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How shortage of first responders impact Central Virginia's EMS agencies

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Posted at 6:43 PM, Oct 13, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-14 10:51:03-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- The CBS 6 Problem Solvers are following concerns from Richmonders who are worried after learning the city’s EMS agency is operating with about half of the ambulances needed each week.

On Monday, CBS6 heard from a witness who said he waited 40 minutes for a Richmond Ambulance Authority (RAA) truck for a man who was bleeding from the head after a fall last week. The patient later found another ride to the hospital.

“That’s unacceptable at the end of the day, unacceptable,” Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney said following the report. “I’ve communicated through my team to [RAA] Chief Decker on how we can find some solutions to this problem because this is something that shouldn’t be happening in a thriving community like ours

During the Friday night incident, RAA said they staffed five ambulances and one supervisor for the entire city when the predicted demand called for nine ambulances. The actual demand for the number of 911 calls at the time required 14 ambulances for the city.

RAA said workers are stretched thin due to a staffing shortage and issues retaining and recruiting employees.

We found a more optimistic story across the city line in Chesterfield and Henrico counties, where their fire and EMS units are fully staffed.

Unlike Richmond, both Henrico and Chesterfield operate with combined fire and EMS services. They cross-train their staff to not only fight fires but also work in emergency medical services.

“When a firefighter reports to duty in Chesterfield they may be assigned to a fire engine for a shift, or an ambulance but they’re all interchangeable and able to support one another when times get busy,” said Chesterfield Fire and EMS Chief Loy Senter.

Both counties have minimum staffing requirements with approximately 20 ambulances on standby 24/7. That requirement forces Chief Senter and Henrico Fire Deputy Chief Thomas LaBelle to mandate overtime.

“We guarantee 130 people in seats every morning, so what that means we have to turn around to some people, request and demand they stay with us and continue to work,” LaBelle explained.

While fully staffed, the counties now prepare for the future as families continue to settle in Central Virginia.

"In many ways, we found we are still trying to catch up from growth that happened 10 years ago in the county," Senter stated. "As we look to the future, it’s hiring more staff over a period of time and we are also going to have to look at new and innovative strategies for dealing with this wave of patients that will be coming over the next five to 10 years as this population continues to age."

Recruiting new employees is a challenge for all agencies.

"There used to be really strong recruitment out of volunteer fire and rescue organizations," said LaBelle. "As they continue to work diligently to bring in members, if their members dwindle that’s a natural progression to the fire department, as well."

All three agencies have seen a surge in 911 calls lately, while RAA is one of the busiest EMS agencies in the country.

In fact, RAA responded to nearly double the amount of 911 calls compared to the counties and continues to ask for more funding to raise wages for employees.

An RAA spokesperson said they recently raised the base pay for the EMTS and paramedics. However, Henrico boasts the highest salary for firefighters in the area. Chesterfield’s wages remain competitive for the area.

The Richmond quasi-government model, which is separate from the fire department, saves city taxpayers money, according to RAA.

The agency has also moved to a tiered response system that sends EMTS to less severe calls and allows paramedics to respond to more serious emergencies.

“We’ve certainly seen a decrease in the amount of demand the city has had for us to help,” LaBelle explained.

CFEMS has answered 117 EMS calls in the city so far in 2021. There have been no further requests for EMS assistance since changes were implemented by RAA in mid to late September, according to Chief Senter.

Deputy Chief LaBelle said their crews in Henrico have responded to two emergency calls in the city since those changes were made.