Sussex searching for new paramedics

County officials say training program needs expansion
May 10, 2013

Help wanted: Sussex County needs paramedics.

For the last two years, five positions have gone unfilled among a staff of 99 paramedics, said Bob Stuart, Sussex EMS director. At least 12 new paramedics have to be hired each year.

Currently, 6 of the last 12 paramedics hired in Sussex County were graduates of an 18-month program at Delaware Technical Community College Terry Campus in Dover.

But the class is limited to 12 students at a time, and according to County Administrator Todd Lawson and Councilman Vance Phillips, R-Laurel, that is not enough.

Delaware Tech administration is well aware of the problem. “This shortage will not go away,” said Jerry McNesby, vice president for finance. “It's a high priority for the college to address.”

McNesby said discussions with county and paramedic officials and the General Assembly's Joint Finance Committee are ongoing. “We are in the early stages, but we hope it takes weeks [to reach a resolution] and not years,” he said.

Kent County, New Castle County and Delaware State Police also seek graduates of the Delaware Tech program, and there is no guarantee graduates will choose to work in Delaware.

With retirements, injuries and attrition, the class does not provide enough paramedics to serve in Sussex County. “Demand exceeds supply,” Lawson said. “We need to expand the program and hire more. We are talking with Del Tech, but it all comes down to more money.”

Stuart, who has worked for Sussex EMS for 23 years, said due to retirement and attrition the program will lose from 50 to 60 paramedics over the next five years. “The last two years we have lost and replaced 25 paramedics,” Stuart said, adding the average paramedic works five to 10 years.

“It's a very difficult job, and many people can't do it for the long term,” he said.

Twelve paramedics left the program last fiscal year and 13 have left the program so far this fiscal year, Stuart said. The county funds scholarships for students who plan to work for Sussex EMS. In all, nine students will receive funding over the next 18 months, Lawson said.

Because of turnover, Sussex EMS spends an inordinate amount of time in the hiring process in an effort to keep the ranks filled.

Phillips wanted the matter placed on the next meeting's agenda, but council voted to cancel the Tuesday, May 14 meeting because of a lack of agenda items. “I don't know that we can wait; we might need to put money in our budget for this,” Phillips said.

Councilman George Cole, R-Ocean View, said more information is needed. “We need to know more before we go throwing money in the budget,” Cole said.

Stuart said Sussex paramedics can retire after 25 years of employment at 50 percent of their pay, which is the cap. He said if the county would increase the pension percentage beyond the cap, the incentive might help retain some staff.

Sussex County Emergency Medical Services operates as a nontransporting organization providing paramedic services using eight advanced-life-saving vehicles and two district supervisor vehicles. The ambulance transportation of patients is provided by 21 basic-life-support transport services, mostly through volunteer fire departments.

The Sussex paramedic program was established in 1991, and advanced life support service began the following year. Today, there are eight units throughout the county – including one under construction near Long Neck – with 99 paramedics, nine uniformed support staff and 14 non-uniformed support staff. There are at least 18 paramedics on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week, Stuart said.

The county devotes more financial resources – $12 million in fiscal 2012 and fiscal 2013 – to the paramedic program than any other county department. Thirty percent of the cost of the program is reimbursed by the state.

Sussex County wants Delaware Tech graduates

County Administrator Todd Lawson said the county hires trained paramedics from other states but would rather have home-grown staff. “We've historically found that students from Sussex County attending the program at Delaware Tech tend to stay here over a longer course of time. Others come in for a few years and leave,” Lawson said.

Sussex EMS Director Bob Stuart agreed. He said there is no way the Del Tech program can provide enough graduates: the last 12 hires included six out-of-state paramedics. He said New Castle County EMS – with about the same number of paramedics as Sussex County – faces the same dilemma.

Lawson said Delaware Tech's program is the only one in the state that trains paramedics. He said adding professors, building more classroom space and providing new equipment would cost hundreds and thousands of dollars. Students must complete five prerequisite classes at any campus followed by 15 months of classes at Terry Campus, which includes field and clinical training. Classes start in May and end the following August.

Stuart said schools in Pennsylvania can provide training. “But we really want to support our local community college and work this out in house,” he said.

Jerry McNesby, Delaware Tech's vice president for finance, said the college's paramedic program is nationally accredited and is second to none in the country. He said number of students must be restricted to 12 to maintain a strict teacher-to-student ratio. “It's driven by the number of instructors in the program,” McNesby said.

He said the college is working diligently to find a way to expand the program. He compared it to the way the college answered a predicted nursing shortage in the early 2000s by expanding the nursing program from 354 students to 880 students. “A number of people have this issue on their radar,” McNesby said.

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