EMT shortage impacting Chicago; lack of pay and violence among causes
CHICAGO - A looming crisis across the nation and here in Illinois, as the number of EMTs is dwindling — and fast.
A recent surge in violence against them is only making things worse.
"My story isn’t the worst story out there, and it’s not the only one," said Matt Clohessy.
Clohessy, the paramedic-in-charge at the Chicago Fire Department, was struck by a patient on Chicago’s West Side back in October 2021 while trying to take them to the hospital.
The patient then decided he didn't want to be admitted.
"As he was stepping out of the back of the ambulance, he took his hand out of the hoodie, and he had what appeared to be a combination lock," Clohessy said.
The patient struck Clohessy right under his left eye.
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"It was right away, it was, ‘is my eye going to be messed up permanently?’ ‘Is this going to affect my career?’" Clohessy said.
Clohessy needed stitches, his eye was swollen shut, and he couldn’t go to work for a while. Thankfully, he had no lasting physical damage.
"This happens far too often, and it’s far underreported, and it has a lot of long-lasting effects on our membership," Clohessy said.
In 2019, the Illinois Department of Public Health said there were just over 36,000 combined EMTs and paramedics in the state. But during the 2021 fiscal year, there were only about 8,200 active licenses on record.
That’s a decrease of over 77%.
"We spend entire days calling our employees begging them to work," said George Hynek.
Hynek is with Elite Ambulance, a private company. He says it is a constant struggle to find EMTs to man their ambulances.
A study from the American Ambulance Association just last year found the main reason EMTs are leaving the field is low pay.
The average pay rate for EMTs across the nation is about $17.05. That’s about $35,000 a year.
"I left the ambulance making $13 an hour," said Victor Chan.
Chicago EMT Training co-founder Victor Chan founded the training school with his business partner in 2012, because teaching paid the bills.
"And although pay is currently probably $18-$20 an hour as a fresh EMT, some would say they could find that hourly rate somewhere else with less stress," Chan said.
The stress from the pandemic, and the violence in Chicago hasn’t helped the turnover rate either.
A recent survey from the Journal of Emergency Medical Services says more than 60-percent of EMS workers are burned out from the work.
Thirty-six percent say they’re not sure if the sacrifices are worth staying in the field.
One thing Clohessy never thought he’d be risking on the job was his peace of mind.
"You automatically go back and think about what happened, you relive the incident, and it takes a while to get comfortable again," Clohessy said.
The spike in violence against paramedics sparked a new Chicago ordinance from 19th ward Alderman Matt O’Shea.
Last week, the city council approved his ordinance that would impose fines and jail time for anyone who assaults a Chicago Fire Department paramedic or other emergency workers.
When the city council reviewed this ordinance, several Chicago firefighters testified that paramedics have been shot at while responding to emergency calls, fights have broken out outside ambulances, and bricks have been thrown through windows.
"Our paramedics are in harm's way in what is already an extremely dangerous, stressful job, and now we see that they are being on many occasions — attacked," Ald. O’Shea said.
The ordinance now makes hurting a paramedic a violation of city code. Anyone who assaults an emergency worker could face up to six months in jail, and one-thousand dollars in fines.
The EMT shortage across the state is straining private ambulance companies that are in desperate need of those willing to suit up, and save lives.
If you’re interested in becoming an EMT, we have more information on our website.