EMS Shortage Encompasses More Than Alstar, Fly Cars

From its start, those paying attention to emergency response in Chautauqua County knew implementing a county-backed fly car response system was only the start of reshaping Chautauqua County’s response to medical emergencies.

It’s been about 2¢ years since the county first saw a study from MMA Consulting in Massachusetts that recommended the fly car system, among other things, to improve emergency medical response in the county. It took nearly a little more than a year to move from study of fly cars to implement the program. It took roughly a year for county officials to figure out how to make the fly car system pay for itself.

Now, it may be time for the county to take another look at its emergency response.

Dave Thomas, WCA Services Corp. executive director, told county legislators last week that Alstar almost immediately lost EMS workers to the county’s fly car program and that the problem is continuing. That impacts the number of calls Alstar can answer in a year; in 2018, Alstar was able to answer 16,000 out of the 20,000 calls it received because of a lack of staff. Only Alstar can explain why it is losing EMS workers to other services, but Thomas’ discussion with legislators last week is a reminder that the county still doesn’t have enough EMS workers. At least one county official foreshadowed the situation before the fly car system became operational.

“Three fly cars in my opinion probably isn’t enough. It’s a huge geographical area in this county as you know,” Julius Leone, former county emergency services director, told legislators on the Public Safety Committee in October 2016. “We’re going to know more at this time next year as to whether or not three fly cars was sufficient or isn’t sufficient and in my opinion, it’s bare bones to close some of the gap. When we started down this road talking about response time for volunteers and the ability to get an ambulance on the street continues to be a challenge. That’s the key.”

While the issue only recently resurfaced publicly, we’re sure the county Emergency Services Council has been talking about this issue for the past couple of years. The council knows full well that volunteer fire departments are still having a hard time getting members certified, and in some cases re-certified, to be EMTs. They know Alstar is having a hard time keeping EMS workers on staff. They also know emergency calls are likely to continue increasing as the county’s population ages.

The shortage of first responders is a critical public safety issue that creation of a three-unit fly car system was never intended to solve. The fly car system was perhaps the easiest piece of the problem to solve. Now the hard work begins — enticing people with full-time jobs and families to volunteer for the oft-thankless task of responding to emergencies.

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