S.C. Facing EMS Provider Shortage
Oct. 03—Campobello resident Jody Ledford climbed into an ambulance three years ago and hasn't looked back since.
Now a paramedic with Spartanburg EMS, he faces long days, high stress, a modest salary and little appreciation from some who call 911.
He said he understands why Spartanburg County, and the rest of the state, are dealing with a looming shortage of EMTs and paramedics.
"It's often a very thankless job... You really have to have a passion and a drive to want to do this kind of work," the 35-year-old said. "You don't get into it lighthearted and thinking something's going to be fun like you see on TV. You want to help people."
Local and state officials are now finding ways to promote the emergency medical profession to fill in the gaps. A shortage has placed a strain on call response times and workloads for those still in the industry.
There are 19 vacancies at Spartanburg EMS. Overtime is offered daily to cover the gaps.
The job outlook over the next decade is more reassuring. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows the national emergency medical services profession growing by 24 percent by the year 2024.
But getting there is the key. Spartanburg Community College offers certificates to become an EMT and also a paramedic associate's degree that includes full class loads along with training at hospitals and inside ambulances. Friday morning's paramedic class covered soft tissue care and burn injuries.
Ledford went through SCC's program.
He said as Spartanburg County grows, EMS is seeing higher call volumes. Currently, the agency handles about 150 calls per day.
"People will refer to a paramedic as an ambulance driver. We are so much more than that. The back of that ambulance is an emergency room on wheels that can do a lot of things that you get done in the hospital," Ledford said. "Having a fully-staffed service with well-trained people is absolutely the difference between life and death of the public."
EMS officials and state technical college representatives met in Columbia late last month to discuss ways to bring the industry back to full strength.
Leaders there say apprenticeships are available through Apprenticeship Carolina, a division of the S.C. Technical College System, where an agency could hire someone to work for them while that person is getting an education to become certified. Essentially, those interested can start working sooner and have their education paid for along the way.
Officials at SCC and Spartanburg EMS say this is a new opportunity. Both parties said they plan to meet with each other to work out an agreement in the near future.
EMS interim director Jeff Carroll said the paramedics and EMTs who came willingly into the profession in the 1970s are now moving onto nursing or physician assistant positions but the influx has not continued since then. He said technical colleges have historically emphasized manufacturing jobs, so fewer people have been drawn to EMS.
"I think a lot of people have so many options for what they can do. We haven't done as good of a job as we should have with marketing or recruiting for the job itself," Carroll said.
Pay is another issue.
Spartanburg EMS authorized a pay raise for paramedics and EMTs, bumping a starting salary up to $42,000 for paramedics and $31,000 for EMTs. The countywide EMS agency runs stations throughout the county, utilizing a staff of 134 full-time and part-time paramedics and 53 full-time and part-time EMTs.
Response times tend to be slower, Carroll said, and with staff picking up overtime as a result of the shortage, they are not in peak working condition, Carroll said.
"Our employees have a passion for the job and are covering the shortage," Carroll said. "But it takes a toll on these responders."
To become a paramedic, an associate's degree can be obtained in five semesters at SCC.
Program Director Doug Paris has been a career paramedic since 1984. He became the director of the EMS program at SCC in 2012.
"I want to give back to perpetuate the well-being of EMS," Paris said.
Paris said he will speak with Spartanburg EMS soon to gauge their interest in the Apprenticeship Carolina program.
"We could put people in paramedic class by January," he said.
Paramedic classes include topics of pharmacology, IV therapy, trauma management, medical diseases, pediatrics, geriatrics, EKG interpretation, HAZMAT, and weapons of mass destruction.
"They're paid for their readiness," Paris said of the level of education.
Phillip Logay, 18, of Boiling Springs, works as a firefighter for the Boiling Springs Fire Department but is continuing his education to become a paramedic.
He's taking classes now at SCC.
"The job itself requires high morale, and a lot of people don't have the guts for it," Logay said. "Some people think they'll like it, and they start doing it and see blood and guts and they're out."
Paris also coaches students on traumatic stress and what they will likely encounter on the job. He hands out his cell phone number for every class and encourages students to talk about their experiences.
"We see things that people should not see," he said.
Carroll said getting EMS staff to high schools and community college classes to talk about the value of the profession is what is needed now.
"The expectation is that when you call what you want shows up and you get it. If we're not able to have quality people get training and make the connections that we need to make to keep people in those jobs, in your future that may not be the reality that you get," Carroll said. "It's important that we don't lose sight of what we need to do to keep this functioning."