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EMT shortage in McLean Co. has officials concerned

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McLean County Emergency Services is experiencing staffing shortages which could impact patients in life-threatening situations.

The county of 9,100 residents currently staffs 11 full-time Emergency Management Technicians and relies on 17 part-time EMTs to maintain coverage for emergency runs. The department works in shifts with two emergency vehicles operating at all times. Last year, the county employed 32 EMTs, but due to competition from private contractors and better wages in busier, neighboring counties, McLean officials remain concerned that staffing will continue to drop.

“You can have the best equipment but if nobody is there to operate the equipment then it defeats the purpose,” said McLean County Judge Executive Curtis Dame.

No lapse in emergency services has occurred in the county, but officials have relied on creativity to keep ambulances staffed with personnel and vehicles on the road.

“It's basically a quilt of different management styles in order to be able to piecemeal, basically our coverage, our staff, and who we have staffing our trucks,” Dame said.

McLean County is not an exception. Across the state emergency services continue to face staffing challenges. It’s a trend that has impacted EMS personnel nationwide. Experts say burnout continues to take a toll on the industry due to low wages, heavy workloads, and chronic fatigue.

Increasing wages would help offset staffing shortages, but according to Dame, the county’s budget simply will not allow it to pay prospective employees what private contractors and larger emergency service networks in neighboring counties are able to.

“Even if we do increase it, we’re still so much less than our counterparts that prospective employees are going to,” Dame said. “We’ve looked at the comparison for us to get near that salary range for those employment categories, and just our service alone would cost a quarter of a million dollars.”

However, officials are working to create an environment they hope will draw interest from potential prospects and encourage current emergency personnel to stay with McLean Co. EMS.

One way the county does this is by investing in an incentive program to boost salaries gradually for employees who stay with the county over multiple years. It’s also working on enhanced medical benefits that will lower employee health insurance costs.

The county has also created a command center for McLean EMTs and paramedics to decompress during long shifts; normal shifts for emergency workers can be between 12 and 16 hours. The hope is that by creating a command center with accommodations and amenities, the county can retain employees and strengthen future recruitment.

The county recently upgraded its emergency service center to include a fully functioning kitchen, showers, and sleeping quarters for employees during downtime on a shift. The idea is to create a “home away from home,” according to the Director of Emergency Services, Nolan Clouse.

“Not having to sit in a truck for 12 to 16 hours a day makes a lot of difference to some people depending on age,” Clouse said. “We can’t pay big dollars, but what we can do is let our people know we care for each of them.”

In December, the county graduated a class of Advanced Emergency Medical Technicians. While county officials hope those graduates stick around and apply their skills to the residents in McLean Co., they are free to seek employment elsewhere. The county accepts applications for full-time, and part-time AEMTs, EMTs, and paramedics throughout the year. The county also continues to be on the lookout for anyone with an interest in emergency services and is planning an introductory EMT course this year.

“I think in smaller counties and in our large counterparts too, you learn to get creative in ways that show our employees that they're valued and this is a way we hope we can do that,” Dame said.

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