A paucity of paramedics: county fire departments deal with personnel pinch

Filling fire departments is hard everywhere, especially in Grays Harbor

A fire department is its people, plain and simple: without trained personnel, both career and volunteer, to fight fires and administer lifesaving medical care, the department is just a collection of visually striking vehicles and the occasional dalmatian.

But for many fire departments in Grays Harbor County, finding those personnel is getting harder. We talked to five fire chiefs across the county about the issue.

“We’re all in the same boat. Our biggest difficulty is finding certified paramedics,” said Chief Mike Tyree of the Ocean Shores Fire Department. “On the I-5 corridor they can offer much more salaries than we can in the Harbor.”

That difference in salaries isn’t the only thing that has increased the difficulty in finding qualified personnel. High call volumes, a generation of firefighters closing on retirement age, difficulty finding volunteers and the issue of a virus that made the news in a small way beginning in 2020 have all had their effects on the county’s departments.

“​​Our minimum staffing is one paramedic and one EMT. And we’re at minimum staffing quite a lot lately,” said Chief Dennis Benn of the South Beach Regional Fire Authority. “We have lost staffing over the last couple of years. Not necessarily to COVID, but to retiring out. It has been difficult to fill those positions.”

Volunteer numbers are also down nationwide, Benn said.

“At a large fire, manpower runs out quick,” said the new chief of Grays Harbor Fire District 2, Chief John McNutt. “We need volunteers to help supplement in this day and age.”

Firefighters from East Grays Harbor Fire and Rescue spray down a structure fire in Elma on Nov. 15, 2022. (Michael S. Lockett / The Daily World File)

Firefighters from East Grays Harbor Fire and Rescue spray down a structure fire in Elma on Nov. 15, 2022. (Michael S. Lockett / The Daily World File)

Economic imbalance

Any discussion of difficulties staffing departments is incomplete without recognizing that money, as with most things on earth, plays a role in the mental calculus of “should I take this job.”

“I lose people going up to some of these larger departments where they get paid more and on the ratio of staffing to call volume, there’s less calls,” said Chief Dave Golding of the Aberdeen Fire Department. “Getting a good body in here and keeping them here is tough.”

People everywhere want jobs where they’re paid equitably for their labor. For many firefighters, that’s along the I-5 corridor: Seattle, Tacoma, Olympia, and the other cities making up the heavily populated region.

“Right now it’s really difficult to compete with the departments on the I-5 corridor,” said East Grays Harbor Fire and Rescue Chief Adam Fulbright. “The population is growing. The call volume is growing. But the economics are not growing. It’s becoming very difficult for any organization.”

EGHFR has it easier than some of the departments farther west, Fulbright said, because the region is growing slightly, driven by people moving west into Elma and McCleary and commuting into Olympia. But the tax base in Grays Harbor is not as robust as those cities along I-5, said Benn — cities with stronger economies can afford to invest more in their fire departments and their personnel.

“It’s a dollar issue. We’re only capable of affording what we can afford,” Benn said. “Those larger counties with the larger funding sources, they’re just able to pay more money.”

It also affects volunteers, which all the departments interviewed are constantly looking for more of.

“Volunteerism is down everywhere in the United States. People are busier than they were in the 1930s, 1940s 1950s and it’s a different life,” said Benn. “We’re in a faster-paced world and I don’t see that changing.”

In a world where people have to work more than the past to stay afloat, it can be difficult to find volunteers with spare time, Fulbright said.

“In today’s economy, you have to have two incomes in a household,” said Fulbright. “When you have two working parents and all the additional activities kids do, it creates an additional strain.”

EGHFR has prioritized getting more volunteers onboard, said firefighter/EMT and public information officer Ali Sinclair. The department has gotten 13 volunteers onboarded in the last year, and getting them trained and keeping them useful is key, Sinclair said.

“We have some of the most volunteers in the county. We are very vocal about getting them,” Sinclair said. “It’s hard to balance home life, a full time career, and maintain the training.”

McNutt said Fire District 2 is also rethinking its volunteer process as he settles into the new position, looking to approach it in a more organized and proactive fashion.

“We’re always looking for more. I think we have somewhere around 25-30. Looking at past records, that’s where we’ve hovered for the past couple years,” McNutt said. “There are balances there, you just gotta find the right fit.”

Michael S. Lockett / The Daily World File
Firefighters from the Aberdeen and Hoquiam fire departments confer during the tail end of a response to a fire in Hoquiam on Thursday, Oct. 27, 2022.

Michael S. Lockett / The Daily World File Firefighters from the Aberdeen and Hoquiam fire departments confer during the tail end of a response to a fire in Hoquiam on Thursday, Oct. 27, 2022.

All together now

Aberdeen and Hoquiam are some of the busiest departments by call volume in Washington, Golding said.

“Just looking at the trend over the last decade or so, every year we tend to have a slight uptick in our call volume overall,” Golding said. “Our staff numbers have been pretty stagnant for the past decade or so. This year we’re adding three personnel which will be taking some of the workload.”

A study into the viability of a regional fire authority involving Aberdeen and Hoquiam published that of the calls for service in 2017 in the entire county, 45% of them went to Aberdeen and Hoquiam’s fire departments — more than 8,000 calls. Aberdeen is also the largest department in the county.

“There’s strategies out there that we’re discussing,” Golding said. “What can we do to make Aberdeen a place they want to come to and a place they want to stay?”

One of those opportunities could be the creation of a regional fire authority in the central cities; the consolidation of Aberdeen, Cosmopolis and Hoquiam is currently being discussed by their respective city councils, Golding said.

