CT EMS services struggling with staffing levels
There are much easier ways to help people than by working for emergency medical services. That’s something of which John Arnold, Easton’s EMS chief, is well aware.
Other jobs in medicine — such as working as a technician in a doctor’s office — aren’t nearly as demanding as riding in an ambulance and responding to medical calls at all hours.
“It’s an easier setting,” Arnold said of doctor’s offices. “It’s warm. It’s dry. You don’t work odd hours where you’re going into somebody’s house at 2 a.m. and they’re throwing up on you. Maybe being a tech in doctor’s office is a little more desirable.”
He said, particularly in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, he’s seen people get certified to work in EMS, then go on to work in another setting. He isn’t alone.
Many EMS services throughout the state are either short-staffed or fear being short-staffed in the near future, due to a variety of factors. These could include retirements, an increased call volume and people leaving EMS behind for more “comfortable” health fields.
“Staffing challenges really started to pick up this year,” said William Schietinger, regional director for American Medical Response in Southern Connecticut. “We’ve lost full-time employees who’ve either left the industry or gone to other EMS services that are not as busy.”
AMR is a national private ambulance company that, in Connecticut, has operations in Bridgeport, Hartford, New Haven and Waterbury. In addition to losing people to less demanding work, Schietinger said, he’s seen people retire, and he’s also seen a dearth of qualified candidates, as the COVID-19 pandemic limited the number of certification classes that were available.
Robert Ziegler, president of Emergency Resource Management — an EMS staffing company based in Portland — said the staffing problems of companies like AMR trickle down to other EMS services. Ziegler said he represents 13 EMS clients throughout the state (but wouldn’t say where) and said he feels like he’s in constant competition to hire staff.
“It’s a challenge when commercial (ambulance companies) start to pay $4, $5 or $6 more an hour because they’re also hurting for people,” he said.
At least one hospital-based EMS program said it was experiencing issues too.
“There are several factors that affect EMS recruitment and retention in general, including career transitions and retirements,”said Aaron Katz, director of EMS at Norwalk Hospital. The hospital is part of Nuvance Health, which also includes Danbury, New Milford and Sharon Hospitals.
“Most notably at this time, Nuvance Health EMS, including at Norwalk Hospital, are experiencing some staffing shortages from the toll the pandemic has taken on all healthcare workers,” Katz said. “Consequently, we are always looking for qualified candidates.”
He said Norwalk Hospital alone responds to more than 12,000 calls a year on average.
Even those who said they aren’t short-staffed now worried about what the future holds. That includes Easton, where Arnold said the EMS service is in relatively good shape. The department has 38 volunteers and two paid staff members, and the volunteer side has actually grown from five years ago, when there were 24 volunteers.
But Arnold said he has seen call volume go up, particularly when it comes to offering assistance to other towns. In 2020, he said, Easton provided mutual aid to other communities 16 times. As of Dec. 17, he said, Easton
EMS had provided mutual aid 89 times in 2021.
“We expect to exceed 100 mutual aid request by the end of the year,” Arnold said. “That’s an explosive amount of patient care that we’re doing.”
Many other local departments tell a similar story, including Trumbull, where EMS Chief Leigh Goodman said staffing levels are fine for now, but she’s still anxious.
“We’re very well-staffed, but there are shortages region-wide, which impact us,” Goodman said.
Like Arnold, she said she sees many people complete EMS training only to move on to other health fields.
“What we’re seeing as an industry (are challenges in) getting people to stay in the industry,” Goodman said. “There’s a lot of fatigue. People are tired. It’s not regular hours.”
Michael Loiz, Stratford’s director of EMS, is also in the “well-staffed for now” category, but he has seen call volumes going up by 3 percent to 8 percent a year for at least the past five years.
“What that means is that our crews are going to be doing more calls and possibly there will be a need for mutual aid to come in,” he said.
In Westport, the picture is a bit cloudier, said Marc Hartog, deputy director of Westport EMS. The service lost roughly 30 volunteers during the COVID-19 pandemic, he said, falling from 90 to 60.
Of those that remain, Hartog said, many aren’t always available. For instance, a good bulk of them are college students who are in classes much of the year.
“There are some days where we’re struggling because we don’t have volunteers sign up for shifts,” he said.
So what is everyone doing to try to manage current or potential shortages? Whatever they can, EMS officials said.
Schietinger said AMR has increased wages for its staff in Bridgeport and Hartford. The starting salary for staff in those cities went from $18 an hour to $24 an hour.
The hourly rate for a paramedic in those cities also went up, from $27 to $33. Schietinger said AMR is negotiating with unions in New Haven and Waterbury to offer higher wages to staff there too.
AMR also started its Earn While You Learn program earlier this year, which allows people to take EMT classes while getting paid.
Town and city EMS services also have tried to manage any shortages or potential shortages.
In Stratford, Loiz said officials “manage the schedule very aggressively” to make sure whatever staff is available is deployed when and where they’re needed most.
“If Tuesdays are busier than Fridays, then we’re going to focus our energies on making sure there’s staff on Tuesdays at the busiest time,” he said.