For those serving on the front lines, EMS can be a powerful rush — a flash of focus and confidence along with a chance to be a hometown hero.
The reality is that the EMS wage in rural Pennsylvania is often lower than at Altoona-based convenience store chain Sheetz Inc., which pays up to $17.18 an hour plus college tuition reimbursement and other benefits.
Filling openings for first responders is a struggle at Fayette EMS, said Rick Adobato, chief of operations for the nonprofit that serves a rural area covering almost 800 miles. An entry level emergency medical technician earns $13 an hour, significantly lower than the $16.08 an hour the City of Pittsburgh pays an entry level provider.
The result is turnover problems for rural ambulance services.
Raising Fayette EMS salaries would only further strain the budget of a nonprofit serving a population of about 136,000, where many patients are covered by Medicaid, Mr. Adobato said. Medicaid payments are far lower than medical provider costs.
B.J. Pino, chief operating officer at Citizens’ Ambulance Service in Indiana County, worries about attracting new first responders to a 1,100-square-mile service area sprinkled with 40,100 homes, small towns and rolling farms.
“How many people do you think come to Indiana County to become a paramedic?” he said.
Moreover, the dangers of EMS work can remain long after the adrenaline rush fades.
First responder Doug Grimm works 70 to 80 hours a week at Connellsville-based Fayette EMS while moonlighting at another nearby ambulance service. His earnings — $42,000 to $47,000 annually.
In September, Mr. Grimm was caring for a 37-year-old man in the back of an ambulance who was being taken to UPMC Somerset Hospital from Uniontown. It was a routine trip, the kind he’d done hundreds of times during a long career.
The patient suddenly struck Mr. Grimm so hard that his glasses flew off his head to the dashboard at the front of the ambulance. He said he was hit several more times before managing to get out of the way.
“I lost a good bit of blood,” said Mr. Grimm, 60, who answered his first ambulance call in 1978 in a converted Cadillac.
Hearing the commotion, ambulance driver Mark Enos quickly pulled off the road and radioed state police. The patient was placed under arrest.
Mr. Grimm suffered a concussion, broken nose, eye injury and other problems. He was flown by medical helicopter to a Pittsburgh trauma center.
By late January, he wasn’t back to work.
“My body at 60 years old is not my body at 20 years old,” he said. “Sometimes I don’t know how to finish the sentence I’m saying. You want to get your old self back, but I don’t know if you get to that point. Your life can change in a minute.”