City Ambulance Commission Looking for Answers to Ongoing Lack of EMS Services

By Jeremy Coumbes on September 29, 2023 at 1:44pm

More questions than answers face Jacksonville and Morgan County leaders when it comes to having adequate emergency service response in the area.

The Municipal Ambulance Commission met Thursday morning to discuss the increasing lack of available ambulances able to respond to emergencies in the area.

Representatives from the Morgan County Health Department, Jacksonville Fire Department, Jacksonville Memorial Hospital, LifeStar Ambulance Service, and the Jacksonville/Morgan County Office of Emergency Response joined in the discussion on how to better meet the community’s EMS needs.

It was the first time the Municipal Ambulance Commission met since 2018, the same year America Ambulance left town. In 2020, the South Jacksonville Village Board of Trustees defunded the village’s ambulance by a vote of 4-1, citing an operational deficit and it being used on calls outside of the village, more than within.

Morgan County ESDA Director Phil McCarty said Thursday that overall, the number of EMS calls is down compared to this time last year, however, responses are not improving. “It’s seen everywhere. The volunteerism is down for our volunteer agencies throughout the county. It’s just not a pretty situation anywhere within EMS in a lot of places. It’s going to take a community approach to look for solutions to make sure that in the time of need, we have those resources here.”

Jacksonville’s ordinance requires that three staffed ambulances need to be available in the city. McCarty said during the meeting that LifeStar EMS has met that threshold approximately 2% of the time this year, with two ambulances available roughly 85% of the time and only one unit the rest of the time.

McCarty said the stats were not intended to throw blame at LifeStar, but moreover to show how great the need is in just one area of the county.

Chief Executive Officer for LifeStar, John Wright says they have the equipment to meet the requirements, they just can’t staff them. He says LifeStar has continued to try a number of avenues to attract paramedics and EMTs to staff their ambulances.

Sign on bonuses, we do an earn-to-learn program where we will actually pay you to go to EMT school and then you sign on with maybe a one-year or two-year contract. We’ll also do that again with paramedic programs. So I mean, we’re offering to pay you while you go to school and get training to give you a job.”

Wright says it’s not just LifeStar that is facing shortages due to staffing issues. He says recent legislative changes have not helped recruitment efforts either. “It’s national. You can look at the numbers in every state.

Illinois in general has just switched to a national registry program within the last couple of years to where it is a national standard curriculum. But the problem is, most of that is taught as a college-accredited course. Whereas, in older times we could say- hey we’re having an EMT class, come learn to be an EMT. We provide the books, and the education, and maybe we get a couple of staff members out of that. So some hindrance on the part of finding people. You’re still getting quality people from the national curriculum, but it’s a struggle.”

McCarty says at any given time, there are approximately 12 rolling stock ambulances ready to go in Morgan County, and both services like LifeStar or volunteer departments such as Murrayville and Meredosia continue to struggle in fielding enough staff to drive them. McCarty says, however, that the issues go beyond the need for qualified help.

The jobs are moving around, it’s just something like we’ve never seen. But even the equipment to get things done. We’re seeing thirty-six-plus months on ambulances to get turned around from new.

All those things impact everything, but the bottom line is the heart attacks, the difficulty breathing, the auto accidents, all those things aren’t stopping, and we as a community need to be agile enough at the government level to make sure we’re providing those services for our citizens.”

McCarty says other issues such as the recent staffing cutbacks in the Memorial Health System could also have an effect with the possibility of more medical transfers from JMH to another facility increasing the drag on available ambulances.

One idea discussed during the meeting is the possibility of bringing in a consultant to look at the system as a whole. McCarty says it is something they have looked into and discussed with both city and county officials.

We’ve talked to a couple of firms and looked at the scope of work and stuff like that because that drives what the ultimate cost of the project is going to be. So what that would look like is they would come in and evaluate all of the data points. Not just for the City of Jacksonville, because if we build a castle in the city with a moat around it, then all of the people in the county are not protected and that’s not the goal of this.

We have to look at a more holistic approach and the agencies in the county that have volunteers are struggling to provide those services, once again by no fault of theirs. But we’ve got to have those services. So what is a foundation as well as a path for the future.”

McCarty says if a consultant were to be brought in to analyze the needs of the area, it hopefully would be via a joint effort between the City of Jacksonville and Morgan County.

Wright said during the meeting that they expect the number of available personnel to continue to fall in the coming years. Information gathered during the meeting will be passed on to the Jacksonville City Council for their consideration.