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Just like all health care agencies, the Cole County Emergency Medical Service is finding it hard to fill vacancies.

At Tuesday's regular Cole County Commission meeting, EMS Chief Eric Hoy told commissioners he was looking to fill four full-time paramedic positions.

"We're in the same boat as everyone else," Hoy said. "It's a sign of where we are in the health care industry. The pandemic has put a huge strain on health care providers. It's made them re-evaluate where they want to work.

"Unfortunately it's not an industry that ramps up to meet needs very easily," he added. "There's a lot of training and schooling that people have to take to get accredited. So when we get into these crunches, it takes a long time to gear up and find people."

Currently, the starting pay for a Cole County paramedic is $51,000, and the starting pay for an emergency medical technician is $31,000.

The service has 12-, 24- and 48-hour shifts; the latter means the paramedic and emergency medical technician on that truck work two back-to-back 24-hour shifts, followed by four days off before returning to work. The personnel working on 12-hour shifts are based in locations with historically high call volumes. Normally they have a paramedic and EMT working on a truck. But in some cases, it's two EMTs due to short staffing.

"We have staff members that are sometimes working 60 hours before they go home," Hoy said. "They'll come in to work their 48-hour shift, then work half of the next day. We're back-filing with chief officers or administrative staff to fill the gaps."

He said they are making sure they monitor call volumes. They also have the ability to pull a truck out of service to allow crews to rest.

"We do have a number of people in school and fortunately we just hired two part-time staff, both of whom had previously worked for our service, so that helps with orientation. And we hope to hire some more," Hoy said. "I just haven't had any bites on the full-time positions yet.

"I want to commend the staff for filling in like they have," Hoy said. "They are sacrificing their time with their families to ensure the community is protected. I appreciate that, but the number one thing we're trying to do is recruit more people."

The EMS department is authorized to employ 23 paramedics and 20 emergency medical technicians along with five administrators, who are all paramedics.

"We're constantly evaluating how we're recruiting people and building relationships with local paramedic programs," Hoy said. "We encourage our own staff to seek further education and training. The county is providing scholarships to our EMTs that want to go to paramedic school. But it takes a two-year time period for a person to complete the training to become a paramedic."

He added the number of COVID-related calls the service has responded to has gone down. For Sunday and Monday, there were no such calls. Hoy said there were only one or two for all of last week.

"Despite that lull, we still ask the public to continue to take precautions, such as social distancing," Hoy said. "It's not so much preventing illness and COVID in yourself, it's also helping the EMS service so we have adequate staff to respond to other emergencies."

He said they are running around 190 calls for service a week, which would mean they would average 10,000 calls for the year.

"We want to make sure we get enough staff into the service so the burden is lifted off the employees that we have now," Hoy said. "We're in a dangerous situation where we are starting a snowball effect. We need to get people in our doors and staffing our trucks."

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