Local EMT trainers struggle to hang on

A vital resource for training new EMTs in Grays Harbor County is under pressure after a “perfect storm” of funding constraints.

Grays Harbor EMS & Trauma Care Council (GHEMS) has provided emergency medical service training to county first responders since 1983. Last year marked the first time in the council’s history that the EMT class was not covered under funding through Grays Harbor Transit. This year’s class began earlier this month despite funding cuts, but the future for GHEMS remains uncertain.

In 1973, state legislators voted that because ambulance services were the transportation of the public, ambulance services could be funded through the Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT). In March 2020, an annual audit by the state Auditor’s Office determined the process was not legal, forcing GHEMS to find an alternative funding source.

According to GHEMS County Coordinator Louisa Schreier, GHEMS is required by the state to exist, and to provide pre-hospital resources to Grays Harbor communities, regardless of its financial status.

Plans to receive funding from the county’s public safety sales tax were hindered when county attorneys felt that GHEMS did not meet the intent of the tax. Ambulance services are run out of regional fire departments, therefore, GHEMS is designated as a fire service and not a fire/EMS service. This designation difference prohibited GHEMS from accessing any of the public safety sales tax funds.

“Now it has come time that we need the public to know that they’re in jeopardy, and that it’s right around the corner and you can’t see it coming. The public safety sales tax is not being used for what they voted for,” said GHEMS Board Chair and Grays Harbor Fire District 2 Fire Chief Frank Scherer.

GHEMS staff also attempted to pursue some of the funding Grays Harbor County received from the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund III (HEERF III) through last year’s American Rescue Plan (ARP). They were recently informed by Grays Harbor County Commissioner Vickie Raines that they didn’t qualify for funding.

The EMT class, which began Jan. 5 and will run through the end of April, meets two evenings a week and one Saturday a month for a total of 165 hours of class time. The intense course combines experiential learning with a rigorous testing schedule in preparation for the nationwide EMT test administered by the National Registry of EMTs.

Historically, GHEMS has worked in conjunction with Grays Harbor College (GHC) to offer the course and provide participants with college credit. According to Schreier, GHEMS was informed by the GHC in October 2021 that they would not support the class this year unless GHEMS came up with an additional $13,000. Since the departure of GHC from the program, districts will now have to pay $1,500 a student rather than the previous $850 cost.

The class is an essential pipeline to increasing the number of EMTs in the local community, which has been strained by low staffing numbers and high demand due to the pandemic. The increased cost of the course is particularly difficult for rural agencies that need new EMTs the most. Some districts lack a certified provider altogether.

“We have a shortage of EMTs in the area, especially in the more rural parts of our county,” said Scherer. “We don’t have sustainable funds right now to carry on.”

According to Schreier, Grays Harbor County also struggles to retain fully-trained professional paramedics, a portion of which are compelled by more competitive offers elsewhere in the state.

“Probably one-quarter of the paramedics that get hired out here don’t start. They go along the I-5 corridor where they pay better and offer better benefits that we just can’t afford,” she said.

With an average passing rate of 95%, the winter EMT course from GHEMS is expected to create 23 new EMTs in the community by the summer. New volunteers are particularly needed to cover gaps in daytime service when many volunteers are at work, according to GHEMS Vice Chair and Grays Harbor Fire District 1 Firefighter/EMT Roger Towns.

In addition to training new EMTs, GHEMS is also responsible for providing up-to-date training for existing volunteers in the area. An EMT in the state of Washington must recertify under a doctor’s license every three years, in addition to annual and per certification cycle training. These ongoing trainings are run by embedded instructors, such as Towns, who do not receive financial compensation through the department for their instruction, and who must also maintain their own certifications to teach.

“The vaccination requirements have affected a lot of EMS in this county, so we need to fill those holes. We have a lot of mandates, and once you become an EMS provider there’s a lot of training,” said Schreier. “People are also busier, they still want to help their neighbors but they don’t have the time that they used to have.”

Scherer and Towns plan to continue their efforts to alter the Revised Code of Washington (RCW) 82.14.450 so that GHEMS and other emergency medical services can access the funding set aside for police and fire. Their motion passed the Washington State Senate last year (49-0), but died in the Washington State House of Representatives.

“At the bottom it specifically says the intent is the health and welfare of the public. When they passed the law, it was there,” said Towns. “Hopefully we can get it rectified so we can get that funding source.”