11 Investigates: Is there an EMS staffing crisis?

PITTSBURGH — For the past two years, 11 investigates has been documenting a shortage of police in the city of Pittsburgh, but it’s not just police dealing with manpower issues.

Another city public safety department is also feeling the impact of a staffing shortage.

11 investigates discovered the city’s Bureau of Emergency Medical Services is also experiencing a manpower shortage.

Channel 11 Chief Investigator Rick Earle spent weeks looking at the problem, document the impact on public safety and exploring potential solutions.

Earle spoke with the President of the City’s Paramedic Union.

He didn’t mince words.

He issued a dire warning.

“If we continue on the trajectory that we’re on right now we’re not going to have numbers to staff these ambulances. That means when you call 9-1-1, there might not be somebody coming to respond, said Jon Atkinson, Union President.

It’s a problem across the country.

The numbers are trending down.

Many potential medics and emergency medical technicians are choosing nursing instead, a profession not as dangerous and with better hours, and less stress.

The city budgeted for 172 paramedics, but there are only have 152.

And there are only 15 emergency medical technician. The city budgeted for 28.

Many are now forced to work overtime, just to cover all the shifts.

“When you see an ambulance out on the street most of those people are working an 18 hour day. Some are doing it willingly many of them are being mandate to do it and the impact that has on home life, the impact that has on morale. It’s tough to ignore,” said Atkinson.

Manpower issues forced the elimination of three overnight EMT units that responded to lower priority calls, freeing up medic units for more serious calls.

And at times because of vacations, injuries and illness, Atkinson said they’ve had to temporarily pull units off the street.

Earle: Have you missed any calls because of this?

Atkinson: We’ve had to put units out of service, and that’s the thing that nobody wants to see.

But perhaps even more concerning, 11 investigates discovered the staffing shortage may be having an impact on response times.

In 2012, the average response time to a cardiac emergency was 7 minutes and 36 seconds.

A decade later, it’s now at 10 minutes and 13 seconds.

And the average response time for the four high priority calls is 9 minutes and 26 seconds, more than 30 seconds longer than the recommended 8 minutes and 59 seconds.

Earle spoke to the new head of EMS about the response times.

Earle: Are you concerned about this?

Amera Gilchrist: We always strive to get to patients as fast as possible.

Amera Gilchrist is the new chief of Pittsburgh EMS.

She’s been with EMS for 24 years, starting as an EMT and working her way to the top.

From her experience, Gilchrist says there are other factors that play into those response times, like police clearing a scene before medics are allowed in.

And she said often times, police and fire are on scene first and provide immediate medical attention until medics arrive.

She says another critical factor often times overlooked is the number of hospitals in the area.

“Even though the response times, may go up a minute or two...the proximity you are so close to the hospital, and like i said no one ever goes without medical services,” said Gilchrist.

While more manpower would help reduce response times, she doesn’t believe the crisis is a dire as the union claims.

“I don’t’ think the picture is a bleak as they paint it. I do think there are things that need to happen for us to always maintain the standard of care that Pittsburgh EMS is known for,” said Gilchrist.

Among those things, she said would help, is eliminating the residency requirement, like police and fire have done.

The union believes that’s critical as well.

“In Allegheny county, there are 3561 people who have an EMS certification who live in Allegheny county, so we are talking about our own back yard,” said Atkinson, who indicated the city could draw from those people to bolster the ranks.

The union and Chief Gilchrist also support a plan to start an EMT raining academy.

Police and Fire both have a training academy and bring people in with no experience.

EMT’S must be certified before they’re hired by the city.

“I don’t think that it’s fair that people should have to come in already with their certification,” said Gilchrist.

Despite the current staffing challenges, Gilchrist told Earle resident don’t need to worry.

“If you call 911 and you need an ambulance, we’re going to be there regardless,” said Gilchrist.

The union isn’t as convinced.

They said things need to change and soon.

Earle asked Atkinson if they are putting lives at risk if they don’t make these changes.

“Yes, there’s no way. I don’t think there’s any other way to kind of sugar coat it. It’s a real problem here,” Atkinson said.

The union is in contract negotiations right now, and one of the key issues is that residency requirement.

Under the city’s home rule charter, it would have to go to voters as a referendum.

But the union believes the city could issue a temporary moratorium, and hire from outside the city limits to bolster the ranks.

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