College boosts effort to train paramedics

Demand rises in Northwest Arkansas

Posted: October 24, 2017 at 2:47 a.m.

Students practice a medical emergency scenario on Ramsey Emerson of Rogers (center) on Thursday, October 12, 2017 at Northwest Arkansas Community College in Bentonville. NWACC is working to increase its enrollment in paramedic studies to help meet the increasing need for paramedics in the region.

BENTONVILLE -- Northwest Arkansas Community College has increased its number of paramedic students to meet the increasing demand for their services in the region.

The shortage has increased over the past two to three years as Northwest Arkansas continues to grow and as veteran paramedics retire, said Grant Wilson, the college's emergency medical services clinical coordinator.

The U.S. Census Bureau reported this spring that Northwest Arkansas was the 22nd-fastest growing metro area in the country, with a population of 525,032 as of July 1, 2016. The metropolitan area -- which includes Benton, Washington and Madison counties in Arkansas and McDonald County, Mo. -- grew by 13.3 percent since 2010.

Entrance into the paramedic program used to be competitive as candidates tested and interviewed for what used to be 16 spots in the classroom. There are 24 students enrolled in the program this fall.

"Now, if they have all their prerequisites, they have letters of recommendation, they score where they need to score on the entrance exams, we're taking everybody," Wilson said.

Two of this year's students are women, and all are emergency medical technicians employed full time by a fire department or ambulance service.

Becoming an emergency medical technician is the first step to becoming a paramedic, Wilson said. They are essentially paramedic assistants and are able to provide basic life support, CPR, basic patient assessments and assist patients with their own medications.

Paramedics provide advanced life support including intravenous therapy, invasive airway management, administration of life-saving medication, cardiac monitoring, defibrillation and emergency pacing of the heart.

Corey Collett, a paramedic student, said working overtime and taking extra shifts is an understood aspect of the job because of the shortage.

He's worked with Central Emergency Medical Services in Washington County for nearly two years as an emergency medical technician and seen the toll it takes on colleagues.

"The nature of that is that you have people who are overworked, and they're making life and death decisions with sleep deprivation," he said.

One reason Collett wanted to become a paramedic was to help shrink the shortage.

Central EMS covers 920 square miles in Washington County, including Fayetteville, Elkins, Farmington, Goshen, Greenland, Lincoln, Prairie Grove, Tontitown, Johnson, West Fork and Winslow. The service doesn't cover Springdale, which receives emergency medical service from its Fire Department.

The service's call volume increased to 21,056 last year from 17,834 in 2015, according to the 2016 annual report.

Nationwide there are concerns about paramedics being overworked and fatigued, said Becky Stewart, Central EMS chief.

"We try to manage that knowing who is working extra hours and give them a slower station or maybe if there are calls that aren't an emergency, giving them to someone else," she said.

Central EMS is fully staffed but will have a paramedic opening in the next two weeks. The service always accepts applications, Stewart said.

"It's a high-stress job and very demanding," she said. "They have to be 100 percent without exception."

Departments can't plan when they need more people to work, which complicates the situation, Collett said.

"Most jobs you can determine peak hours and when you have to increase your staff," he said. "We have no idea. Right now, this time last week, we may have run 12 calls during this last hour. But today we may have only run two."

The Bentonville Fire Department added 10 positions to its crew this year to keep up with the city's growth. Officials were able to fill the positions, but there are still two openings because others have retired, said Kevin Boydston, deputy chief.

"It's a never-ending cycle," he said.

Applicants with paramedic credentials have dropped 60 percent within the last two years, though the number of applications has remained steady, Boydston said.

But to the south, the Springdale Fire Department has seen a "pretty significant decrease" in overall applications, according to Mike Irwin, fire chief.

"If the economy is doing well, we typically have fewer applicants," he said. "If the economy is not doing well, then we have more applicants."

People will look for work in the private sector when the economy is doing well because the pay is often better than the public sector, Irwin said.

Paramedics and emergency medical technicians in Northwest Arkansas made an annual average salary of $32,400 in May 2016, the most recent data available from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. That figure wedges the region between the national average pay of $36,110 and the state average at $28,770.

Springdale currently has a full crew, which is rare, Irwin said.

Both fire departments, as well as others in the area, are already looking to expand, though not immediately, to keep up with population growth.

Springdale is looking to include three new stations as part of the 2018 bond issue that will go to voters for approval. Bentonville has land for two future stations in the city's southwest corner.

Lowell's second station, at Kathleen Johnson Memorial Park, is scheduled to open next year. Lowell also added 10 positions to its Fire Department this year, according to its website.

The fire departments in Rogers, Bella Vista, Fayetteville and Siloam Springs all have openings, according to their websites.

Most departments are addressing the paramedic shortage by paying the tuition for their own emergency medical technicians to become paramedics. That's true for 21 of the 24 students now enrolled in the Bentonville college's program, said Jamin Snarr, the program coordinator.

While the number of paramedic students has risen, the number of emergency medical technician students is down, which is an issue as fire departments can only keep their own pipelines full for so long, Snarr said.

"It's not really fixing the problem at all," he said.

Semesters used to have three classes with a total of 60 to 90 students training to be emergency medical technicians. There's now two classes, one with 14 students and the other with 22, according to Snarr.

Wilson said he'd like to recruit people who don't work for a fire department or ambulance service.

"In the past, our students who haven't had a job when they've started paramedic school, by the time they graduate, they have a job somewhere," he said. "They typically get hired while in school."

It's difficult to recruit students right out of high school as most departments don't hire until the candidate is 21 years old, mainly for vehicle insurance purposes, Wilson said.

He added that those interested in emergency medical work should obtain their training, volunteer at a fire department or work in an emergency room, then seek a position at a department.

"It's a great way to get experience," he said.

Metro on 10/24/2017