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County faces emergency medical worker shortage


HUDSON–The region could face shortages of both emergency medical service (EMS) providers and firefighters, according to information presented at the county Board of Supervisors Public Safety Committee meeting Thursday, August 18.

P.J. Keeler, the county’s EMS coordinator, reported that the service already has problems finding paramedics and emergency medical technicians (EMTs). Though demand for them is growing in the region, he said, “There are ambulance agencies closing left and right because of the demands of the system, the lack of money and the lack of people.”

Reasons for the shortage, he suggested, include both pay scales and the job’s increasing physical, technical and ethical demands. One of the job strains comes with having to lift people. “The demands are so great that after a certain point, people physically are unable to do it,” Mr. Keeler said.

Somebody who starts in his or her 20s could be ready to retire at 45, he said. Mr. Keeler has worked as an EMT for years but now leaves it to “the younger ones do the lifting.”

In addition, paramedic and EMT duties have increased to include taking people to sites other than hospitals, treating people in their homes (such as conditions related to diabetes) and making decisions with life-death consequences. “Things you couldn’t do years ago are now expected,” Mr. Keeler said.

To alleviate the shortage he would like to see more promotion in high schools of emergency medical service as a career.

In addition, Mr. Keeler said he would like a more consistent EMS policy across the county. Right now each town decides how much tax money to allot to EMS, each ambulance company charges differently and some towns use multiple EMS companies.

Mr. Keeler added that all EMS companies serving Columbia County have both full-time and part-time workers. Some people in the field use EMS work as a stepping stone to other careers. Mr. Keeler spoke highly of emergency room doctors who had started out as EMTs.

Also at the meeting Supervisor Jeffrey Nayer (R-Copake) said, “Statewide there is a problem about recruitment and retention of volunteer firemen.” All firefighters in Columbia County are volunteers.

To make volunteer firefighting more attractive, he suggested perks such as college tuition support for the firefighters and their families.

The committee heard as well from county Public Defender Robert Linville, who said the bill the state legislature passed shifting public defender costs from the county to the state is still on the governor’s desk. He has heard that the governor might wait until after the election to sign it.

Concern was raised that the state would use the decision to pay for lawyers to represent indigent defendants as an excuse to raise the state surcharges added to fines for moving violations and crimes. Some of these surcharges can exceed the fine itself and have been called a burden for indigent people.

The next Columbia County Board of Supervisors Public Safety Committee meeting is Thursday, September 22, at 5 p.m. at 401 State Street.


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