EMS in volunteer crisis

This is National Emergency Medical Services week, that time of year the public is asked to pause and recognize an important job provided 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

But it is a system in serious crisis, suffering from a lack of volunteers, those in the EMS business say.   In regions such as Susquehanna County’s Endless Mountains, volunteers make up the bulk of the local EMS personnel, but as their ranks age and pass off into retirement, few are stepping forward to take their place.

Cheryl Buchta, a 33-year member of the Great Bend Hallstead Volunteer Ambulance service, recently made a public plea for volunteers to train and serve as EMTs. 

“We don’t have enough volunteers,” Buchta said.  “People are not volunteering.”

Great Bend covers a 38-square-mile area including Interstate 81 and answers about 366 calls a year, serving about 3,000 residents — 60 percent of whom are elderly.  Great Bend relies on a little over 20 unpaid volunteers who must be ready at the sound of a tone.  Buchta acknowledges that it is a lot to ask in today’s world.

“The generation has changed.  The economy has changed.  People have to work two jobs just to make ends meet,” she said.

Then there’s the training, a course of four-hour sessions totaling about 220 hours.  As training for a job that won’t pay you anything, it’s not cheap, either.  As an example, costs for next month’s EMT training course at Lackawanna College’s Towanda Campus start at $640.

Buchta, who is also an EMT instructor, recounts the disappointing night not so long ago when only a few applicants showed up for the start of a nighttime EMT training course.

“And then you have to get up for work the next day after sitting in class for four hours,” she said.

“You can’t ask them to drop their family to go volunteering,” she observed.

“Tomorrow is not promised to anybody.  We can do what we do but we need more people to help us do what we do,” Buchta said.

Ambulance service operating costs present yet another problem, one complicated by factors such as nuisance calls where some people suffering from non-emergency ailments elect to use the ambulance service as a hospital taxi.  Great Bend offers a subscription service where insurance is billed and the difference is written off and non-subscribers pay in full.  Great Bend holds an annual subscription drive. 

Apparatus maintenance is also expensive.  According to Heather Sharar of the Harrisburg-based Ambulance Association of Pennsylvania, it costs upwards of $550,000 to operate just one Basic Life Support ambulance of the type used by ambulance services like Great Bend.  An Advanced Life Support ambulance containing more sophisticated medical equipment would cost about $800,000 a year.

Sharar is also cognizant of the EMT volunteer crisis.  Pennsylvania has lost over 18,000 qualified EMTs over the past 10 years.

Sharar said that the crisis extends even to paid ambulance services.

“There is a crisis because we cannot get people interested in becoming EMTs and Paramedics.  They can go to Arby’s and Sheetz and make the same amount of money without any education,” Sharar said.

Sharar said that the recently enacted Senate Resolution 6, which established a bipartisan commission to rehaul the delivery of emergency medical services in Pennsylvania, is one positive step towards improving the plight of volunteer ambulance companies such as Great Bend.

“It’s gonna take some legislative initiative,” Sharar said, describing the situation as as a “several pronged problem.”

“Eventually we hope to make a lot of changes for the benefit of EMS,” Sharar said.

On a more positive note, Rep. Jonathan Fritz announced Monday that the Office of the State Fire Commissioner awarded grants to local EMS and volunteer fire companies to help with “needed building repairs, additional firefighter and ambulance volunteer training, or equipment repairs and purchases.”  Great Bend Hose Company No. 1 Inc. received $12,667.25.   Other Susquehanna County emergency responder groups received similar amounts.

“I am truly thankful for the men and women who volunteer with our local fire and ambulance agencies in order to help protect and serve our communities,” said Fritz. “I am pleased to know that they are receiving these crucial funds to allow them to continue serving our area efficiently.” 

Administered by the OSFC and Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA) the funds come from a grant program established by the Legislature and fueled by slot machine gaming and not General Fund monies.

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