MILWAUKEE — The private ambulance companies that help cover a portion of the city of Milwaukee's 911 calls are stretched thin, and they are operating with fewer and fewer EMTs.
The Milwaukee Fire Department paramedics handle life-threatening calls, and the private ambulance EMTs take the lower acuity calls. One of the three companies is in the process of ending its agreement with the city to handle 911 calls, citing staffing concerns as a major reason why.
In the short term, the Milwaukee Fire Department has added two additional ambulances to handle the caseload, but long-term solutions are needed because the private ambulance companies are struggling to stay up to staff.
"Right now the biggest problem in EMS is there is a complete lack of EMS staff," said Jim Baker, Curtis Ambulance CEO. "There’s both a low graduation rate at MATC from the EMT program and a lot of the people that are going through the program are not ending up in the back of an ambulance. They have a different career path."
Ambulance companies are competing with hospitals and large corporations that are also in need of healthcare workers. The heads of those companies say because of the way state and federal governments reimburse the private ambulances for Medicare and Medicaid patients, they don't have the resources to make EMT jobs in their ambulances attractive.
The way private ambulance companies are funded through the state has remained mostly unchanged for years. The fire department is trying to find another way to fill the pool of EMT candidates.
"Work with those remaining providers to make sure that we've created that pathway straight from education all the way through employment," sand MFD Assistant Chief Joshua Parish.
MFD is trying to recruit potential EMTs as early as high school and encourage them to pursue a career in EMS.
The fire department would train them, and make them available to the private ambulance companies.
"One thing the Milwaukee fire department is really good at is training EMTs," said Chris Anderson, director of operations at Bell Ambulance. "They do it quickly and they do it efficiently and successfully."
It can open up opportunities to diversify the EMT field in the city as well, something Anderson says is needed in the industry.
"If you call 911 you're inviting these strangers into your home," he said. "You're trusting that they're going to take care of you in what might be the worst day of your life that you've had thus far."
For many, 911 may be their only interaction with the healthcare system. If their sons and daughters become EMTs, Parish said it may lead to a more medically literate population.
"We speak 'peoplese' so there's a growing need for a paraprofessional to translate and monitor, translate like medical high speak into the language people speak every day," Parish said.
Hopefully meaning more EMTs in ambulances, fewer 911 calls and an overall healthier city.
Another idea that would help the private ambulances would be introducing alternative transportation for people who call 911 but don't need an emergency room.
That's one of several ideas being considered, though fire department officials say all possible changes will need to be vetted. and could take five or more years to implement.