HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – HEMSI is the Huntsville area’s primary ambulance service and right now it’s struggling to staff enough ambulances to keep up with the demand of the growing population in Madison County.
For paramedics employed by HEMSI, it’s their job to help car crash victims, people suffering from a heart attack or stroke, or any one of hundreds of other life-threatening situations.
For the people paramedics help, it’s often the worst day of their lives. But one of the paramedics on the front lines every day explains that HEMSI is in the midst of its own crisis.
We agreed to protect the identity of the paramedic who came forward to better understand the issues that emergency personnel at HEMSI are facing while responding to calls.
“Lives are at stake, we run so hard, so busy, that it’s gotten to a point where let’s just see how fast we can turn these calls, one right after the other, how quick can we get this done, pace makes waste, mistakes are going to be made,” the Paramedic said.
On a good day, the Paramedic said HEMSI will have around 20 fully staffed ambulances on the street. They expressed confidence in the ambulance services provided on those good days. However, the Paramedic said on a bad day there could be 5 or 6 ambulances on the street.
According to the HEMSI website, the organization has a fleet of 36 ambulances and approximately 20 support vehicles. Not all of those are out in the community.
“A bad day, a call could hold, I’ve seen them hold anywhere between 10 and 45 minutes before they’re dispatched, not response times included, but before they are actually dispatched,” the Paramedic said.
The Paramedic added that the wait time can be up to 40 minutes.
Madison County is home to some 370,000 residents, that’s according to the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau. HEMSI serves Huntsville, Madison, and Madison County. The area is growing, and HEMSI staff and leaders say they don’t have enough people to keep up.
“There are staffing shortages, the community growing has increased our call volume and with that, we’re just working harder, we’re working so hard to the point that people are just tired, and therefore people are resigning,” the Paramedic said.
The employee told News 19 that it’s common to hear the term ‘No Units Available’ from dispatch.
“That means that there are no ambulances available in this county to respond to an emergency call,” they said. “They’re all tied up on something else, whether it be another emergency call, another transfer, they’re busy and there’s no one coming right away.”
“That’s scary, there’s no one coming, that’s kind of scary.” they continued.
We took those concerns straight to the top and asked Jon Howell, HEMSI CEO. Howell gave News 19 an open and honest assessment of the organization.
“We don’t have enough resources that we feel comfortable with the level of service that we’re able to provide on many days right now,” Howell said. ” We are working hard to try to get more resources available but it’s a struggle right now to get people in, hired, and get them to work in our industry.”
Howell said they’re working to address the staffing issues in several ways; increasing pay, changing the way it does employee intakes, and starting its own EMT academy.
“Well we’re making every adjustment we know how to do, we’re trying to field as many units as possible on any given day, so the adjustments are going to take some time,” Howell said.
The HEMSI Paramedic we spoke with said sometimes people are waiting up to 40 minutes for an ambulance.
“That’s scary that’s really scary, a lot can happen, you talk someone collapses having a heart attack they’ve got about 4-6 minutes, ” the Paramedic said. “I mean they may or may not make it.”
“I understand why they (people) want us there (quickly) but unfortunately the economic reality is we can’t just staff and field enough ambulances to achieve that, for all the medical calls that we have to respond to, we are responding sometimes to over a 100 a day,” said Howell.
That stress takes an extra toll on Paramedics and EMT’s, a toll that HEMSI executives said they see and understand.
“Right now, it is an overwhelming task to face, you’re constantly going from one call to the next as soon as you can get a patient to the hospital you’re being asked to go on the next call and it’s a constant stressful demanding environment that they’re being asked to endure,” Howell said.
Howell said this is making it hard to retain workers, many of them leaving to fill roles at different fire departments in the area, which offer better pay, and a lighter workload.
“One of my biggest concerns, is it going to impact their health and their mental health from what they’re going through, all of that is a concern and things that we’re trying to find resolutions to help deal with”
HEMSI has job openings posted to it’s website. Currently, there are open positions for EMT’s and Paramedics for part-time, full-time, night shift, and weekends. Most recently, HEMSI posted openings for a full-time EMS Academy Student.