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Rural Georgia and Tenn. Short on Paramedics

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. -- Ambulance service directors in rural Georgia and Tennessee say they re battling a shortage of paramedics as training facilities dwindle and graduates seek jobs in better-paying fields.

In the state of Georgia, it s official: We re in a paramedic shortage, said Scott Radeker, Hutcheson Medical Center EMS director in Fort Oglethorpe.

We ve lost our paramedic training program in Dalton; Northwestern Tech is attempting to get one started up, but I don t think they re committing to that right now, Mr. Radeker said. We have limited resources to meet unlimited demand.

It s the same in Tennessee.

We re beginning to have staffing problems, said Danny Lawson, the director of Bradley County, Tenn. s emergency medical service since 1999.

Traditionally, we ve never had a problem retaining employees and attracting employees, Mr. Lawson said. Just recently, we ve lost paramedics to other fields.

A family health insurance policy for Bradley County ambulance staff is about $700 a month, but compared to what we are paid, it s very difficult to manage a household with an insurance cost such as that, he said.

Paramedics can find jobs elsewhere with better pay and stability, he said.

The number of licensed paramedics in Tennessee quadrupled from about 1,000 in 1988 to more than 4,000 now, said Joe Phillips, director of the Division of Emergency Medical Services for the Tennessee Department of Health.

But officials said ambulance service salaries and benefits are falling behind those in other sectors.

It s really up to local governments to take that on, Mr. Phillips said. EMS generates a lot of revenue, where most other government services don t. It s a question of how that fact is weighed in the decision-making process.

Georgia Emergency Medical Service Director William Billings said lawmakers are discussing some of the problems EMS services are facing, particularly in education.

The generation coming out today, typically, is IT oriented. They ve all got their cell phones, iPods, PlayStation portables. They re used to dealing with things on a computer-based level and not interacting personally, Mr. Billings said.

Ours is still a hands-on health care field, he said.

Students can go through a little more training and reap better salary and benefits in another medical career, Mr. Billings said.

For the length of time they have to go to school to be a paramedic, they could go just a couple of more months and be (a registered nurse), he said.

I don t think there s any one silver-bullet answer, Mr. Billings said. I think we re all going to have to get creative on our recruitment, and we re going to have to retain those we can get into our field.

Rick Cobb, Whitfield County, Ga. s EMS director, said older paramedics are drawn to fields that are less physically demanding and more financially secure.

We re not training as many as are leaving, he said.

We ve got some young folks that are coming into the profession right now that are just jam-up, he said. They love the work, they re very dedicated, they love the responsibility, but unfortunately you ve got people who are my age and older that are getting out.

Curt Aukerman has directed the paramedic training program at Chattanooga State Technical Community College for seven years. He said he s seeing more graduates heading for nontraditional jobs.

EMS is a young profession, just 35 to 40 years old, Mr. Aukerman said.

The profession has come a long way from the funeral home-based services that once filled the niche, he said. But EMS lacks the support networks police and fire departments have to keep benefits and salaries competitive, he said.

Mr. Aukerman and other officials point to the 1970s television show Emergency as having raised the professional status of ambulance services.

But he said today s reality television shows give people the wrong idea about the profession.

It s not the red lights and sirens they see on the reality TV shows, he said. When you really look at it, a very small portion of what we do in EMS is that.

E-mail Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com

LICENSED PARAMEDICS

* 5,682: Georgia

* 4,355: Tennessee

Source: State officials

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

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