July 3, 2008

Paramedics in Demand

By David Pittman, Amarillo Globe-News, Texas

Jul. 2--When paramedic Kelly Daniel recently offered a class for anyone interested in joining emergency response as a medical technician, he got 12 applications.

Only one has stuck around long enough to take the certification exam.

"From a small town point of view, no one is interested in doing a paramedic or EMT job because the pay scale is so low," said Daniel, director of Emergency Medical Service for Friona.

From big cities to small towns, ambulance services struggle with recruiting and retaining paramedics and EMTs to staff emergency vehicles. Without those workers, communities struggle to run an ambulance and provide care for trauma victims.

"It means your community is going without EMS services," Daniel said.

As educators and practitioners work to address the issue, solutions boil down to a few hard-to-address problems: lack of pay, lack of interest and lack of clinical space for training.

While wages vary, starting pay for a paramedic is in the range of $25,000 to $29,000 per year.

EMT training takes a one-semester class. But paramedic training, which certifies responders to provide a more advanced level of care, takes another 15 months of classes before students take a certification exam.

Amarillo College limits 24 to the paramedic class that starts every January.

Doug Adcock, an instructor with the college's EMS Professions Program, said extensive training demands a restriction on the number of students allowed to enroll each year.

"We're limited by clinical space," Adcock said.

Students need numerous hours of clinical time where they work in emergency rooms or ride ambulance shifts.

Mike Barter, Borger EMS director, said the paramedic shortage is more tied to low pay and disinterest in joining the profession.

"Plus, the cost of classes has gotten more out of range," Barter said.

Amarillo College started its last two graduating classes of paramedics with 15 students, only to graduate eight. The current class started with 22 students and is about to graduate 12.

"I've had two people that left because of gas prices," Adcock said.

This year AC may turn away paramedic applicants for lack of space.

"This year we've had a lot of interest," Adcock said. "We look for having more applicants than we have spaces in the spring."

AC and Frank Phillips College are the only two institutions that provide EMT and paramedic training.

Adcock said the paramedic shortage is tied to the national nursing shortage.

The schooling for each is equally difficult and long, yet nurses can easily make twice as much money.

"That's the real issue," Daniel said. "The pay scale is terrible."

The issue will only grow locally.

Northwest Texas Healthcare System, which operates the ambulance service in Amarillo, announced in April it intends to hire 11 additional paramedics to staff ambulances as it grows its fleet from 14 to 20.

"No matter what community you're from, this issue is getting worse and worse," Daniel said. "There are going to be services that are going to have to close from lack of personnel."

The answer, Barter suggests, is one that has been kicked around for years: Make ambulance service mandatory for communities to provide, like fire and police.

"I think the problem will continue until the state recognizes EMS as an essential service like fire or police," Barter said.


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