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'Necessary relief': NC gets 25 ambulances from FEMA to address staffing shortages

Mecklenburg County received five ambulances with two-person crews to relieve exhausted first responders during the pandemic.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The North Carolina Department of Public Safety announced it has received 25 ambulances each with two-person crews from FEMA to relieve stressed health care systems. 

NCDPS said the ambulances have been assigned to nine county emergency medical systems that are experiencing an increase in calls during the COVID-19 pandemic

Mecklenburg EMS (MEDIC) received five crews. Other counties receiving crews include Brunswick, Guilford, New Hanover, and Robeson.

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“These ambulances and crews will provide necessary relief to our extremely busy EMS systems,” North Carolina Emergency Management Director Will Ray said.  “While it’s not the full complement we requested, we know medical resources are extremely limited across the nation right now, and we are grateful for this assistance from our federal partners.”

The 25 ambulances and crews will be assigned for 10 days. Officials will then review if changes are needed to the program. 

The first FEMA crews began their shifts Tuesday in Charlotte at 9 a.m.

At a news conference Tuesday morning, MEDIC leaders explained the crews will primarily respond to non-emergency transports.

Earlier this month, MEDIC implemented mandatory overtime to keep workers on the clock and shifts fully-staffed amid high call volumes and staffing shortages.

"The fatigue is becoming apparent, and we are hoping that the strike team will provide some relief," Jon Studnek, MEDIC's deputy director, said. "It's better to be prepared and maintain timely response to life-threatening emergencies than get behind the eight-ball and cause stress to our patients and to our system."

The agency, which serves throughout Mecklenburg County, said they transported an average of 343 patients a day in August, which is up 17% from January.

Studnek said they're short 28 EMTs and paramedics, which he blamed on the pandemic.

"It's a difficult job and recruiting folks to work in that type of environment has proved difficult," Studnek said.

MEDIC recruits many of its paramedics and EMTs from Central Piedmont Community College (CPCC).

Chris Goenner, the chair of CPCC's emergency medical sciences program, said their class sizes have dropped during the pandemic, but he expected them to rebound.

He believed there's not necessarily a shortage of qualified paramedics and EMTs, but not enough of them are applying to agencies.

"We still have a lot of those numbers as credentialed EMTs and paramedics throughout North Carolina," Goenner said. "It's just that many of them are choosing to go into different [healthcare] professions now. They're using EMS as a stepping stone."

Studnek said MEDIC is heavily recruiting across the country and offering incentives for its EMTs to become paramedics.

He added MEDIC hoped to convince FEMA to extend the deployment of the federal ambulance crews and send more of them to Mecklenburg County.

Contact Brandon Golder at bgoldner@wcnc.com and follow him on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

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