Conn. towns hiring EMTs amid chronic shortage of volunteers

One town considered using a private ambulance company, “but when we looked at return on investment, it did not work for Vernon,” the town administrator said


Jesse Leavenworth
Hartford Courant

VERNON, Conn. — To address a continuing shortage of emergency medical technicians, cut reliance on mutual aid and keep local life-saving response fast and effective, Vernon is hiring eight EMTs at an initial cost of $687,000.

Town leaders’ recent decision comes amid long-term losses in ambulance crews throughout the state and nation. Other Connecticut communities and independent ambulance agencies, particularly those that rely on volunteers, face decisions similar to Vernon’s.

“Several towns have indicated that they are struggling to find EMT volunteers and are hiring paid personnel or contracting with other providers,” Betsy Gara, executive director of the Connecticut Council of Small Towns, said.

Although volunteer EMT numbers have been falling for years, COVID-19 concerns worsened the shortage. Coventry lost half its EMT volunteers due to COVID-19 concerns and had to hire temporary workers, Gara said. Town leaders added $500,000 to their proposed budget to cover EMT costs, she said.

Durham Volunteer Ambulance Corps closed its doors, Gara said, “because without volunteers, the cost is unsustainable without town subsidy.” The town now contracts with Middlesex Health for emergency medical services.

Vernon plans to cover the busiest ambulance shifts with the new hires, who are being offered “very competitive” wages and benefits, Town Administrator Michael Purcaro said.

“We are confident this plan will help us achieve a long-term and sustainable solution to our EMS staffing challenges, and mitigate the town’s reliance on the mutual aid system,” Purcaro wrote in a recent letter to Ellington town leaders.

Along with the shortage of EMTs, emergency medical calls in town have increased dramatically, Purcaro said. The increase is due mostly to the town’s aging population, but also to continuing opioid overdoses and other factors. The combination of rising call volume and diminishing EMTs, Purcaro said, has swelled the load on mutual aid, in which communities cover each other’s medical emergencies when necessary.

The town could have contracted with a private ambulance company, “but when we looked at return on investment, it did not work for Vernon,” Purcaro said. The number one job in government is public safety, he said, and town residents have made it clear they want reliable emergency medical response.

The cost to taxpayers for the new EMTs will be no more than $100,000 annually because the local ambulance will bill for more calls that have gone to other towns through mutual aid or to private ambulance companies, Purcaro said. The new hires are to be on board in the next two months or so, he said.

As in many towns throughout Connecticut, Vernon once relied on volunteer ambulance crews. In Bethany, First Selectwoman Paula Cofrancesco relayed a message from the captain of the local ambulance corps, who wrote that new volunteers are still joining and being trained, but the need remains to use a staffing agency to provide EMTs several days a week.

The American Ambulance Association, an advocacy group, has moved to make the persistent shortage of emergency medical personnel a public policy priority. The organization, according to a statement on its website, is working with key congressional committees and developing legislation “to target increasing access for ground ambulance service organizations to federal programs and funding for the retention and training of health care personnel.”

New Hartford’s independent, nonprofit ambulance organization lost a third of its volunteers with the outbreak of the pandemic, president Nicholas Maltby said. New Hartford Ambulance had been using a staffing agency, but in January they hired their own full-time and per-diem EMTs. Staffing costs have risen 70% since the start of the pandemic, Maltby said.

The bulk of the ambulance organization’s budget comes from insurance payments, with help from yearly municipal contributions. Along with rising costs, people’s expectations of emergency medical services have increased, Maltby said, and additional training to meet those expectations and technical advances has been necessary. Pay and benefits for the job have improved with the increased demand, he said.

The heart of the job, however, is helping people, Maltby said, and anyone who rides with an ambulance crew for a week will see the impact they have — even if it’s just a call to lift an elderly person off the floor and back into a chair.

“To me,” he said, “that should be a career.”

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Jesse Leavenworth can be reached at jleavenworth@courant.com.

©2022 Hartford Courant

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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