Multiple issues at play with EMS staffing challenges

Published 7:35 pm Thursday, October 7, 2021

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The Carter County Rescue Squad is battling a number of factors in trying to maintain appropriate staffing, the director said this week.

“It’s not just one thing,” said Terry Arnold, who talked with commissioners on Tuesday regarding public concerns over delayed response times. Arnold told commissioners at the meeting that the EMS program is staffed at about 50 percent of its needs.

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Arnold told commissioners that the EMS should staff and operate one truck for every 10,000 people. With 57,000 people in Carter County, the EMS should have five or six trucks available at all times. He said the EMS service is often running two or three trucks.

“It’s not just one thing, it’s everything – money, changes in the law, being out there alone, and just doing the work,” he said in explaining why maintaining employees has become a challenge.

Complicating the challenges of fewer trucks available is the need for squads to stay at the hospital with patients until they are able to be admitted.  “One of our longest calls at the hospital lasted five hours – we just can’t get off the call,” Arnold said. He told the commissioners that by law he wasn’t required to stay at the hospitals but added that it wasn’t right to just leave those patients in the halls until they could be seen. COVID-19 at one time was responsible for 78 percent of the patients being taken to the hospital.

The staffing issues mean some stations – like Roan Mountain and Hampton – are often unmanned. “Ninety percent of the time, the truck doesn’t stay at those stations,” Arnold said.  “I can’t promise that an ambulance is going to be at Station One.”

Hiring and retaining employees is also an ongoing issue. Arnold said many of the applicants are not qualified to work for the rescue squad. The employees who choose to leave often “didn’t feel comfortable with the stress of the job.” He said the rescue squad has spent over $100,000 on equipment to protect employees during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We have been at our max for the last year to a year and a half,” added Arnold, repeating that 78 percent of calls have been COVID-related.

Arnold also shared concerns about the Surf Betsy project which he said “is going to be dangerous,” and will require someone to be there 24-7 for potential emergencies.

He also said 90 percent of the rescues that are conducted by the rescue squad occur on state or federal land. “We are doing these rescues and not receiving a dime,” Arnold said. “We do charge those who are rescued if they live outside of Carter County to try to recoup the money spent on those rescues, but many times they don’t pay.”

Mayor Patty Woodby showed concern when she asked, “What can we do to help?”  “Share ideas if you have any,” replied Arnold.