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911 calls return to pre-pandemic levels, but EMS staffing has not

Published: Feb. 7, 2022 at 4:21 PM CST|Updated: Feb. 7, 2022 at 4:51 PM CST
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Struggling with a 20% drop in manpower, New Orleans EMS’ staff of 140 people is stretched thin right now, and new numbers released by the agency show medics responded to 69,253 calls - a number typically seen pre-COVID-19.

“Our staff saves lives all day every day,” Chief Bill Salmeron said. “2019 was high at 68-69,000 (calls). We dipped in 2020 and then in 2021 we defiantly rebounded back up and that’s without Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest, all the other stuff.”

Also on the rise throughout the year was the number of medics assaulted on the job. The report lists 40 incidents that range in severity.

“When a patient spits on us, hits us, attacks us, whatever it is - it’s counted in that number,” Salmeron said.

The chief explains that his staff is trained to deescalate situations when on the scene, but patients have been more aggressive toward medical personnel in general over the past two years.

Salmeron says his staff knows to call police if they feel unsafe on the job site, but nevertheless, the work conditions mixed with COVID-19 fatigue are some of the top reasons why there are about 40 openings in the department right now. A lack of staff means fewer chances to take vacation days or time off for other reasons.

“We are averaging about 60% of our available staff,” Salmeron said.

The pay is also keeping people away with the starting salary being just $38,914 for an EMT and $52,431 for a paramedic, according to the agency.

“A lot of people are simply leaving because they can make more money elsewhere,” Dillard University political analyst Dr. Robert Collins said.

To top it off, several ambulances are under repair due to heavy use and wear and tear from the city’s streets. But due to supply chain issues, the vehicles are spending more time in body shops than saving lives.

This all comes during a time when 911 calls will likely increase with the upcoming carnival season.

“Not only our department but other departments are dealing with the same fleet issues,” Salmeron said.

To make sure they have enough ambulances to deal with the Carnival emergencies, they called on some help from an ambulance rental company based in Texas. Most of the 10 vehicles have already arrived and employees are making sure they are up to Louisiana’s codes.

Rentals aren’t anything new for the department, but New Orleans EMS leaders hope they can also keep 10 more ambulances that have been in use through an agreement with the state and FEMA. Officials say that contract ends in the middle of February, but they are confident that it will be renewed since the ambulances are such an important need for the agency.

“We have very much been proactive and have leaned forward to secure the contracts needed,” Salmeron said.

But while officials say the city should be good to go for Mardi Gras, experts urge that pay increases need to happen through City Hall in order for the department to stay afloat in the future.

“You get what you pay for, that’s the bottom line,” Collins said.

New Orleans EMS has secured 10 new ambulances through a vendor in Texas, but due to manufacturing and supply chain issues, the vehicles aren’t expected to be ready until later in the year.

The agency also has more information about employment opportunities on its website.

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