The formation of a state-wide task force to study the shortage of firefighters and emergency medical personnel in the state comes at a crucial time for the Easton Emergency Medical Service.

“We are incessantly looking for volunteers,” said EMS Chief Jon Arnold.

Retention is a never-ending struggle that is becoming harder and harder over the 75-plus years since the organization was founded.

“Whether they’re volunteers or paid, no one’s really interested in doing EMS anymore,” Arnold said. “Most people get their EMT [emergency medical technician] or their paramedic training and then they move on and do something else, whether they go on to be a nurse, a doctor, or a fireman. Usually what happens is that EMS is a stepping stone for people to move on to something else. It’s not really seen in the medical and emergency services world as a destination or career.”

Gov. Ned Lamont signed the task force into law on June 7 to address EMS and firefighter staffing shortages, which was a legislative priority for the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities. The nonpartisan organization of municipal leaders represents Connecticut towns and cities.

“The majority of Connecticut’s municipalities fire suppression services are provided by volunteer firefighters,” Kevin Maloney, CCM’s director of communications and member relations, stated in an email. “In recent years towns have struggled to attract and retain these volunteers to adequately meet the needs of residents. In addition, local EMS services have been plagued by decreasing emergency medical technicians [EMTs], which has been exacerbated by among other things, increasing training requirements.”

Connecticut is not alone. A study conducted by the American Ambulance Association shows a worsening EMS employee turnover nationwide. 

Fire Chief Robert Klem said the Easton Fire Department is bucking the firefighter shortage trend, but the issue needs to be explored because volunteerism is down nationwide in organizations across the board.

“We are well aware of the shortage trend, so we started an aggressive campaign over a year ago to recruit new members,” Klem said. “In the last year and a half, we added 10 new full members and a number of probationary members.”

Klem said the recruitment success is due in part to the Easton residency requirement for firefighters.

“You’re more likely to join and stay with an organization that attaches you to the community where your friends and neighbors live,” he said.

State Rep. Anne Hughes, who voted for the bill, said the benefit of the task force is to get feedback on the barriers EMS and firefighters face to retain personnel. 

“The task force is ideally an expert, evidenced-based resource to make such tangible recommendations for the legislature to carry forward to hopefully implement,” Hughes said.

First Selectman David Bindelglass, Chief Jon Arnold and members of the EMS team in front of Easton’s new ambulance. – Photo by Rick Falco

Easton EMS has had its most success recruiting during the summer. The summer class started on June 26 and had to be split into daytime and evening class due to 41 people registering between the two classes. At first blush this seems counter to statewide trends, but the eventual outcome is not likely to be as rosy.

Arnold said he would be lucky if he gets a third of the people who registered for the classes to join the Easton EMS due to various attrition factors such as people leaving for school, getting jobs elsewhere, and potentially not passing the exam. Easton EMS is forced to run large-scale classes many times a year merely to maintain the status quo.

“I have 47 active EMTs on my roster right now who ride the ambulance and handle calls, and that’s not enough,” Arnold said. The Easton EMS has gaps in particular on weekends and midnight shifts, and they are forced to fill those gaps by having EMTs at home be on call.

The new volunteers in class to complete a Firefighter 1 certification.– Photo by Emma Grimes

“It’s not optimal because how long does it take for you to get out of bed, drive up to the building, grab the truck, and go to the call,” he said. “Whereas if you were in the building it would be seconds before you’re in the ambulance and minutes before you’re at the call.”

Arnold estimates they would probably need around 60 people on staff to fill the gaps, and in his 30 years with Easton EMS they have never had that many. In fact, the current roster of 47 is the most volunteers Easton EMS has ever had, and it is still not enough.

Yet he is optimistic that the state task force will begin to shed light on the challenges the various EMS agencies across the state are dealing with. Additionally, he is hopeful that this will be an opportunity for the agencies to come together and present a unified voice, instead of 165 individual agencies fighting for their own needs.

“I don’t think there’s been a tremendous amount of progress, but I do think we’re at the point where people are starting to listen to us and realize ‘wow, maybe when I call 911 the ambulance isn’t going to show up, or it may take an hour-and-a-half to show up’, and that’s already happening in parts of America, it just hasn’t hit Connecticut quite yet,” said Arnold.

Hughes said the task force legislation originally included a rebuttable presumption for workers’ compensation claims for EMS and firefighters who contract cancer on the job, but it didn’t make it out of  the House and Senate chambers. 

“But this proposal begins to acknowledge the risks and barriers that our emergency personnel must navigate to serve the community,” she said. “And these realities contribute to a decline in our neighbors stepping up to serve. I don’t blame them. Let’s see what it will take to reverse this trend. That’s the task force’s goal.”

Despite the struggles EMS agencies face statewide, Arnold emphasized how special an organization like Easton EMS is.

“Easton EMS is a community-based 911 responder,” Arnold said. “When you call 911 in Easton, and you have an emergency, the chances of someone coming to your house that you know is much greater than in other communities. You have that community base there, where when I walk into a house, I already know it’s Edith, and I’ve seen Edith before, I’ve been to her house for medical calls, I’ve seen her at carnival, I’ve seen her at the Memorial Fay Parade.

“I know how to get hold of her husband who’s out at Stop & Shop, to tell him that she doesn’t feel well and called the ambulance, and we’re going to take her to the hospital. I’m going to make sure that her house is locked up when I walk out the door. I’m going to have a personal connection with her. That’s what Easton EMS is,” Arnold said.

For more information about volunteering with Easton EMS, you can visit the website by clicking here.

To see the full bill regarding the establishment of the task force, click here.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email