RALEIGH, NC. — There is an extreme shortage of EMS workers and paramedics in states across the country. It has become such a problem that some patients are waiting for hours for an ambulance or are asked to get to the hospital without one.
Some departments are not only looking for unique ways to hire new staff members, there is also a call to reform the 911 system to unburden emergency responders.
In Wake County, North Carolina, the Wake County EMS Department is working on a multifold approach to make sure their community has the emergency services system it needs.
One big piece of that is getting young students interested in a career in emergency medical services. They launched summer camps and fun training for students starting in middle school, and once students get to high school, they can start more in-depth training. Eventually, teens will be able to assist and work with other EMS workers in the ambulance.
Eighteen-year-old Michaela Casey is following in her parent’s footsteps. She’s been volunteering at Wake County EMS and participating in camps since middle school.
“Michaela is the oldest of six,” said her mom and fellow EMS, Shannon Casey Wright. “We make jokes about how many trucks we can staff with just our children alone.”
Casey finished her cadet training and was just hired on with EMS full time.
“My husband and I kind of started making comments like, ‘Oh, I think she's been bitten by the bug,’” joked Casey Wright.
“At 13, it was still something different that all my friends did. Nobody did stuff like that,” said Casey.
Casey was able to get training sooner than most EMS workers across the country through a unique youth cadet program in her county, and her help is desperately needed.
Her department has dozens of open positions and more calls to 911 than ever before, and it’s impacting response times.
“There's been times that we've had to hold not as severe calls, in case those more severe calls do end up happening,” said Casey. “There's times when like we are down so many trucks just because we don't have enough people.”
Raleigh, North Carolina isn’t the only community struggling with short staffing. Nationwide, there are thousands of openings for EMS workers.
“Call volume-wise, 2021 has been the busiest year in the history of Wake County. We're still seeing days where we're averaging 360 to 380 calls, so it doesn’t look like it’ll let up anytime soon,” said Brian Brooks, who runs community outreach for Wake County EMS.
Brooks said the staffing shortage started long before COVID-19 hit, but the pandemic only made it worse.
“Pay does have a lot to do with it,” said Brooks. “The workload, certainly over the summer with COVID, and people are coming to work for 12, 14 hours and running 14, 15 calls. COVID has revealed to a lot of people, it's not worth it.”
Departments across the country have long been turning to high schoolers to fill their staffing gaps, but with the summer camps and youth programs open to middle schoolers too, Brooks believes it will make a difference to get young people excited to join the profession.
“We know for a fact that there are kids that missed this opportunity because they never thought that this was an option,” said Brooks.
Casey knows the shortage may make the start of her career more stressful, but the reward is well worth it.
“We're not here to fight being short-staffed, that's not our job, like our job is to go out and help people,” said Casey.
As Casey Wright watches her daughter step into the profession she holds dear, she is proud that her daughter is taking on the mission to help.
“I hope that you know, 13 years later, she also says, ‘This is the best job ever,’ because I really genuinely believe that. And so, I hope that, you know, a decade from now she feels the same way,” said Casey Wright.
“I think the job, period, has just made me grow as a person, and it will continue to make me grow,” said Casey.
The other component Brooks said is necessary in helping alleviate the extreme worker shortage is re-routing many low acuity 911 calls to a nurse, telehealth or a mental health resource line.
“I don't think the solution is to hire 70 paramedics because the schools aren't cranking out enough people for us to hire,” said Brooks. “We're going to have to change the delivery model of how we get people to access the health care system.”
Wake County EMS is developing a system to take some of the high call volume weight off the emergency response teams. This way, the EMS teams will be able to respond to life-threatening emergencies with more efficiency.
He is hopeful these programs, working hand in hand will bring relief to his hard-working teams in the months and years to come.