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EMT shortage continues to plague Pa. EMS agencies

One volunteer EMS service is in danger of going out of business because of a lack of available EMTs

By Tim Hahn
Erie Times-News

ERIE, Pa. — EmergyCare education coordinator Jim Kifer is running a bigger-than-normal class through four months of training to become emergency medical technicians.

The EMT training programs that EmergyCare holds at its Peach Street facility typically draw 16 to 18 students, Kifer said.

The classes, which started Aug. 8, are Tuesdays and Thursdays and every other Saturday as the students are trained on such topics as anatomy, patient assessment and treatment for cardiac arrest, traumatic injuries and other medical emergencies. Those who complete the program will move on to the National Registry of EMT certification exams, and those who pass will be ready to put their new skills to practice as volunteers for local fire departments and ambulance services, or as paid employees for local emergency medical service organizations.

There are plenty of opportunities for those students in the Erie region.

EmergyCare, which provides basic and advanced life support emergency care in Erie and surrounding counties, is about 10 full-time EMTs short of its desired staffing complement, said Todd Steele, the agency's director of operations. That's about five trucks, at least one truck a shift, that EmergyCare doesn't have staffed, he said.

At times when call volumes are high, the agency relies on ambulances from other areas, such as the Millcreek Paramedic Service in Millcreek Township or from area volunteer departments, to help respond to calls, just as those agencies rely on EmergyCare's assistance at times, Steele said.

Staffing shortages forced EmergyCare to end contracted services in McKean and Albion, where those communities leased EmergyCare staff to answer EMS calls there, Steele said. EmergyCare still has contracted staff in other areas of the county, he said.

EmergyCare isn't alone in feeling the pinch.

Millcreek Paramedic Service isn't "terribly short-staffed," but is not "in a great place I'd like to be," said William Martin, the agency's operations manager, noting that MPS has roughly 25 full- and part-time EMTs.

A number of volunteer fire departments that still have their own volunteer ambulance service component are also struggling with staffing issues, said Bill McClincy, executive director of Emergency Medical Management Cooperative West Inc., a regional EMS council based in Crawford County which covers an area including Erie County.

One local volunteer EMS service, the Cambridge Area Volunteer Ambulance Service based in Cambridge Springs, is in danger of going out of business because of a lack of available EMTs.

CAVAS currently has five EMTs, and is having difficulty answering its calls because of staffing shortages, said Carolynlee Glenn, a former EMT for the agency who now serves as its treasurer.

A community meeting is scheduled at the agency's station on Venango Avenue in Cambridge Springs on Oct. 4 to outline the issue and announce the agency's possible closing on Jan. 1.

CAVAS can't run calls if it doesn't have EMTs, and if it can't run calls it doesn't have the money to pay the bills, Glenn said.

"The whole thing is, (people) have other jobs, some have two other jobs, and there is no money really to be made. You have to have a love for it, and a love for volunteering," she said.

The problem that volunteer ambulance services like CAVAS are dealing with is the same problem that volunteer fire departments have been dealing with, McClincy said. There aren't enough hours in the day for many people to volunteer like they did in the past, with parents working one or more jobs and their children having so many extracurricular activities, he said.

"And clearly being an EMT or a volunteer firefighter is a very challenging avocation, and it does require somebody who has a special desire to help others that are in need. And that's something, I'm just not sure we have that spirit any longer, I hate to say," McClincy said.

A drop in volunteers has hurt the paid EMS services, Steele said. In years past, people would join their volunteer fire departments and would get EMS training through the department, and some would decide to make a career out of it and would go to work for a paid agency. But the volunteer departments aren't getting the numbers like they used to, EMT training is longer than it used to be and it's more expensive than it used to be, he said.

Steele said that a few years ago, EmergyCare started an EMS academy in which people with no emergency medical services background were hired and were paid to go through the EMT class. The success rate of those who went through the program was less than 50 percent, compared to a more than 90 percent success rate for those who took the training on their own and paid for it out of their own pockets, he said.

"It is totally different now than what it used to be," said Jim Pyle, president of the Central County Paramedic Association in the Edinboro-McKean area, which currently provides advanced life support services through the use of paramedics but is looking to add EMTs.

"You used to be able to pull people from the volunteer fire departments who had experience and you knew they were able to handle serious calls and they were going to be able to survive in the system. Now you're getting people who think they might want to be an EMT and they may get through training, they get in a volunteer department or a paid EMS service, then find out it's not for them and they leave. It's a totally different philosophy now," he said.

Pyle is also a member of the McKean Hose Co., where in late August the department contracted with Millcreek's West Ridge Fire Department to hire two part-time firefighters/EMTs, at a cost of about $80,000 a year, to address staffing shortages.

Since Sept. 1 the paid staff answered a dozen calls that the department likely wouldn't have been able to respond to without them, Pyle said.

"We have EMTs, but they're not around during the day. These guys are supplementing whatever we have."

Martin, of the Millcreek Paramedic Service, said a number of volunteer fire departments in the Erie region are now paying to have staff on duty during the day, when the number of available volunteers is typically low. There are more opportunities developing for paid EMTs, but officials would like to see more funding available, through such measures as higher Medicare-Medicaid reimbursements, to cover the cost of paid staff and to provide those EMTs with a better wage, he and others say.

A newly-hired EMT at Millcreek Paramedic Service makes $10.50 an hour. The starting rate at EmergyCare is $10.27 an hour.

"The biggest problem is the insurances don't pay well," said Joe Cree, operations manager of West County Paramedic Association in western Erie County. "Because they don't, we can't pay (an EMT) what they deserve to be paid. You can go to Sheetz and make as much as an EMT."

Copyright 2017 Erie Times-News

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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