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Higher Pay Attracts Would-Be Paramedics in Tenn.

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. -- Though ambulance services in surrounding counties have complained of an acute shortage in paramedics, Hamilton County officials say local recruitment problems stem from the quality of applicants -- not quantity.

I think the numbers are there, said Ken Wilkerson, Hamilton County Emergency Medical Services chief. We re blessed with the luxury here of a top-of-the-line pay scale, so we re able to attract employees from lesser-paying organizations.

Chief Wilkerson said there are only three openings in his staff of 105.

After a training program that generally takes six to 10 months, emergency medical technicians can begin work in Hamilton County with an annual salary of about $30,000. Paramedics who complete a more advanced, two-year training program begin at about $41,000 a year, Chief Wilkerson said.

Both job tracks feature benefit packages through the county, he said, and a total compensation package that is in line with other major cities in the region such as Atlanta, Nashville and Memphis.

But that means applicants may be attracted to work here for the paycheck rather than for the public service aspect of the job, Chief Wilkerson said.

I think the basis for the career has changed, he said. Nowadays, you become a paramedic because you get out after just two years of college and you start out at $41,000 ... I think this generation is just more me-minded.

Capt. Darlene Poole, EMS training supervisor, agreed.

Since (the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001), it seems like we ve had even more folks wanting to come out and be paramedics and EMTs, Capt. Poole said. But they re not willing to work for it. It used to be that there was a real desire to help people. Now, it s just another job.

Capt. Poole says her agency receives large numbers of applicants from local programs at Chattanooga State Technical Community College and Cleveland State Community College, but that most of those people do not make it through pre-employment screenings involving practical skill and physical agility testing.

Those applicants tend to arrive straight out of school, without the real-world ambulance experience that generations past seemed to have, Capt. Poole said.

Monique High, a 35-year-old Chattanooga State student studying to be an EMT, said her program does not require any such experience. Ms. High, who has worked as a bus driver and corrections officer, said she views the classes as just a transition to a career in nursing.

Though she said she truly is interested in helping people through medicine, she sees classmates with more cynical views and agrees that younger people tend to look out for themselves above others.

Any career that you go into, very few people do it because they have genuine care and concern, Ms. High said.

E-mail Lauren Gregory at lgregory@timesfreepress.com

EDITOR S NOTE: For audio with this story, go to www.timesfreepress.com.

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