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COVID-19, Ambulance Staffing and Resource Management

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By Allison G. S. Knox
Edge Contributor

For years, emergency medical services (EMS) have had trouble with properly staffing ambulances due to budgeting, recruitment and retention problems. In recent years, issues with providing emergency medical services to rural communities have again come to the forefront of public discussion. The appearance of COVID-19 has thrown an additional wrench into U.S. public health care and illuminated the myriad problems that exist within it, including resource management and ambulance staffing.

EMS Resource Management Is Under Severe Stress, and COVID-19 Makes the Situation Even Worse

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to stress our public health system, it is putting special pressure on one specific area: emergency medical services throughout the country. Public affairs expert and author Dr. Donald Kettl noted in his book “System Under Stress” just how detrimental stress can be to public agencies.

It is blatantly obvious now that EMS does not have the budgets or the staff to effectively manage 911 emergencies. Following the outbreak of COVID-19, news agencies published several articles highlighting the resource management issues within EMS agencies throughout the United States.

For instance, CNBC News explained that EMS is under a tremendous amount of stress without an end in sight. It also noted that with prehospital providers becoming ill, staffing shortages will continue to happen.

Similarly, The New York Times observed that that “rural ambulance crews have run out of volunteers and money.” Many communities are already vulnerable because they do not have the resources to provide residents with 911 services, making this already fragile situation dire in some parts of the United States.

While it is clear that the coronavirus pandemic has wrought havoc on U.S. ambulance agencies throughout the United States, this problem is not always clear to politicians or their constituents. But this type of problem, however, will continue as long as COVID-19 impacts public health and leaders with the ability to make lasting changes don’t work to change things for the better.

The Need for Change

It is imperative at this time for policymakers and decision-makers to rethink how emergency management and public health issues are handled within the United States. Now, we must rethink institutional processes to bring an eventual end to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ambulance provider agencies need to be brought into conversations with policy and decision-makers and must request resources to assist with resource management in the next few months and years. As the issues with EMS are wicked problems – problems that are just as complicated to solve as to understand – these discussions need to take place with all of a community’s stakeholders. Otherwise, we’re asking prehospital care agencies to work with dwindling resources without an end in sight.

Allison G. S. Knox teaches in the fire science and emergency management departments at American Military University and American Public University. Focusing on emergency management and emergency medical services policy, she often writes and advocates about these issues. Allison serves as the At-Large Director of the National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians, the Secretary & Chair of the TEMS Committee with the International Public Safety Association and the Chancellor of the Southeast Region on the Board of Trustees with Pi Gamma Mu International Honor Society in Social Sciences. Prior to teaching, she worked for a member of Congress in Washington, D.C. and in a Level One trauma center emergency department. Allison is an emergency medical technician and holds four master’s degrees.

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