Hospitals in the Ozarks face shortage of emergency medical responders

MOUNTAIN HOME, Ark. - Fewer EMS providers are out saving lives in Arkansas.

The Arkansas Department of Health reports almost 800 providers did not renew their licenses this year, which is about 10 percent of total providers.

At Baxter Regional Medical Center, there are 57 full-time EMTs and paramedics.

But this summer they had seven openings.

Mercy Hospital reports 17 openings across their service area, which includes southwest Missouri and part of Arkansas.

One of the major reasons why there's a paramedic shortage is many of them are transitioning to nursing. And that's for a number of reasons.

Zach Reed at Baxter Regional is a paramedic who made the switch.

"Financially you make a lot more money to provide a lot of the same interventions that you do in the ambulance," Reed said.

A registered nurse's starting salary at Baxter Regional is $21.50 an hour, and a paramedic is about six dollars an hour less at $15.27.

There's also other benefits: like better schedules, and more opportunity for advancement.

"We have three paramedics in the last six months that have transitioned into nursing, and I think providers all over the state of Arkansas are experiencing that same trend," said Gerald Cantrell, the paramedic director at Baxter Regional.

"That leaves depleted ranks in our normal EMS," said Christopher Fry, paramedic supervisor Baxter Regional.

And when there aren’t enough, the ones who are working are working overtime.

"It's harder to staff ambulances appropriately would be the key word.The medics that you do have are running so many calls and are doing so many other things that they're getting burned out. They just get tired of doing it," Fry said.

Which could affect you at home, if you ever need them.

"They won't have the level of care that they want," Fry said.

In Baxter County they do what they can.

"We have to do what we have to do. We have quick turnarounds. We have enough trucks," said Blair Brozynski, a paramedic.

And if an ambulance can't get there right away, the fire department does what it can until paramedics get there.

During our ride-along, the supervisors, who weren't supposed to be on call even pitched in.

"Sometimes Gerald (Cantrell) and Chris (Fry) jump in a unit and go on a run. We have to make it work. We have a limited amount of ambulances and that's what it goes by. But we're pretty darn good about our run times," Brozynski said.

Even though some paramedics are switching to nursing, Lacee Quine is doing the opposite.

She said the shortage of emergency responders is concerning.

"Car wrecks, fires where people are injured, you're the first one there. And when you don't have enough staff, you don't have enough trucks to serve your area. And when that happens, you have communities that don't have what they need to take care of people when they're sick," Quine said.

Some hospitals, like Baxter Regional, are trying to offer incentives to recruit and keep paramedics, like a signing bonus.

Despite the shortage, paramedics said the work fulfills them.

"There's nothing more humbling or rewarding than knowing that someone is calling you in their darkest hour and you have the opportunity to help them, to fix what's broken, to make them feel better," Quine said.

Colleges like North Arkansas College in Harrison try to recruit local emergency responders by offering programs to try to expose people to the EMS world, even if they've had no prior experience. North Arkansas College also offers classes for EMTs and paramedics.