With EMS volunteer squad disbanded, NJ county forms one unit

By Keith Sgt

BERGEN COUNTY, NJ — The ambulance team voluntarily disbanded. EMS volunteers are dwindling. And what remained burned down.

Jim Tedesco decided something had to be done. It boils down to a simple – and unacceptable – fact for Bergen County executives.

“People are not being taken to the hospital – they are waiting too long,” he said. “That shouldn’t have happened.”

That’s why Bergen County officials launched a county-wide EMS unit last month to assist local agencies with mutual assistance with 911 medical calls.

Bergen County Emergency Medical Services began taking calls on Feb. 9, less than three months after officials formed a group to determine how to help the struggling city respond to an emergency.

Four cities of Bergen – Bogota, Elmwood Park, Maywood and Rochelle Park – have disbanded their volunteer ambulance squads in recent years, while several others have partnered with neighboring cities after struggling to recruit and retain volunteers.

Nearby North Haledon, in Passaic County, also disbanded its volunteer troops.

“As a first responder, I understand how important it is to be ready,” said Tedesco, a volunteer firefighter at Paramus. “Our local emergency medical services professionals sometimes need assistance in providing medical care to residents due to staffing issues and high call volume. So it makes sense for districts to provide backup and support services to communities that need extra help.

The mission of the mutual cooperation unit – which provides extra manpower to crews in Bergen’s 70 municipalities when they are short-staffed or receive other calls – will provide at least two ambulances daily from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., officials said.

Mike Bascom, state lead for the New Jersey EMS Task Force, a team of 225 volunteer and career EMS service providers, applauded the initiative. But he noted the volunteer shortage was not just Bergen County’s problem.

“While the NJ EMS Task Force itself does not suffer from a shortage of EMTs and paramedics in New Jersey, we are aware of many of our host agencies, careers, and volunteers, who are struggling to recruit and retain staff,” said Bascom, who is also the EMS coordinator for the Office of Emergency Management. Monmouth County.

The American Ambulance Association’s 2022 annual industry study revealed a turnover rate of 36% for full-time and part-time EMTs, 27% for full-time paramedics, and 30% for part-time paramedics. Increased call volume during the COVID-19 pandemic as well as low wages and burnout were some of the main factors for leaving positions, according to the study.

In essence, EMS agencies witness a complete staff turnover every three to four years, the study concludes.

“The staff shortage is impacting public safety throughout New Jersey and across our nation,” Bascom said. “EMS is an underfunded profession and does not receive the financial support or recognition that our worthy partners in law enforcement and firefighting do.”

Last year, Governor Phil Murphy signed into law designed to increase funding for local rescuers and help bolster dwindling volunteer numbers. Laws signed in May increased county and city contribution limits for first aid, ambulance, and rescue team volunteers from $70,000 to $125,000 and allowed additional funds to increase from $35,000 to $70,000 if a unit “experiences an extraordinary need.”

In October, Murphy also approved a bipartisan measure designed to increase advanced life support. This allows a paramedic who arrives at the scene of an emergency to begin treating a patient immediately, rather than waiting for a second medical officer, and imposes requirements for paramedics to be licensed rather than certified to comply with national standards.

“EMS employees are generally underpaid,” said Bascom. “The immense commitment required to acquire and maintain the skills necessary to provide quality prehospital care to our residents and visitors coupled with the risks associated with the profession are incompatible with the low levels of compensation or the expectation that EMS will be provided free of charge.

“EMS agencies cannot sustain themselves without significant government support.”

Derek Sands, a spokesman for Bergen County, said the new unit had responded to 85 calls during its first 23 days of service.

“We today saved the lives of people in Bergen County,” said Tedesco.

But some in the field wonder how sustainable the city’s volunteer model is, at least without significantly increased government investment.

“The only real options for saving EMS are through taxes at the local and county levels, appropriate Medicare reimbursement rates for all and additional government support from our state and federal levels…” Bascom said. “The proposed new state budget addresses significant needs for law enforcement, firefighters, mental health professionals, hospitals and others that are critical to the health, safety and well-being of our population.

“EMS needs the same attention, and we need it now.”

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