EMS lacking qualified workers

Despite 911 upgrades, personnel, funds still needed

Gloved hands used a needle to gently prick the forearm of an epileptic man, extracting a blood sample, as he lay on a stretcher in an AMED ambulance.

While riding in the ambulance during lunch hour, two AMED personnel received an alert over the radio at 12:20 p.m. Aug. 23 about a medical emergency along 10th Street and Fifth Avenue.

The man was having slight tremors, clutching a bucket to his chest as he sat in his kitchen area. Paramedic Cheri Ott and emergency medical technician Marcus Angello responded to the incident, checking the man’s vitals, a cardiac monitor ready at hand.

The Altoona Fire Department arrived on scene shortly afterward and wheeled out a stretcher to transport the man to UPMC Altoona. He arrived at the hospital by an AMED ambulance at 12:43 p.m. where he had a full seizure, his face turning blue, according to Ott.

AMED responds to about 17,500 emergency calls of the approximate total of 22,000 calls received each year. This year, AMED has already responded to more than 12,000 emergency calls, said Gary Watters, AMED executive director.

Service area grows

A cooperative agreement between dispatch centers in various counties recently expanded to add Cambria, Centre and Somerset counties to share telecommunication resources, improve 911 call response times and cut down costs.

The original agreement, implemented in February 2015, enabled Bedford, Blair, Fulton and Huntingdon counties to share “existing assets,” including access to other dispatch centers should one go down.

“In reality, we can be backups for each other,” Harry Corley Jr., Bedford County 911 coordinator, said. “If Blair County has to leave their facility for whatever reason, their dispatchers can physically come to Bedford County or Huntingdon County and dispatch the Blair County services. That’s the long-term goal.”

Under the agreement, 911 calls are also automatically redirected to another dispatch center after five rings.

“It gives the community the confidence that somebody is going to answer their call in a timely manner,” Corley said of the agreement.

“And that help will be on the way,” added David Cubbison, Bedford County Emergency Management Services director.

Corley estimates the number of 911 calls have doubled or tripled over the years. He said more phone calls would’ve meant hiring more dispatchers. But under the “cost-effective” agreement, there isn’t a need to hire more dispatchers, Corley added.

For the agreement expansion, Corley said they are applying for state funding primarily for fiber optics, a backup for microwave communications system dispatch centers use to transmit data.

EMS personnel needed

Although there is a plan to answer 911 calls and dispatch help more quickly, numerous people noted the shortage of EMS responders, particularly volunteers at smaller agencies.

Watters said there has been a shortage for a while, noting how fewer people are going to school for emergency service responders.

“It’s not an easy job,” Watters said, also commenting on how smaller agencies, which make up the majority of EMS personnel in the state, don’t offer competitive salaries.

He said the shortage has caused a “big strain” on his staff since they have to often cover other areas, describing it as a “real struggle sometimes.”

“Fire and EMS are in a crisis right now. EMS is woefully lacking in funding, and the number of volunteer firefighters has fallen dramatically over the decades,” said state Sen. Randy Vulakovich, R-Allegheny County, co-chairman of the SR 6 commission created to study emergency services issues.

There were an estimated 300,000 volunteer firefighters in the 1970s, Vulakovich said, citing figures from the Office of the State Fire Commissioner. The number has dropped to 50,000.

But the SR 6 subcommittee on government support estimates the number is closer to 38,000.

Recruiting difficult

Carl Moen, Southern Alleghenies EMS Council executive director, said it’s hard to recruit and keep volunteer firefighters and volunteers for other agencies.

He suggested providing incentives, including offering training classes, providing vouchers for certification testing, increasing salaries for EMS personnel and getting additional funding from insurance billing.

Moen also recommended developing working agreements to create larger ambulatory service centers rather than relying on a whole bunch of smaller EMS agencies.

Watters cited the high cost of EMS training as an added deterrent. He said AMED is building a training facility near the Peoples Natural Gas Field to hire and train people. The facility is expected to open next spring.

Watters said the SR 6 commission has come up with some good ideas to help address issues with emergency services.

“But all of it requires some type of law change,” Watters said of the commissions’ recommendations. “That’s difficult to get through. The point is we can’t just bury our heads in the sand and say it will never happen. We’ve got to keep putting a light on the matter. We’ve got to keep bringing these issues up so hopefully somebody can get them through and changed.”

The SR 6 commission will compile and vote on a final report of recommendations to improve emergency services in October and then send it to the General Assembly.

Vulakovich said he hopes the report ensures that the House and Senate members are “tuned into this issue” and ready to act come January.

Rewards of the job

Ott took a short break at the back of the ambulance parked at the hospital entrance. She and Angello had just transported a diabetic elderly woman experiencing the effects of low blood pressure and high sugar levels.

“It all starts with neighbors, friends, relatives or the patients themselves contacting 911,” Ott said. “It’s a big team effort, and I like being part of the team.”

Ott first got interested in working with EMS when she worked at a volunteer ambulance service in her hometown of Blandburg. She has worked with AMED since 2007.

“Being a paramedic is like playing bingo,” Ott said. “It gets in your blood, and the more you play, the more you want to play.”

Angello, Ott’s unit partner, said he wanted to be in EMS since the first grade.

“The rewarding part of the job is just knowing that you’ve changed someone’s life for the better,” Angello said. “It can be just a thank you or an elderly woman giving you a hug for helping them or being there to console someone in their time of need.”

He said he enjoys the satisfaction of knowing he is helping people on a day-to-day basis.

Mirror Staff Writer Shen Wu Tan is at 946-7457.