Mar. 29—When Bill McClincy talks about the shortage of paramedics in northwestern Pennsylvania, he uses the word “crisis.”
McClincy, director of Emergency Medical Management Cooperative West, or EMMCO West, is well-positioned to understand the regional paramedic shortage. EMMCO West includes medical first responder services in Mercer, Clarion, Crawford, Erie, Forest, Venango and Warren counties.
“It’s part of the EMS system crisis we are finding ourselves in,” McClincy said of the paramedic shortage.
In the last five years, 169 paramedics have walked away from their jobs in the seven-county region alone, McClincy said. That’s why he is glad to hear that Sharon Regional Medical Center and Community College of Allegheny County are cooperating to start a paramedic instructional program at the hospital.
Graduates will be eligible for certification as an advanced emergency medical technician or a paramedic.
“We are extremely pleased to be able to implement this certification program in cooperation with CCAC, which is the first step in filling the critical need in Mercer County and surrounding areas,” said Joseph Hugar, Sharon Regional’s president.
Kurt Ellefson, director of Sharon Regional’s emergency and security services, sees the paramedic need firsthand.
“It’s a real struggle right now to find a paramedic,” Ellefson said.
Most patients’ first contact with a paramedic is in an ambulance. But they also can be found in hospitals—Ellefson said Sharon Regional has paramedics working in its emergency room.
Still, ambulance services are clamoring for paramedics. Last year, Sharon Regional received 6,000 ambulances.
“This will give us the opportunity to really increase our staffing levels with advanced medical skills,” said John Libonati, director of operations for Hermitage-based McGonigle Ambulance.
“Staffing can be a challenge,” Libonati added. “You can always buy another ambulance, but if you don’t have the right people to staff it, you’re in trouble. We’re very blessed to be at full complement now.”
This shortage is seen nationwide, McClincy said.
There are multiple reasons for the paramedic shortfall, he said. Retirements, stress of the job, a requirement to get recertified annually and at times the starting salary are a few.
In many cases, McClincy said, EMS providers leave to take higher-paying, more stable jobs within the medical field. With declining payments from private and public providers, EMS agencies are unable to pay competitive wages to responders, which could make the crisis worse.
“There are more and more calls, and less people to go on the calls,” McClincy said. “There may be a day that another model may need to be considered to ensure that ambulances are available in our communities.”
Salaries for paramedics in the area start out at about $14 to $16 an hour, Libonati said. Getting the higher salary is based on additional qualifications and experience.
“We provide an awesome benefit package,” he said. “And part of our staff works 48 hours a week so they get overtime pay.”
Neil Jones, associate professor and paramedic program director for CCAC, was a paramedic for 35 years. He said establishing the local school will help fill the need.
“This is a great opportunity for us to get things moving again,” Jones said of being able to fill paramedic posts. “There was no real program in your region to provide that.”
McClincy said Erie Emergycare provides the only other paramedic program in northwestern Pennsylvania.
After passing the college course, graduates must also pass a state-administered exam to hold that job. Among emergency responders, there is one thing that sets paramedics apart, Jones said.
“The paramedic is able to bring the care of an emergency room department to the patient,” he said.