Local emergency medical service providers say they’re being impacted by a nationwide shortage of EMT’s and paramedics.
Just recently, the ambulance service provider in Unicoi County, MedicOne Medical Response, backed out of its new contract because they couldn’t hire enough staff.
Stakeholders said this staffing shortage is multifaceted and so is their approach to fixing it.
Zack Hartley is an advanced EMT in Washington County, currently pursuing his paramedic certification at Northeast State Community College.
“The most rewarding part is being able to listen to somebody that’s having the worst day of their life and provide some sort of help to them,” said Hartley. “Going on to get paramedic gives you a lot more tools and the ability to do more for the patient.”
To get that certification, Hartley said he has to balance three semesters of classes, over 600 hours of clinical work and a full-time job with 24-hour shifts.
“So my next day off right now is the third week of May,” said Hartley.
That’s just one of the reasons behind the nationwide shortage of EMT’s and paramedics, according to Northeast State’s Paramedic Program Director David Bryant.
“It’s a tremendous burden on these students,” he said. “By the third semester, they’re just exhausted.”
Hartley said schools could better align their class schedules to accommodate students like him who already work full time in the field.
“That is being looked at and in the near future may be tried,” said Bryant, noting it may be a challenge to align various agencies across the Tri-Cities.
Bryant said low pay and long hours can also be deterrents for prospective students.
He said paramedics in the area only make about 15 dollars an hour.
“It’s not a lot of pay considering the responsibility they have,” said Bryant.
For an additional semester of work, Bryant said these students can make double pursuing a career as a nurse.
“There’s not a lot of incentive for people to go to paramedic school to make that a career,” said Dan Wheeley, executive director of Washington County EMS.
Wheeley said the shortage is also related to a cultural shift. “Before kids grew up in emergency services, either directly being involved with the department or being involved in the department through their parents so that kind of sparked their interest,” said Wheeley. “We just see a huge decline in volunteerism.”
Colleges and EMS agencies are trying to find new ways of engaging future employees, primarily through career fairs.
“That’s the only way that we have to connect with them now, we’re even trying to go and connect with them at an earlier age,” said Bryant.
Bryant said the college is looking into offering lower level EMT classes in high school so that more students can enter advanced programs sooner.
He said older adults interested in getting an advanced EMT or paramedic certification can have their tuition paid at Northeast State through the Tennessee Reconnect Program.
“I think you just need to try it and figure out if you like it. I think that’s what makes the difference,” said Hartley.