EMS staffing levels ‘critical’

By Rose Egelhoff •The Times-Independent

Staffing levels for emergency responders were pushed to the limit on Sunday, Aug. 19, after multiple calls resulted in three ambulances being sent out during the same time period. One call required a transfer to St. Mary’s Medical Center in Grand Junction. Another involved a medical emergency in Moab City, and the third was a heat-related injury in Canyonlands National Park, according to a statement from Grand County Emergency Medical Services.

The Grand County Emergency Medical Services Department has enough full-time staff for an ambulance and a half. Any additional ambulance needs are covered by volunteers, who are paid only if they go out on a call. But those volunteers have to be ready to spring to action at any time during their unpaid shifts, according to EMS Director Andy Smith.

“Our new minimum staffing starting in 2019 is going to be two ambulances. We’re going to cover that additional need with some part-time paramedics and EMTs. But once you get three out the door, there’s really no guarantee past that two or three, that we can cover,” Smith said.

Unlike most cities, which can rely on their neighbors for backup, Moab’s closest support for ambulances is 45 to 50 minutes away, Smith said, “which is just unacceptable for our residents to have to wait that long for emergency medical care. Our goal is obviously to try to staff as many ambulances as possible … that involves recruiting more paid call folks and also adding more part-time staff or full-time staff in the future to try to meet those needs.”

The staffing shortages are due to greater-than-expected increases in calls, said Smith. “Our call volume this year is up 22 percent [over 2017] so that’s the biggest increase I’ve seen since I’ve been here for seven years. There just wasn’t planning for that. We expected a five or six percent increase, but 22 percent is a different story. Trying to plan and manage that 22 percent increase is killing our staffing levels.” He added that the EMS board is aware of the challenges and looking at its options for staffing next year. “We’re not anticipating a 22 percent increase again next year and hopefully that’s not what happens. But we need to find a way to ensure we have enough staffing.”

In the meantime, the overtime budget for EMS has been overspent. “I don’t see a solution to that issue currently without hiring more people. It’s just not feasible to hire three or four more full-time staff in order to put a dent in the overtime budget. It’s a problem … more of an issue than just budget because it burns people out and we lose good folks because it’s busy and it’s stressful,” Smith said.

“It’s hard to fathom … that in high call-volume times, if you’re having a medical emergency you may have to wait 45 minutes for an ambulance, but sometimes that’s the reality. We haven’t had those instances where people have had to wait long periods of time, but if it’s the case that call volume continues to increase at the level it is without adding a significant amount of staff, that’s the reality. We are doing everything we can as a service to manage that and to insure that we have coverage and at least be able to respond to those emergencies as quickly as we possibly can,” Smith said.