By Gus Cross
Markus Ruley, a volunteer firefighter in Rockbridge County, is one of only three adults in the county currently seeking basic certification as an emergency medical technician.
The county is struggling to get enough EMTs to respond to 911 calls partly because of what Ruley and the other two people have to go through to earn certification.
Twice a week, they drive to Clifton Forge for a four-hour class at Dabney S. Lancaster Community College. By the time they finish the course, they will have sat through about 108 hours of instruction, completed several hours of interactive lectures online, spent more than $1,500 in fees and about $4,100 in tuition, and participated in 10 ride-alongs with certified EMTs.
That’s not all. They then must pass a national written test and a state practical skills exam. Only then can they join the shrinking number of the Rockbridge area’s active volunteer EMTs, now numbering less than 60.
Before July 1, 2016 the state required students to complete 154 hours of instruction to be certified as an EMT. Since then, students no longer have to meet a specific hour limit.
One reason for the removal of the hour requirement is the growing use of online courses along with instruction that is a hybrid of both online and in-class components, said Warren Short, the training manager for the Office of Emergency Medical Services, which is part of the Virginia Department of Health.
He said it is difficult to monitor how long it takes to complete an online course and that is why the state leaves it up to instructors to decide when students are ready to take the certification exams.
Rockbridge County has a contract with LifeCare Medical Transports, based in Fredericksburg, that provides two paid EMTs at the Glasgow and Fairfield rescue stations who work 12-hour shifts, seven days a week. Unpaid volunteers cover the other 12 hours.
At last month’s board of supervisors’ meeting, Nathan Ramsey, the county’s fire and rescue chief, proposed eliminating the contract with LifeCare. He said the county should have greater oversight over the hiring and supervision of the paid EMTs.
In phase one of his proposal, Fairfield would be staffed by paid EMTs 24 hours a day, instead of only 12. For now, Glasgow would still have paid EMTs for the half the day and unpaid volunteers for the other half. The proposal also includes creation of a position for an administrative assistant for the fire and rescue department.
The initial phase of the proposal would cost $873,621 in the first year of implementation, which is $416,728 more than what the county is paying LifeCare. Ramsey said the cost would decrease by $87,475 after the initial year.
The board of supervisors has not voted on the proposal.
Ruley said younger people aren’t as interested in volunteering as EMTs the way they once did.
“Kids don’t want to be involved if there is no money,” he said. “They don’t want anything to do with it.”
Last year, Ruley saw six young volunteers join Rockbridge Fire and Rescue only to leave six months later.
The young recruits are discouraged by the time it takes to get certified, the financial cost of courses and the time spent away from friends and family, Ruley said.
A decline in the number of fire and rescue volunteers is occurring across the Rockbridge area, where 14 Fire, Rescue and Fire and Rescue stations are staffed primarily by volunteers, Rockbridge County Fire and Rescue Chief Nathan Ramsey said.
Rockbridge County’s Fire and Rescue stations fall under three types. Some are solely fire stations, some are just rescue stations and others are a combination of the two.
From August until December of 2017 there were over 328 calls from the public that were designated Response Fail. Ramsey said the number is larger than in past years.
The Response Fail designations occur when calls go unanswered for eight minutes by on-duty EMTs assigned to a particular station. After eight minutes, the dispatch station calls the EMTs attached to the next closest station. The process continues until an EMT responds.
People don’t volunteer anymore because they have multiple jobs and don’t have spare time, Ramsey said.
He started volunteering as a junior member of a fire station when he was 16.
“My father was a volunteer and we lived pretty much next to the volunteer fire station when I was growing up,” he said. “As long as I can remember, I have been around it.”
He said he realized that he could help more people if he were trained as an EMT, not just as a firefighter.
Ramsey said while being a firefighter goes hand-in-hand with being an EMT, the skills necessary to be an EMT require more critical thinking.
Mac Clemmer, a lieutenant for Lexington’s Fire Department, said when he started volunteering at Effinger Fire and Rescue in 2001 there were about 30 active volunteers. He said there are only 12 to 15 active volunteers now.
He recommends that younger people who want to earn certification should do so earlier in life.
“When you start having family and stuff and having kids, [becoming an EMT is] very taxing and takes away from your family.”