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Staffing struggles at Idaho EMS agencies lead to delayed responses

An ambulance from Gooding County waits outside the hospital
Gustavo Sagrero
Boise State Public Radio
A Gooding County ambulance waits outside the emergency department for a patient in September.

Idaho is struggling to provide emergency medical services, especially in rural areas that depend on volunteers, according to a new state oversight report.

Most rural EMS agencies rely on volunteers to drive ambulances and serve as EMTs. Many urban areas do as well.

The report from Idaho’s Office of Performance Evaluations has data from half of the state’s agencies. About 80% of EMS agency directors surveyed reported insufficient staff and funding to meet community needs.

One-third said staff challenges affect ambulance response times at least on a monthly basis.

Bill Spencer is the manager of EMS at Syringa Hospital in Grangeville. He’s been an EMT for 43 years, and said recruiting new volunteers is just getting harder.

“Going out on Christmas Day, or Thanksgiving Day, or on a wintery night when it's dark and snowy and the wind's blowing isn't real enticing to a lot of people," Spencer said. "We don't get a lot of people that stick through it."

He said only around 20% of participants complete the training classes he runs, and fewer stay with the department for more than a year.

Spencer's team is paid for being on-call and gets paid a bit more for going out on service calls. But they have to cover the costs of their own training, continuing education, uniforms and more. Pretty much everyone has another job.

He said the state could help provide financial incentives for recruitment and retention.

“Help with the costs of classes, retirement, I think the health insurance,” he said.

The OPE policy recommendations for the legislature reiterate Spencer's suggestions.

Idaho does not consider EMS an essential government service and it doesn’t guarantee access for all residents, according to the report. It also said the state has made little progress on these issues since a 2010 evaluation.

Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen

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As the south-central Idaho reporter, I cover the Magic and Wood River valleys. I also enjoy writing about issues related to health and the environment.

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