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Communities could suffer if EMT shortage continues

The Ellsworth Ambulance Service has been facing a shortage of EMTs for more than 10 years and is always looking for new people to volunteer their time to be part of this vital community service. Pictured are (from left): Advance EMT Joe Link, EMT Samantha Lutscher, Paramedic Matt Simpson, and Ellsworth EMS Director Dan Morth. File photo1 / 2
Spring Valley Ambulance Service relies on community volunteers to make their service possible and right now they are facing a shortage of EMTs. Photo courtesy of Jon Tanberg Photography2 / 2

No one wants to get hurt or need to call an ambulance, but it is a reassuring thought that a nearby ambulance service is available should you need it. However, due to increasing shortages of emergency medical technicians, ambulance services are trying to find ways to retain and get new EMTs to continue offering the best care possible.

Local ambulance services have been impacted by the EMT shortage happening around the state.

"Spring Valley Area Ambulance is currently in need of EMTs," said Bradley Jorgenson, Assistant Director of EMS of Spring Valley Area Emergency Services. "The growing need for more staff has been on-going over the past two years."

Dan Morth, director of the the Ellsworth Area Ambulance, said they have been facing a shortage of EMTs for more than 10 years.

The shortage of EMTs, Morth said, has many reasons including the amount of time people can devote to being a member of the ambulance service.

"People are leading busier lives and their circumstances are changing," Morth said.

Jorgenson agrees with Morth that some people just do not have the time to commit to being a highly skilled healthcare provider. He also believes there is a financial reason that people are not volunteering to be part of an emergency medical service.

"The other obstacle becomes funding," Jorgenson said. "Not many people in today's society can live or raise a family on just EMS wages in our area."

Ambulance services are finding they need to come up with ways to make sure they are staffed during critical hours. Jorgenson said Spring Valley Ambulance service is now staffing the ambulance 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and have an hourly wage for the staff members working this shift. When the ambulance is needed outside of these hours they use their old system.

"After 4 p.m. we go back to our normal 'cattle call' system," Jorgenson said, "where our staff respond from their homes and everyday lives as they are available until 7 a.m."

Morth said to help find coverage on the weekends, the Ellsworth Area Ambulance Service offers incentives for people that will work those shifts. He said they offer a bonus of $100 for any member who works 36 hours from 6 p.m. Friday to midnight on Sunday. He said Ellsworth also pays an hourly wage for on call hours, while he said some ambulance services only pay their members when they are responding to a call.

The weekend bonus has really helped with weekend coverage and since they have implemented it, they have not had an issue getting weekend coverage, Morth said.

Ellsworth also uses an 'I am responding' program for their volunteers. Joe Link, Advanced EMT and Ellsworth Area Ambulance office coordinator, said volunteers have the application on their cell phone and whenever the ambulance is paged the volunteer gets an alert on his/her phone. He said this gives volunteers the location and description of what is going on. He said then if a volunteer is available he/she can click if they are able to respond.

"[I am responding program] nice for staff to see calls coming in and maybe they can come in if they are free," Link said.

Besides people maybe not having the time to be on the ambulance service, Morth said the expense of becoming certified is part of what may deter people from becoming certified. However, Jorgenson said in Spring Valley they are trying to give incentives to students to enter into field.

"We do offer to pay for our EMT or EMR [emergency medical responder] students' courses in full," Jorgenson said, "including all their textbooks and tests with some required stipulations."

Another way ambulance services may get people to volunteer and work for their local ambulance service is through the Length of Service Award Program (LOSAP). Morth said the Ellsworth Area Ambulance Service will become part of LOSAP in 2018. This program is a pension fund for emergency medical volunteers and is based on their number of years of service. Morth said the more years a person volunteers the more vested they will become in LOSAP. He said when a person has 20 years of service in he/she will be 100 percent vested.

Morth said when a person is on call for their ambulance service, the person needs to be within 7 minutes of the station and right now that is difficult.

"What we are struggling with the most right now is lack of local people to be on the service," Morth said.

Jorgenson said without finding more local people to be on ambulance service it makes it even more difficult for staff that do give their time.

"If more EMTs are not hired it unfortunately places a burden on our active staff meaning they aren't able to go about their normal life activities," Jorgenson said, "because they have to stay in the service area to be there at a moment's notice when the pager tones."

Overall, the effect to the community if ambulance services are short staffed can be both financial and/or a decrease in service.

Jorgenson said if the staffing shortage continues they may need to either increase wages to the staff or possibly become a full time service. This would increase the costs to the consumers and communities.

Morth said besides the potential to increase the costs, it could also mean a delay in service.

"If you start losing [staff], you delay service," Link said, "which can affect call time and people's lives."

Jorgenson said that not having enough staff could mean some local ambulance services having to merge with surrounding communities.

"It's a tough balance, but for those of us in EMS we know our communities count on us at their worst times," Jorgenson said. "So in the big picture it truly affects our community if we can't get a truck out the door and have to wait 20-30 minutes for a neighboring service to provide them the care they need."