Most Southern Tier communities depend on volunteer EMTs to provide emergency medical and ambulance service. But what would happen if you needed an EMT but there were none in your community?
That's the nightmare scenario area EMS leaders say they are facing as fewer and fewer people volunteer to be EMTs.
Comprehensive local statistics aren't available, but statewide volunteers are draining from the EMT ranks. According to the state Bureau of EMS, the number of EMTs in New York dropped from more than 100,000 in 2000 to 59,755 in 2010.
From left, Jim O’Brien, 62, joined Allegany Rescue and EMS last year after taking an EMT class on his own. Allegany EMS Capt. Jerry Cummins, right, said agencies need to be flexible to attract more volunteers.
Southern Tier Emergency Medical Service (STEMS), a program of Southern Tier Health Care System, Inc., is working with area EMS agencies to develop a region-wide EMS volunteer recruitment and retention program to address the problem.
STEMS Program Coordinator Jill Stady said many people are unaware how great the need for more EMS volunteers is. There are 91 EMS agencies in the tri-county region of Allegany, Cattaraugus and Chautauqua counties. Eighty-five of those EMS agencies are all-volunteer services.
"Chances are if someone in the Southern Tier dials 911 and needs emergency medical care, it is a volunteer EMT who will provide that care," she said. "EMS providers are the critical link in emergency health care in the Southern Tier."
The Angelica Hose Co. in Allegany County is typical of many area EMS agencies, a handful of volunteers answer the majority of EMS calls. Fire Chief Jim Ryan said the all-volunteer Angelica Rescue Squad is down to six EMTs from a high of nearly 20 a decade ago.
He said with only six EMTs, the future of the Angelica Rescue Squad is in danger.
"We take care of our calls," Chief Ryan said. "But it's going to be a dying thing if we can't find more people to volunteer."
Chief Ryan said the Angelica Rescue Squad has plenty of community support, the community turns out for fundraisers and other events, but few people have the time to train and serve as an EMT. The Rescue Squad answers between 175 and 200 EMS calls per year. Chief Ryan said the main danger of having too few EMTs is burnout.
Chief Ryan said long training commitments is one of the reasons people often cite for not wanting to become an EMT. It takes more than 140 hours of training just to become a basic EMT. And EMTs have to take refresher courses every three years to maintain their certifications.
He said Angelica Rescue will likely lose one of its best EMTs this year because the EMT is a nurse who works the night shift at a local hospital.
"And this year she's got to refresh but she can't because the classes are at night," Chief Ryan said.
SEEKING YOUNGER VOLUNTEERS
In Chautauqua County, Stanley Hose Co. EMS Capt. Bob Crane said his department has enough EMTs right now, but it sees a shortage looming on the horizon. Stanley Hose is starting a junior EMS department at area schools to get teens interested in becoming EMTs.
"It's something we've been talking about for a while," he said. "We've got three very good EMS guys who are teachers at the school and they've been pushing the idea."
He said the junior members wouldn't be able to join the department as full-fledged EMTs until they turn 18 due to state law, but the experience as junior members would let them know what to expect.
Amity Rescue Assistant Ambulance Capt. Scott Lanphier said Amity has had a junior member program for more than 10 years. Teens can qualify as certified first responders once they turn 16 and serve as EMT assistants.
"We try not to let them see too much and we don't let them stay out too late during the school year," Capt. Lanphier said.
He said over the years, the program has help boost Amity's ranks of adult volunteers. But now, Amity Rescue may have a problem.
"This is the first year we don't have any kids coming up through the program," Capt. Lanphier said.
He said the Rescue Squad is planning a series of community outreach events to let the community know it needs more EMS volunteers.
Like the Angelica Rescue Squad, Allegany Rescue and EMS is answering its EMS calls, but is doing it with fewer and fewer EMTs.
EMS Capt. Jerry Cummins said a handful of EMTs answer the majority of EMS calls and it's one of the busiest EMS agencies in Cattaraugus County, responding to more than 900 EMS calls last year. Capt. Cummins said, on paper, Allegany Rescue has enough EMTs.
"We have 22 EMTs but some of them are college students and most of them have full-time jobs," he said. "So in reality, it's down to four or five people who answer 90 percent of the calls. It's getting tougher and tougher to meet the response for calls that we have."
Capt. Cummins said Allegany is considering training people to just drive its ambulances or serve as EMT helpers in order to free up EMTs to care for patients.
"Not everybody has six or eight days a month to spend at the hall," he said. "If someone said, 'My time is really limited, I've got maybe 20 hours a month free.' Well, 20 hours a month is a lot of time, I'll take it.
"We have to start looking at things differently. Our society has changed. We have to figure out a way to accommodate people who want to be involved and want to help."
Capt. Cummins said one of Allegany's most dedicated EMTs is Jim O'Brien, 62. Mr. O'Brien said he took his first EMT last year so he can take care of his grandchildren and other family members. He retired recently following careers in law enforcement and the financial services industry.
"I really didn't have any thought of being in this organization (Allegany Rescue)," he said. "I did it for my own well-being."
He said it feels good to be able to help his friends and neighbors. Mr. O'Brien urged anyone interested in helping their community to visit their local EMS agency.
"Take the tour. You don't have to be an EMT, we need ambulance drivers too," he said.
Mrs. Stady said STEMS can help people contact EMS leaders in their local communities. She urged anyone interested in volunteering as an EMT to contact STEMS at 372-0614 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
There are benefits to being an EMS volunteer. Volunteer EMTs receive their EMS training for free and there are other incentives including tuition reimbursements for college and tax breaks.