Photos: With volunteer EMS squads disbanding, N.J. county forms a unit
Bergen County Emergency Medical Services assists local agencies
By Keith Sargeant
BERGEN COUNTY, N.J. — Volunteer ambulance squads are disbanding. EMS volunteers are dwindling. And those remaining are burned out.
Jim Tedesco decided something needed to be done. It boiled down to a simple — and unacceptable — fact for the Bergen County executive.
“People weren’t getting transported to the hospital — they were waiting too long,” he said. “That shouldn’t happen.”
It’s why Bergen County officials launched a countywide EMS unit last month to assist local agencies with mutual aid 911 medical calls.
Bergen County Emergency Medical Services started taking calls Feb. 9, less than three months after officials formed a group to determine how to help municipalities struggling to respond to emergencies.
Four Bergen towns — Bogota, Elmwood Park, Maywood and Rochelle Park — have dissolved their volunteer ambulance squads in recent years, while several others partnered with neighboring municipalities after struggling to recruit and retain volunteers.
Nearby North Haledon, in Passaic County, also disbanded its volunteer squad.
“As a first responder, I understand how critical it is to always be prepared,” said Tedesco, a volunteer firefighter in Paramus. “Our local emergency medical service professionals sometimes need help in delivering medical care to their residents due to staffing issues and high volume calls. So it makes sense for the county to provide backup service and assistance to those communities that need an extra hand.”
The mission of the mutual aid unit — which provides additional manpower to crews in Bergen’s 70 municipalities when they’re short-staffed or fielding other calls — would be to provide at least two ambulances daily from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., officials say.
Mike Bascom, the state leader for the New Jersey EMS Task Force, a 225-person team of career and volunteer EMS providers, applauded the initiative. But he noted the volunteer shortage isn’t just a Bergen County problem.
“While the NJ EMS Task Force itself is not suffering from the shortage of EMTs and paramedics in New Jersey, we are aware of many of our host agencies, career and volunteer, who are struggling to recruit and retain staffing,” said Bascom, who is also the EMS coordinator for the Monmouth County Office of Emergency Management.
The American Ambulance Association’s 2022 annual industry study revealed a 36% turnover rate for full-time and part-time EMTs, 27% for full-time paramedics and 30% for part-time paramedics. Increased call volume during the COVID-19 pandemic as well as low wages and burnout were among the chief factors for leaving positions, according to the study.
In essence, EMS agencies are witnessing complete staff turnover every three to four years, the study concluded.
“Staffing shortages are impacting public safety throughout New Jersey and throughout our nation,” Bascom said. “EMS is an underfunded profession and does not get the financial support nor recognition that our well-deserved partners in law enforcement and firefighting get.”
Last year, Gov. Phil Murphy signed a law designed to increase funding for local rescue squads and help bolster shrinking volunteer ranks. The legislation signed in May increased county and municipal contribution limits to volunteer first aid, ambulance and rescue squads from $70,000 to $125,000 and allowed for additional funds to increase from $35,000 to $70,000 if a unit “experiences extraordinary need.”
In October, Murphy also rubber-stamped a bipartisan measure designed to improve advance life support. It allows a paramedic arriving at the scene of an emergency to begin treating a patient immediately, rather than waiting for a second medic, and enacts a requirement for paramedics to be licensed instead of certified to align with national standards.
“EMS employees are generally underpaid,” Bascom said. “The enormous commitment required to acquire and maintain the skill necessary to provide quality pre-hospital care to our residents and visitors coupled with the risks related to the profession do not match the low compensation levels nor the expectation that EMS will be provided for free.
“EMS agencies cannot sustain themselves without significant government support.”
Derek Sands, a spokesperson for Bergen County, said the new unit has responded to 85 calls during its first 23 days of service.
“We are today saving lives of the people of Bergen County,” Tedesco said.
But some in the field wonder how sustainable the municipal volunteer model is, at least without significantly augmented government investment.
“The only real options to save EMS are through taxes on the local and county levels, appropriate Medicare reimbursement rates for all and additional government support from our state and federal levels...” Bascom said. “The new proposed state budget addresses significant needs for law enforcement, firefighters, mental health professionals, hospitals and others who are critical to our residents’ health, safety and welfare.
“EMS needs the same attention, and we need it now.”