“It’s something new, a new department,” Golding said. “Getting in on the ground floor of that is somewhat exciting. There’s opportunity for all employees to drive what that new agency looks like.”

It’s scarcely an unprecedented decision. South Beach RFA consolidated in 2017, bringing together six organizations, while East Grays Harbor Fire and Rescue brought together the Elma Fire Department and Fire District 5 in 2021.

“It’s definitely helped us with some cost savings and it helps us with strategic planning. We’re thinking with one thought process, not six thought processes,” Benn said. “We’re thinking about how we can improve service for the citizens with that one big organization. We’re able to utilize volunteers from the larger area to help people in the larger area.”

Personnel from the South Beach Regional Fire Authority work to extinguish a residential fire in Westport on Sept. 19, 2022. (Michael S. Lockett / The Daily World File)

Personnel from the South Beach Regional Fire Authority work to extinguish a residential fire in Westport on Sept. 19, 2022. (Michael S. Lockett / The Daily World File)

Grow your own

One of the most difficult spots to fill is paramedics. Paramedics are able to provide a higher level of care than emergency medical technicians, with commensurately more rigorous training requirements. Washington doesn’t have many places that offer those courses, Tyree said; one of OSFD’s personnel is currently attending classes in Tacoma and standing shifts at the station on their off days.

“When it comes to hiring, it’s more difficult to hire paramedics than firefighter/EMTs,” Golding said. “Call it a buyer’s market. If you’re a paramedic, there’s lots of options.”

That care, especially in the critical moments following a violent trauma incident, can have outsized effects on the outcomes of a situation — the fabled “golden hour,” where the quicker a patient can be transported to advanced treatment, the more likely their survival, derived from findings in battlefield medicine.

“Any extended times is cutting into what’s called the golden hour. That starts from the onset of the incident, not when the fire department is called,” McNutt said. “It mostly pertains to auto accident injuries. People have the best percentage of survival in that first hour.”

Paramedics are able to offer a higher standard of care, Golding said, providing Advanced Life Support as opposed to EMTs, who are only qualified to provide Basic Life Support.

“If we’re unable to hire an adequate number of paramedics on staff, we have to look at, how do we deliver the service. Maybe not every call gets a paramedic. Maybe it becomes a BLS service vs ALS service,” Golding said. “When it’s a BLS-first type service, you’re delaying definitive care that an ALS level provider can start that a BLS level provider cannot.”

Many people find providers who are able to offer a higher level of care more desirable than providers offering only a lower level. Some departments are looking to improve their staff qualifications by sending personnel off on short but intense training courses to acquire their paramedic certification, cramming more than a thousand hours of learning into a few short months.

“It’s not a common practice, but it’s not the first time Grays Harbor has grabbed a guy and grown their own. I was one of those,” Fulbright said. “We have a history. In ‘93 and ‘96, the county ran programs to grow their own medics. With the national shortage of personnel in public safety, we’re doing it again.”

South Beach RFA is one of them, Benn said — offering their personnel the chance to advance professionally, in order to increase retention.

“We have sent three students to paramedic school in Nebraska,” Benn said. “We’re sending our local folks in this community off to school. They have local roots here. They don’t want to move away. They’re looking to provide service for their neighbors.”

Firefighters climb towards a structure fire that broke out on Dec. 13, 2022 outside of Aberdeen. (Michael S. Lockett / The Daily World File)

Firefighters climb towards a structure fire that broke out on Dec. 13, 2022 outside of Aberdeen. (Michael S. Lockett / The Daily World File)

What comes next?

Countywide, departments are trying daily to fill funded positions, recruit volunteers, get volunteers and career personnel to training to enable them to better serve, look to the future of the departments, keep gear maintained, consider requirements as buildings age, and besides all that, occasionally extinguish a fire or go save a life.

“We’re always looking,” McNutt said. “You always evaluate what you’ve got and strive to better the department. We’re a very strong combination fire department.”

Bringing together the RFA concept for the central cities would be a major step for reducing redundancy and building a stronger future, Golding said.

“The fire service, historically, we live in our silos. We live in our boundaries,” Golding said. “By consolidating with our neighbors, we see our silos disappear and we operate more seamlessly across what used to be borders.”

The COVID pandemic also taught some harsh lessons that fire departments are adapting to, even as they plan for the future, Fulbright said.

“If we’re faced with another pandemic that’s unforeseen, that could cause some more exits for us. The last one was pretty stressful; a lot of people walked away from the health field,” Fulbright said. “We try to prepare for it. We try to put things in place to prepare for the next one.”

A local paramedic program would ease the strain on manning requirements a great deal, Tyree said, though the decision to push that through could be a county-level one.

“It’d be great if the county would do something,” Tyree said. “If we could get a local college to promote a (paramedic) program, that would probably help everyone in the county.”

Golding expressed a hope that the financial paucity affecting the departments and their difficulties in hiring new personnel would be something that could be changed.

“We’ve lived on a shoestring for a long time. Not just fire, but the law side as well,” Golding said. “Maybe we need to look at what we’re doing to support the emergency services across the county.”

For those interested in volunteering, Fulbright said that he hoped they would reach out to their departments to learn more.

“If you’ve had any interest in Fire or EMS and you’re interested in exploring opportunities, reach out to your local department,” Fulbright said. “We’re in great need of volunteers to serve our local community.”

Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at 757-621-1197 or mlockett@thedailyworld.com.