CHARLESTON — State health leaders are seeing signs of new life in the emergency medical services industry after a push to address worker shortages.
The “EMS WV: Answer the Call” program was launched in June and backed with $10 million from CARES Act funds to pay for strategic initiatives that aim to bolster the state’s EMS workforce and better equip communities to care for West Virginians.
The strategy includes investments in mobile ambulance simulators for educational programs in rural West Virginia; no-cost EMT training; training in the area of mental health, EMS leadership and geriatric EMS; medic packs for every EMS worker; and investments to keep behavioral health providers in rural communities to limit the burden on EMS transportation.
The program does not address the pay rate for a field in which workers are earning less in West Virginia than in surrounding states.
In updating the Joint Committee on Volunteer Fire Departments and Emergency Medical Services on the progress of the program, Dr. Cynthia Persily, vice chancellor of Health Sciences with the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission, said there are signs the program is working.
A survey of current EMS personnel is being reviewed. The survey was done to gain information directly from the workforce about their demographics, employment status, health, workplace satisfaction and plans for retirement.
Emailed to 4,400 registered EMTs and paramedics in West Virginia, 2,044 workers — 46.5% — responded. About 1,043 of the responses were usable, Persily said, a 33% response rate. EMS agencies were also surveyed, of which 158 of 231 agencies responded, about 68% of the departments.
Persily said they found the EMS workforce has a mean age in the early 40s. Close to 350 of the respondents said they would retire within the next five years. The EMTs are averaging $10-$15 hourly salaries, while paramedics average $20-$25.
As of July 30, the EMS agencies reported about 232 vacant EMT positions.
Jody Ratliff, director of the state’s Office of Emergency Medical Services, said from 2011 to 2016, EMS lost about 11,000 certified workers. Currently the state has 1,645 EMTs and 1,079 medics working in the field.
“What we don’t want to see is that mass exodus again without getting new people into EMS and retaining people in the EMS,” he said.
Persily said there is hope. There have been more than 500 people who have been trained, or are currently being trained, as EMTs at 34 sites through the Answer the Call program. She expects that number could double as data flows in from EMS agencies.
“We can easily answer the need if all of those people enter the workforce,” she said.
Persily said an uphill battle now is to make sure the graduates are ready for testing, because there is not a great pass rate percentage on testing. To help with that, an EMS-specific test readiness program has been purchased.
Persily did not have the EMS exam passage rates from May’s graduating class.
While he believes the initiative is working, Ratliff said the office has not seen the results yet, as they have only received 188 new applications since March 31.
“We won’t see the true success of that for a little bit longer, until we actually see better numbers coming through from the applications that come through and people who actually get certified come through,” he said.
There are also 208 people expected to graduate in May 2023 from paramedic programs at state community and technical colleges. Last year, there were 168.
Persily said while there are enough paramedics in training to meet the demand, the graduation level needs to keep up to address future retirees.
The program has also been funding mental health, first-aid and other training programs, which have trained 246 people this summer.
The campaign is publicly visible through multimedia advertisements on television and streaming services, as well as billboards throughout the state. Information materials, bumper stickers and more have also been distributed to introduce people to EMS careers, especially those in middle and high school.
All the information brings the public to a centralized website, EMSWV.org, where those interested can be connected to EMT training programs near them. In the past month, there have been 10,000 users visiting the page, marking over 26,000 hits since its creation.
“So obviously there’s a lot of interest there. What we’re doing is driving a lot of interest to that website,” Persily said.
The campaign has also funded mobile ambulance simulators, which are ready to be dispatched after being unveiled Monday at the Capitol. The simulators will be deployed to five regions across the state at community and technical colleges, but can be used for any EMS training for those who want to use them.
The EMS leadership training program at the University of Charleston has also seen success, she said. About 300 students enrolled in the first course, with 250 moving into the second and third courses, showing an 83% retention rate, Persily said.
“Many of the participants are continuing the program, even though it is very demanding of their time, their personal and their professional time,” she said.
As a thank you for current EMS employees, the program purchased about 2,000 medic packs that will be distributed. The bags are stocked with equipment they may need as first responders when they aren’t near an ambulance.
The funding for the project needs to be spent by the end of the month, due to federal guidelines for CARES Act funds, and Persily said the office is in a “mad dash” to make sure invoices are completed by that time. Persily said the training will continue after the end of the month.
Delegate Joe Statler, R-Monongalia, said he has seen programs like this come and go in his 40 years of EMS service, but he is pleased with how it is being executed.
“I hope this time it will last, especially the mental health (aspect),” he said. “(That aspect) was needed so bad. I’ve seen so many people walk away after a really bad situation, and you couldn’t get anybody.”
Persily said mental health training remains a top priority.
Statler said Persily has exceeded any expectations he had when they met months ago to find solutions to problems the industry faces.
“It’s gonna need to continue long after this $10 million is used up, so we’ve got to work on how we can sustain this going into the future because it’s critical to the state,” he said. “There’s some very encouraging information that you have given us here, and I applaud you for that.”