New study finds critical strain on rural Wisconsin EMS

“There’s a significant issue with money and people in EMS in Wisconsin,” said rural EMS outreach program manager James Small.
Published: Mar. 22, 2023 at 10:22 PM CDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - A new study from the Wisconsin Office of Rural Health calls staffing shortages and a lack of resources in many rural EMS departments “under severe strain and in critical need of immediate intervention.”

“There’s a significant issue with money and people in EMS in Wisconsin,” said rural EMS outreach program manager James Small. “Forty-one percent of the agencies in Wisconsin had had times when they weren’t able to staff their ambulance to handle a first-out 911 call for service.”

Just two EMTs are required to operate an ambulance; a number some departments still do not have the staffing to provide 24/7, 365 days a year. And the study conducted last fall found 78% reported responding to calls for other departments, which Small says, in turn, forces calls onto other departments, creating a trickle-down effect for call response. Call times also extend when driving to other areas to cover for neighboring departments.

“It takes the resource that we would have had available to our own residents and shifts it to another community,” said Deer-Grove EMS Chief Eric Lang. “So now our residents, if they do have a 911 call, might have to wait for another neighboring Department to respond.”

Lang is fortunate enough to have a fully staffed department, but even he feels the short-staffing impacts, covering consistently for other areas. His department is also staffed sufficiently to man an ambulance each day of the year unless someone goes out for vacation or a sick day.

Small says one of the problems behind the staffing shortage is inadequate funding. He says the money from shared revenue in Wisconsin spent on EMS is the same figure as it was back in 1993.

“We need to invest in Workforce Development. There are lots of industries that we’re seeing workers shortages in; we need to put money into bringing people into those removing barriers that keep people from coming into them right now,” said Small.

He says more funding could also help with retention, another problem rural departments face, as many EMTs work several jobs while training for free, an expense they bare personally for the taxpayer. While the study findings are meant to build awareness of the issue, no relief is in sight. Small says even if funding comes through, getting real change to turn things around will take five to 10 years, which means rural EMS departments are fated to work at a redline pace for the foreseeable future.

Click here to download the NBC15 News app or our NBC15 First Alert weather app.