EMT shortage threatens service

<I>Corey Wicks/Chieftain</I><BR>EMT Reta Warner stabilizes the neck of a rollover accident victim last summer.

Wallowa County is in a dire need of new part-time Emergency Medical Technicians, as the attrition rate has exceeded the rate that new EMTs are entering the field (and the county).

"Our ability to continue to provide EMS to this county is threatened," said Bruce Womack the EMS Coordinator of Wallowa County EMS. Womack and Intermediate EMT Reta Warner spoke with the Chieftain in an interview Friday. "We've been in the decline for the last two years... this year it's worse than it's ever been," Womack said.

The lack of part-time EMTs has become acute, as of late, despite the fact that the Wallowa County Health District boosted the number of full-time EMTs to four, not including Womack who serves as the coordinator. There are four paid part-time EMTs in Wallowa and four other part-time EMTs in the county - and only one of those lives within the Enterprise city limits.

The part-time positions typically pay $13.50 an hour on an ambulance run and $2 an hour while on call, he said.

Between those five full-timers, that is a "bare bones" staffing level that enables two people in the county to be on-call at any time - even though some critical patients really require three EMTs, Warner said. If there is a heavy patient that requires lifting, often the fire departments are called in for assistance.

Womack himself is planning on retiring soon, and Warner is graduating in June with a degree in nursing. Also, Connie Stein, a paid part-time EMT who has worked for many years in the county, is also planning on retiring soon. There doesn't appear to be enough EMTs coming through the training pipeline to keep up with the demand, Womack said.

Adding to the trouble of finding qualified persons to fill volunteer positions is the fact that they must live in close proximity to the areas they respond to. In order to be an EMT volunteer they must live within five minutes of the city they respond to, Womack said.

Plus, the part-time EMTs often have a full-time employer that must be willing to allow an employee to leave at a moment's notice. "What you're looking at is a person who is in a unique position with their employers," Warner said.

EMT training has been offered at Blue Mountain Community College in Enterprise, but this semester, there were not enough people signed up to take the class in order to hold it. That was despite the fact that the county EMS offers scholarships that pay about 80 percent of the cost of the training, Womack said.

If the county doesn't attract enough EMTs to enter the field, then the county may have to reorganize the way EMS is done in the county, Womack said. Should that be the case, then in the future, patients may not see familiar faces on ambulance calls, and many patients tend to find it comforting when the responders are familiar faces, he said. That would be a loss to the rural community nature of the current EMS system, he said.

Womack said that, even despite the staffing shortages, the county has managed to consistently provide services that are among the best in all of Oregon. "We have one of the top services in the state. People in this county have a wonderful service," he said.

Nevertheless, the county is facing a crisis if it doesn't figure out how to solve its current dilemma of staffing shortages.

"We need to pull together as a county to make sure we have staffing for our ambulance service," Womack said. "This is our county and we depend on each other."

Given the staffing shortages, he said it may take more citizen involvement in emergency situations and people will have to ask themselves, "What can I do when my neighbor is injured or sick?"

Until the staffing shortages are resolved, the veteran crew will continue to be stretched thin, even as Warner has constantly had to be on call for 96 hours at a time. They don't know yet if the problem will be solved before the time they hang up their stethoscopes.

"We just at this point don't know what to do," Warner said.

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