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OKLAHOMA CITY (Free Press) — EMSA, Oklahoma’s primary emergency transport organization, has been working to implement substantial hiring incentives and wage increases to help address an ongoing staffing crisis that has been gripping the Emergency Medical Services field nationwide for more than a month. 

Response times are getting drastically longer and availability of EMTs is dropping, especially in Oklahoma City, causing EMSA to resort to hiring off-duty fire department paramedics to fill the gaps.

Yet, Governor Stitt continues his refusal to declare an official State of Emergency for the newest wave of COVID cases, a move that could make it significantly faster and easier to hire paramedics. 

Tough career

“The fact is that EMS is a tough career, and frankly, it is hard to recruit qualified EMTs and paramedics to this profession.”

Those words come from Dr. Jeffery Goodloe, Chief Medical Officer for Oklahoma’s EMS systems at a press event Monday in Oklahoma City called to address the crisis. 

Goodloe, regarded normally as an avid cheerleader for Oklahoma’s EMSA program, was uncharacteristically blunt and dire at times, pleading with the public to get vaccinated and to understand the tremendous levels of difficulty and stress faced by the EMS community.

The COVID-19 pandemic, driven by the rapid spread of the Delta variant in recent months, has dramatically increased the chances of “occupational fatality” for EMS responders.

That reality was evident right here in Oklahoma with the high-profile COVID death of an EMSA paramedic late last year in Tulsa. 

For a profession that showed on-the-job fatality rates on par with police and fire response even before the pandemic, such a sharp increase is undoubtedly the strongest issue at the heart of the staffing shortage nationwide.

State of Emergency

However, as proven in Oklahoma last year, an official State of Emergency declaration from the Governor’s Office could potentially have a sweeping and positive effect on medical staff numbers.

As is expected for any job that provides medical care and life-saving services, EMS members’ certification and licensing process is strictly regulated. Under normal circumstances, applicants must pass separate “psychomotor” skill exams and practical testing for Advanced Life Support, as well as licensing applications and prior completion of CareerTech programs designed to familiarize applicants with equipment.

But much of that can change with an official state Emergency Order.

Fast track

When Governor Stitt issued the first official State of Emergency for the COVID pandemic in 2020, it included a number of provisions intended to reduce the time spent on testing and applications for various medical and support jobs, including EMS. The order allowed for “conditional licenses,” fast-tracked licenses for EMS applicants that may have not completed all of the normally-required CareerTech or practical testing. 

These conditional licenses were granted statewide with the understanding that spiking COVID numbers would result not just in overburdening hospital facilities, but also in significantly adding a burden to emergency services. 

Upon rescinding the order, the holders of those conditional licenses would have a firm limit of just two weeks to complete the usual testing requirements and obtain a standard EMS license.

When Gov. Stitt canceled the State of Emergency earlier in 2021, that on-the-job training had clearly paid off for the fast-tracked EMTs.

“We didn’t lose any conditional personnel when the EO was rescinded in April,” says Rob Crissinger, Communications Director for the OK Department of Health (OKDOH). “All of the conditional license holders were able to complete the required test and obtain a standard license.”

So how many of those conditional licenses were granted, and how many newly-licensed EMTs and other medical professionals were effectively created and fast-tracked by the Governor’s first Emergency Order last year?

It was 68 — more than enough to put a dent in any staffing shortage.

“I definitely wish it was easier to get those conditional licenses and to extend those orders,” says EMSA CEO and President James Winham. “COVID has just turned EMS upside down.”

Every dollar

Having withstood a very public dissolution of relations with staffing contractor American Medical Response in October of last year, EMSA now handles all staffing and administration in-house, a decision that Winham says is saving the organization up to three-quarters of a million dollars every day.

“Every dollar will go back into the staff,” he claims. “As we speak, we’re looking into increasing our pay, setting up a real pension fund, and creating hiring incentives and bonuses to try to increase our staff. And we want that money to go to the guys in the field, not just the executives and the guys at the top.”

According to Winham, the issues fueling the shortage of qualified EMTs go beyond the simple fear of COVID. 

The virus has effectively shut down many training schools or has pushed their courses online, preventing students from getting the hands-on testing required under standard licensing. Additionally, the many applicants and trainees that EMSA would normally host from other states and colleges all across the country are not traveling to Oklahoma as they have in past, pre-pandemic years, due in no small part to our state’s rising case numbers.

“The indirect impact of COVID is ‘am I taking this to my family?’” Winham says. “We have to make it a safe environment for our guys in the field. It’s going to take a little longer, and there’s no one more angry or upset or sad about that than me.”

He remains adamant that while Oklahoma can’t currently bring in EMT numbers from other states, as we’ve done in the past, that EMSA will be able to train and replenish their numbers effectively right here at home.

“We’re growing our own,” Winham says. “I know it looks grim, but we’re gonna get there.”

And does he believe that a new Emergency Order for the state would help get them the numbers they need?

“Look, I don’t want to say anything bad about the Governor,” Winham says carefully, “but yes, I definitely think it would help.” 

Last Updated August 13, 2021, 11:29 PM by Brett Dickerson – Editor