Staffing shortage stretches Gaston Emergency Medical Services thin amid pandemic

·3 min read
Paramedic Jason Stowe checks equipment at Gaston County Emergency Medical Services on North Highland St. Tuesday morning, Jan. 25, 2022.
Paramedic Jason Stowe checks equipment at Gaston County Emergency Medical Services on North Highland St. Tuesday morning, Jan. 25, 2022.

Gaston Emergency Medical Services is trying to fill a dozen positions as part of a new program that will hire people with no certifications and train them for the job.

The program is an effort to both make the department more diverse and fill an ongoing staffing shortage that has been severely exacerbated by the pandemic, said EMS Deputy Chief Jamie McConnell.

To fill the 12 vacancies, EMS will hire people who have the capacity, the passion for the work, and the people skills, and train them over the course of two years so that they eventually can become paramedics.

The program has some precedence in Gaston County. Over the last several years, EMS has struggled to find qualified paramedics to hire, so two years ago they hired emergency medical technicians and paid for them to go to school to become paramedics.

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But now, they're struggling to find EMTs to hire, McConnell said. Right now, about 10% of their positions in EMS are vacant — 21 out of 204 total positions. In the last year, it's been as high as 15%. Additionally, staff members are often out because they either tested positive for COVID-19 or they are experiencing the symptoms of the virus.

Since Dec. 24, 49 people have had to call out for those reasons, making scheduling difficult and increasing the strain on staff who then have to work longer hours because coworkers are sick, McConnell said. To add to that stress, hospitals are overcrowded, forcing ambulances to go farther to find hospitals that will admit patients.

"It's a cat and mouse game trying to figure out which hospital to take people to," McConnell said.

The compounded stress on existing staff can eventually cause burnout, and people leave the profession entirely.

"In the last year, I've had people either turn down or leave here to go work for Amazon. I've had people leave here and go to work for Walmart, because they can get better pay at Walmart," he said. "In January, the county commissioners and human resources did us a huge favor. They did a salary survey, and pay was increased significantly to make us more marketable, so hopefully that will help ease some of that."

Before the county decided to give EMS employees a raise, the pay started at $16 an hour for paramedics who had just a certificate, rose to $17.64 an hour for paramedics with a two-year degree, and to $18.52 for paramedics with a four year degree.

That has jumped significantly. The starting pay for paramedics with just a certificate is now $20.86 an hour, those with a two-year degree get $23 an hour, and those with a four-year degree get $24.15 an hour.

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GEMS is using several other approaches to try to boost recruitment — The Explorer program, which allows young people to take classes in things like first aid and shadow EMS staff; the pre-apprenticeship program, which allows young people to get both on-the-job training and go to school for formal certifications.

"We're always recruiting," McConnell said.

Despite its challenges, the profession offers an opportunity to serve the public and care for other people.

"Working for the service of others, connection with people. It takes a special person to care for somebody who is really in need, but it takes an even more special person to take care of somebody who thinks they need somebody, but they really don't, and do that with the same level of compassion," McConnell said. "Just that connection with people is what keeps me in the business."

Reporter Kara Fohner can be reached at 704-869-1850 or on Twitter at @KaraFohner.

This article originally appeared on The Gaston Gazette: Gaston County ambulance service facing staffing shortage

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