Fewer Medics Mean Longer Ambulance Response Times


Matt Snyder | | Sunday, June 1, 2008

MERCER COUNTY, Pa. -- Holding on to paramedics and emergency medical technicians is a problem across the country -- including here -- and that likely has meant longer response times by ambulances.

A report made available by EMMCO West Inc. -- a contract agency that works as the hands and feet for Pennsylvania's Department of Health in Mercer County and the Northwestern part of the state -- spells out the difficulty of holding on to paramedics.

"They clearly are having a recruitment and retention problem with their personnel," said EMMCO's executive director Bill McClincy. "And that's the bottom line."

There are a lot of factors contributing to the decline in paramedics and EMTs, but strongly factored in is the fact that nurses make $20,000 to $30,000 more for work that takes the same level of training.

And a shortfall in medical technicians means an effect on response time, he said.

"If a local community cannot staff an ambulance, that means another ambulance is coming from another community based on a mutual aid agreement," McClincy said. "So yes, it's going to take longer for an ambulance to arrive."

But that doesn't mean patients will always wait alone. Fire departments pick up some of the slack by providing quick response services.

Transfer Fire Chief and paramedic Phil Steele said a quick responder is someone who "stops the clock," trying to keep a patient stable and provide basic medical care until ambulances arrive.

That basic emergency care can be as simple as CPR or as complicated as the defibrillators that electrically kick start hearts, he said. They do not use drugs or intravenous solutions, though.

They don't have access to the breadth or depth of equipment and care that ambulances deal with, "but there's still medical care at the side of the patient."

In some cases, he said quick responders arrive up to 20 minutes before an ambulance.

Volunteer firefighters' numbers are also on the decline, but their stations are still more spread out and numerous, so frequently they arrive ahead of ambulances, Steele said.

Ambulances are mostly run by private companies in Mercer County, with the exception of a volunteer service run by Jamestown's fire department.

Coverage by ambulances is centered in the Shenango Valley, Greenville and Mercer-Grove City areas, Steele said.

It can lag in the more rural parts of the county, where private companies would have to stock and staff an ambulance with hard-to-find personnel in order to respond to one or two calls a day if they wanted someone constantly ready and on hand, he said.

"They need to make money," Steele said. "There are occasions when there are not enough ambulances in Mercer County to handle the load. But we don't subsidize that."

Steele said with the possible exception of Jamestown, no one in Mercer County has to pay a dime in local tax money to support the ambulance services.

Personnel problems aren't universal, either. Matt Chlpka, who is a paramedic with McGonigle Ambulance Service Inc., said they started with 8 employees and now have over 50.

He said staffing is in line with the increase in calls they get. Over the last two years alone, calls have gone from about 10,000 a year to 15,000.

And Chlpka breaks the trend on retention, too. He has worked in ambulances for 12 years. "I love the job and I like being out in the community with people," he said.

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