Emergency! Henry County area's EMT, paramedic shortage has real-world impact on patients

Beth Welbers
Geneseo Republic
A not so uncommon sign of the times

A perfect storm is brewing, and you may not notice it until you dial 9-1-1, and no one can respond to your emergency.

In recent years, the number of people seeking positions in the Emergency Medical Technician and Paramedic fields have dwindled.  Every ambulance service contacted cites the same issue, people are just not getting into this line of work.

During the pandemic, not only were people not joining, they were leaving, citing the virus, and its unknown ferocity as reasons to leave the field.  During the shutdown of schools, there were no EMT classes, and those who had managed to get classes behind them, found they could not get clinical hours in, since hospitals were not opening up to them, and once they did, nursing students were given priority. 

Baby boomers are leaving the workforce, and will be in a matter of years, more often the patient than the caregivers.  The demand for medical professionals in all areas will only continue to increase.  This, coupled with the fact that young people entering the work force have more choices for employment than has seen in decades, means that local emergency services must work harder to attract recruits.

Most services in rural areas are staffed by volunteers.  A schedule is made up, and assigned volunteers are on site at the firehouse or facility the ambulances are housed at.  They are paid a modest wage for being on call, and a greater sum if called out.  Most rural services are funded through the Fire District line items on property tax bills.  Grants are often sought for upgrades to equipment. 

James Roesner, CEO of Stark County Ambulance, that has contracts for primary EMS services with both Galva and Bishop Hill , as well as seven other locations, has all paid staff. They also offer a number of rural hospitals equipment and crews for non- emergency transfers between hospitals, nursing homes and advanced care facilities. 

Roesner admits that recruits are difficult to find, and preaches a work / life balance to prevent burn out for those in his employ.  Tuition reimbursement is offered to those who would be willing to upgrade their training to Intermediate or Paramedic credentials.

Post 9-11, Rosener admits there was a big push to become first responders, but he foresees  a significant failure on the horizon, potentially causing staffing shortages to rural services who are currently all volunteer.  "Fewer are staying in the profession, and younger people in the workforce are finding more bang for their buck elsewhere.  Not as many are seeking the satisfaction of Service over Self." observed Rosesner. "The model for the volunteer services will have to change."

Bob Hoscheid, Executive Director of 10-33 Ambulance in Spring Valley identified the issue sometime back, and has successfully managed to make the transition from all volunteer to largely paid staff.  Agreeing with Roesner, that there are more choices in professions, and finding new recruits continues to be an uphill battle.  "It is a needed community service, and we are constantly looking for people interested in helping to protect their communities." stated Hoscheid.

EMS Director in Geneseo, Jacob Morgan, is proud of the fact that Geneseo is able to maintain their status as an all-volunteer service.  They draw from a 21 person roster, making up schedules a month in advance, so that there are staff members on site 24/7.  Another feature that Geneseo offers is that EMT classes are conducted locally at the firehouse.  Six months of EMT training will begin October 25 through May 7, four hours each night, to complete the classroom portion of the training for Basic EMT.  After the classroom portion is complete, candidates will need 24 hours of ride-along and an additional 24 hours of clinical education as well.  EMTs must pass Illinois certification, and a background check as well.

Richard Bush, Dean and EMS Program Director at Black Hawk College spoke about the requirements for a job in the Emergency Medical field.  A basic EMT requires a two semester course.  An Associates of Applied Science Paramedic Degree will require two years.  95% of students will pass the certification exam on the first try, and the school has a record of 100% placement in the field for graduates of the program.  In Bush's opinion "Economics will determine the future of all volunteer services.  We have a significant gap with more openings than candidates to fill them.  We graduate 19 - 24 candidates from each class."

Pat Schou, Executive Director of Illinois Critical Access Hospital Network (ICAHN), agrees with many aspects of the healthcare worker shortage.  ICAHN represents 57 member hospitals in rural Illinois, including hospitals in Kewanee, Geneseo, Aledo, Monmouth, and Canton.  "At this time, no county appears to be in danger of losing Emergency Medical Services, but it is a concern."  Schou cited mandates, Covid vaccine refusals and mutual aid issues that will need to be addressed in the not so distant future.