Unless fire and EMS (emergency medical services) financial and staffing challenges are appropriately addressed, they may soon have a real impact on public safety," a September report from the Wisconsin Policy Forum stated. That finding, the WPF stated, is "one that state and local policymakers cannot afford to overlook."

Siebeneich said he's never had more than five employees at a time. But now, the company only has one or two part-time employees, he said, and two ambulances that just sit in the garage.

The only services the company can offer are ambulance supervision at planned events and a mental health service provider who travels to patients via an SUV.

"It's hard. It's hitting everybody in the area," Siebeneich said.

When those in need can't receive help from private ambulance companies, they turn to their local fire department for emergency response. Fire departments in the area have experienced increased call volumes, especially to senior living facilities. Unlike private companies, they can't say no to calls. That drives costs, and the strain, up.

Midwest Medical is a private ambulance transportation service with stations in Racine and Kenosha.

Sean Nelson, associate operations director at Midwest Medical, said due to hospital bed shortages, some of the company's patients have been transported as far as Milwaukee, Madison, Oshkosh and Rochester, Minnesota — 300 miles away.

He did not speak to any challenges within Midwest Medical but spoke of challenges the healthcare industry in general is facing and the very large demand for ambulance services, especially to assisted living facilities.

"I don't think there's a silver bullet here that says this is the reason why. It's a combination of challenges that we have to work collectively to solve and overcome," Nelson said. "It's not just our company. As our population ages, and with this new wave of COVID, there's a lot of those transports that are happening as well."

He said he never wants to discourage anybody from contacting 911.

"I want people to know whenever they call 911," Nelson said, "a fire department will respond."

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(c)2021 The Journal Times

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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