Paramedic shortage looms large in Northwest Arkansas

by Jennifer Joyner ([email protected]) 1,337 views 

Area emergency medical services leaders say a shortage of paramedics will require a multipronged approach to fix. A fire department chief and the head of Central Emergency Medical Services said at the heart of the matter is Northwest Arkansas’ fast-growing population.

The Fayetteville-Rogers-Springdale-Bentonville metro area has more than doubled in the past 25 years, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. The 1990 Census reflected a population of 239,464, and the latest estimates from 2016 show the region is now home to 525,032 people.

With that growth, the need for paramedic services is deepening. Rogers Fire Department Chief Tom Jenkins said he’s watched emergency call volume increase upward of 10% each year in Rogers.

“It takes two years to train a paramedic, including prerequisite coursework and certification, and we can’t get them off the shelf fast enough,” he said. “You see that manifesting sometimes into ultra-competitive recruitment, which is not heathy. When you have to rob from other governmental entities providing 911 ambulance services, someone loses.”

“We’re treading water here in Rogers. We have an adequate number, maybe a few extras, on each shift.” But Jenkins said he does not think that will last.

In Benton County and Springdale, EMS is operated through fire departments. The rest of Washington County is served by Central EMS of Fayetteville. Services have expanded their ambulance fleets in recent years, and each requires 24/7 staffing.

Industry standard is one ambulance for every 12,000 people, said Central EMS Chief Becky Stewart. To staff an ambulance, you need two to four paramedics and two to four emergency medical technicians on the clock, depending on the scheduling system. Central EMS, for example, now has 50 EMT and 40 paramedic positions, but the plan is to add 12 EMTs and six paramedics in 2018, although that has not yet been approved by the ambulance authority’s appointed executive committee.

Stewart said the area is dealing with an aging population that will need more care, but EMS has trouble retaining staff. Unconventional hours and pay that is disproportionate to the demands of the job are deal breakers for some, Stewart said.

The job also entails flexibility. Much of the time EMS is helping elderly patients who have fallen or who need help checking their blood pressure. However, when the moment comes that a paramedic is in a life-saving situation, “where seconds count,” Stewart said, he or she must navigate the high-risk situation with precision and go “90 to nothing in 2 seconds.”

NorthWest Arkansas Community College, in response to industry demand, has grown its paramedic program. Before, it capped enrollment at 16, but it welcomed 25 students for fall semester. Grant Wilson, instructor and EMS clinical coordinator at NWACC, said there is a pipeline problem. Participation in NWACC’s emergency medical technician program has decreased in recent years, so NWACC will beef up recruitment.

Jenkins praised the move and its basis in the need of industry.

“Long-term, it’s definitely a step in the right direction. Still, there are a lot of pieces left to this puzzle,” he said.

One key is to hire firefighters with the scholastic aptitude to succeed in the paramedic program.

“Sometimes people don’t have a healthy appreciation of the complexity of being a paramedic,” Jenkins said, pointing to a need for mathematical skills, critical thinking and physiological knowledge.

He hopes in the next few years the talent pool will be to the point where paramedic certification is a prerequisite for being a firefighter. Stewart said, “The most dependable way to have a qualified paramedic applicant is to send our own people to get certification.”

That, again, means recruiting more EMTs.

“From a regional perspective and an educational perspective, we need to figure out a process for recruiting new people,” she said. “How do we get the new generation interested in this profession, and how can we can keep them engaged? Because we’re going to need those numbers.”